Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s new podcast Archetypes is, so far, argumentatively flimsy, glossily vacuous and showily self-serving. None of that feels surprising. What is shocking is how many people have worked towards creating something so noisily inconsequential.
The credits list 13 producers: nine executive producers (one of whom is Meghan), two producers, one senior producer and one associate producer. Several of these have assistants. Two people are even thanked for “booking”, although the pretense is that Meghan is zooming pals. Altogether I counted 29 people. There is only one “executive editor”, which feels a clunking mistake; for all this “talent”, the show is overproduced yet uneven.
In December 2020 Spotify signed a multi-year exclusive audio deal with the Sussexes widely reported to be worth at least $25 million. For 18 months all this produced was a half-hour Christmas special featuring chums such as James Corden and Tyler Perry.
Then in January came the announcement about Meghan hosting Archetypes, to be co-produced by Gimlet (incidentally, another questionably exorbitant Spotify purchase — the streaming giant paid $230 million in 2019 for the maker of successes such as Homecoming, Reply All and Heavyweight, although Gimlet’s hit-rate seems to have stuttered).
In her introduction Meghan sets out her stall. “This is Archetypes, my podcast about the labels and tropes that try to hold women back; boxes like diva, crazy, the b-word, slut. Of course, I know a thing or two about those labels myself. My hope is that my own lived experience will help other women open up.” But Meghan’s own “lived experience” (TV star, princess, media combatant, professional victim, extravagantly overpaid content provider) is so extraordinary, who actually can empathize with it?
Two people are even thanked for “booking”, although the pretense is that Meghan is zooming pals.
Her guests, meanwhile, are stars in their own fields. So far, Serena Williams, the greatest female tennis player of the professional era (23 Grand Slam victories to Steffi Graf’s 22); Mariah Carey, one of the most successful recording artists; and the actress, writer and producer Mindy Kaling, creator of the hit US show The Mindy Project. On to these women Meghan ascribes her archetypes — the Williams episode is titled “The Misconceptions of Ambition,” the Carey one “The Duality of Diva,” and the most recent one, with Kaling, “The Stigma of the Singleton.”
Yet who is stigmatizing the likable Kaling for being a successful woman who in her late thirties made the pragmatic decision to start a family alone, except, perhaps this podcast? Kaling is quick to acknowledge that she is no downtrodden single parent: she has financial security and a close support network. Also, that she never wanted to settle for just anyone: “My life is filled with women in their late thirties, early forties, who are so successful yet have partners who aren’t. I’m often amazed.”
Carey is aware that at least half of her diva persona is “for laughs”; the other half seems to be rose-gold armor-plating against the volatility she experienced in childhood.
Meghan ascribes her archetypes — the Williams episode is titled “The Misconceptions of Ambition.”
Meghan dominates all these conversations. Her interview style is less to ask questions than to state what she has already decided to elicit from her case studies. She does not enjoy pushback. When Meghan claims that “the diva thing is not something I connect to”, a laughing Carey rebukes her: “You give us diva moments sometimes, Meghan.”
This sends Meghan into a touchy tailspin. After the interview, she returns with an addendum analysis. “What nonsense must she have clicked on to make her say that?” She then decides Carey was just being complimentary about the “chic, aspirational” way Meghan dresses. Hmmm. But wasn’t reclaiming the term “diva” in a positive light part of the point of this episode? The target audience seems American, which is a relief.
A podcast offering more real-world examples of the pressures facing women is the BBC World Service’s Dear Daughter, the overall winner at the British podcast awards in July. Its Kenyan presenter, Namulanta Kombo, is a working mother from Nairobi who won an international competition to pitch a podcast series. Her idea was to assemble a manual for life for her infant from letter-writers round the world. She was inspired by notes elicited from friends and family. There are missives encouraging daughters not to rush into marriage or to people-please, to respect their heritage, but also spread their wings.
Also, a moving letter from a Filipino mother explaining her difficult decision to work abroad, and a brave discussion of mother-daughter conflict. I hope “Dear Son” might follow.
Patricia Nicol is a freelance journalist and a columnist for The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail