Voices: Why criticise Meghan for how she behaved at the Queen’s funeral? A ‘stiff upper lip’ is nothing to be proud of

·5 min read

The clenched jaw, the pursed lips, flushed faces, sombre looks: they were all there for the millions to see. As the royal family paid tributes to the late Queen Elizabeth II, we saw public mourning on a scale that hasn’t been encountered before – at least not in my lifetime.

But as these images were broadcast around the world for more than 10 days, through the vigil and the royal procession, we saw how restraint in grief is celebrated and applauded. We were fascinated by these images that showed the royal family standing calm and composed even in the moments of their deepest sorrow.

The concept of the British stiff upper lip, the well-worn mantra of “keep calm and carry on”, the call to evoke the Blitz spirit have all been trumpeted by the British government time and time again during the Covid-19 pandemic. This cultural identity, linked to romanticising stoicism and emotional self-control, emerged during the Victorian era as a sign of manliness, particularly aimed at the upper classes; a sign of superiority while Britain was out there colonising the rest of the world.

These men were unemotional, resilient and rational – and so deserved to civilise others. During this time, even upper-class women saw crying as a sign of failure. In post-Victorian England, in 1914, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies put out a statement: “The modern woman must drive back the tears; she has work to do.”

Emotions, of course, have power associations in our society, and are a considerable factor in how men and women are conditioned and prepared to fulfil certain societal roles. The traditional cultural model of masculinity for a white western man primarily comprises of four parameters: autonomy (I stand alone); achievement (I need to achieve and provide); aggression (I am tough and can be aggressive if need be); and stoicism (I am strong, I do not share pain and grief openly, I do not have warm feelings).

But class also plays a role. Although women are expected to cry, and perceived to be less restrained about their emotions, upper-class women are also expected to be restrained, virtuous, dignified, and private even in their moments of extreme joy and sorrow.

We have seen how many have been quick to criticise Meghan, Duchess of Sussex for shedding a tear, or for holding hands – breaking this unspoken agreement to hide any emotions. In shedding a tear, Meghan has transgressed a norm, where status is accorded to those who can hold back their emotions. Those who are more marginalised are penalised more for transgressing these emotional norms.

Meghan has already seen backlash from the media and general public for not conforming to the passivity and subservience associated with royal women. A woman who knows and speaks her own mind, especially a woman of colour, is not only challenging the patriarchal framework that intends to keep women in their place, but also the white supremacy that is so deeply embedded in a royalist institution.

A dive into history back to the classical antiquities shows us how the polarised norms around public and private emotions have become set in our society. “So that you may understand that it is not natural to be broken by sorrow, you should consider that grief wounds women more than men, barbarians more than civilised and cultivated persons, the unlearned more than the learned.” Thus said Seneca, Roman philosopher and Stoic, in AD40.

Seneca makes it clear that moderating the demonstration of sorrow and grief is more respectful to those who are alive; to carry emotion is human, but to be consumed by it is disrespectful and a path towards self-destruction.

We saw in the later centuries that women and those who were uneducated, with their “uncultured” ways of mourning, were denigrated and worthy of contempt; while men, educated and civilised, grieved in a way that did not harm social cohesion or sensibilities. Men were not allowed to mourn for too long, especially men from the upper classes, where a strict code of morality and virtuous behaviour insisted on calm in the face of adversity. They had to take their mourning garment off eight days after the burial. Men’s self-restraint was a matter of pride, and it was their duty to bear this pain.

Over time, the expression of grief has not changed that much. Grief is a social emotion, and also a social obligation.

There is still an element of power hierarchy in who is allowed to show certain emotions and what these emotions say about the person. Those with power are deemed to hold gravitas, and this reinforces their position and status, while those who are in the lower classes and hold no positions of power, especially men, are freer to succumb to their emotions because emotions are seen as crass and hence signal their inferior status.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

There are codes around crying too, and concerns about hypocrisy and inauthenticity. For instance, women’s tears can still be seen as a sign of manipulation; women are capable of setting a “trap with their tears” – usually a trap for men.

We are still celebrating emotional denial and suppression. Those cultures that are focussed on hierarchy tend to value the unequal distribution of power and attempt to maintain these hierarchies. In such cultures, it is discouraged for “lower status” individuals to assert their independent feelings and thoughts, and they are encouraged to self-regulate and conform with the norms, especially in their behaviour towards the higher-status individuals.

These cultural norms can be verbal or nonverbal, are often implicit, and can force individuals to amplify their emotions (show more happiness than they are truly feeling) or de-amplify (show less enthusiasm, or grief than they are experiencing). Often it is done because the true expression of an internal mental state would bring discomfort to the intended audience. Therefore, in some ways, emotional expression often tells us more about the expectations and values of the person perceiving the emotions.

It is worth reflecting on why we celebrate suppression of emotions, marvel at those who can “hold it in” and applaud their bravery and courage, and what it says about us – as individuals and in a wider context. It is not the sign of a healthy society.

Dr. Pragya Agarwal is visiting professor of social inequities and injustice at Loughborough University. Her book, Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions, is out now