A theory about the curtsy: The 14 seconds in Harry and Meghan no one can agree on.

All I can think about is the time Meghan made a joke about a curtsy and Harry refused to laugh. 

The scene lasts for fourteen seconds. 

It involves a hyperbolic curtsy. A glance between a married couple. And a 38-year-old former Prince who remains mostly expressionless. 

The moment takes place in episode two of Harry and Meghan, the highest-rating UK Netflix release of the year. 


Meghan is telling the story of meeting Queen Elizabeth for the first time. The year was 2016 and the pair had been dating for a short time. 

There are two things she confesses early. The first is that she assumed the external pomp and ceremony of the royal family, the waves and the titles and the curtsies, would not extend into their private lives. Behind closed doors, she figured that 'Queen Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, officially Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith', was surely just… 'Grandma', right? (Wrong). 

The second confession Meghan makes is an important one. 

Meghan was - and continues to be - an American. 

Americans are not part of the Commonwealth. 

"God Save the Queen" was never their national anthem. Her Majesty's face has never been printed on their bank notes, and there is no public holiday for a royal birthday. 

While you or I might have very little context for the royals and how their world works, I'd dare say we both have significantly more than Meghan Markle from Los Angeles. 

Watch the trailer for Harry and Meghan. Post continues below. 

Video via Netflix.

This brings us to her first meeting with the Queen. 

"I didn’t know I was going to meet her until moments before. We were in the car and we were going to Royal Lodge for lunch. And he was like, ‘Oh, my grandmother is here. She’s going to be there after church'," Meghan recalls. 

"I remember, we were in the car, driving, and he’s like, 'You know how to curtsy, right?' And I just thought it was a joke."

Here, Meghan reenacts the curtsy – the kind you might see in a medieval film, where a loyal subject prostrates oneself in front of Her Royal Highness. 

It is a rare moment of self-deprecation that I found endearing. Here is an American making fun of her absolute naivete upon meeting the Queen of England. The subtext is “I didn’t know what I was doing” – and I believe her. 

But Meghan's retelling occupies only the right-hand side of the shot. To her left, is a man who has only ever known a life in which he curtsies in front of his grandmother. A man born into a family where one's role and status is established at birth, his family tree a complex web of power relations. It's absurd. But it's his absurdity. 

Listen to this episode of No Filter, where Holly Wainwright speaks to royal biographer Andrew Morton. Post continues after the podcast.


Who among us has not woken up as an adult, glanced around at our family and thought “well, elements of this are more dysfunctional than I realised”. That does not mean we do not love the complicated characters that make up that family. But it means some have to make a choice: to participate in that dysfunction, to try and address that dysfunction, or, finally, to leave the dysfunction behind.

The last option, a choice that many don’t necessarily make but are forced into, is a pain I cannot begin to imagine. Harry, of course, falls into that camp.

I do not see Harry as a man who hates his family. While he will criticise the institution to which they belong, the tabloid circus that stalks them, and where their allegiances lay when he felt his most vulnerable, I refuse to believe his intention is to destroy the lives of his father and brother. 

So when Meghan took the piss out of a curtsy, Harry might have been surprised at the feeling that sprung to the surface: defensiveness.

Perhaps there was also some embarrassment. 

Just moments before, Harry tells the camera: "How do you explain that to people, that you bow to your grandmother and that you would need to curtsy, especially to an American? That's weird."

While there is a part of him who will always be Prince Harry, he must also feel like a man still hovering between two worlds. 


A monarchy – its traditions, its values, its structure – is entirely out of step with modern life. It is the antithesis to the meritocracy the western world so vehemently believes in, even if we enact it imperfectly. As an institution it is at best deeply flawed and at worst entirely indefensible. And yet, the reigning King and the next in line, also happen to be his flesh and blood. 

What we saw was not a woman mocking her husband's dead grandmother, as so many headlines proclaimed. For starters, the documentary was filmed before Queen Elizabeth's passing. It was a woman mocking herself, retelling the tale of the ultimate faux pas. 

More interesting was Harry. 

The moment revealed something about seeing your family through the eyes of another, a harrowing experience for anyone. How does he reconcile his past with his future? Who he loves and what he stands for? How does he untangle his family from a $28 billion institution? Could any of us ever, really, do that perfectly?

The nuances of a curtsy, what it meant to him as a boy, the memories that surround it, is something he can likely never explain to Meghan. That is neither his fault nor hers. 

Her joke was not insensitive, but it did reveal a man still in pain.

Feature Image: Netflix + Mamamia. 

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