Editor’s Note: Louis Staples is a London-based culture writer and editor. His work has appeared in Slate, Vogue, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Wired and elsewhere. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Days before Prince Harry’s memoir, “Spare,” was officially released on January 10, scandalous details from the book made headlines across the world. The Guardian got the first scoop: Harry’s description of a physical fight with his brother Prince William, which resulted in a shattered dog bowl and a broken necklace.
We soon heard more snippets: Harry’s frostbitten penis (or “todger” as he kept calling it) on his brother’s wedding day, his confession that he had taken cocaine and the story of how he lost his virginity in a field to a mystery older woman who spanked his ass.
Unsurprisingly, these headlines don’t capture the whole story. “Spare” is a sad read about a man who is clearly hurt and damaged. A man who, by accident of birth and through tragedy, has never had complete control over his own life.
The memoir’s central narrative is that, despite being born into immense privilege, Prince Harry is a victim too. From a young age, he remembers knowing that he existed just in case anything happened to William. (As a child, he came to believe that he was there to provide organ donations should the heir to the throne require them).
As he grew up, he was harassed by the same tabloids that hounded his late mother, Princess Diana. He talks about how they branded him the “naughty Prince,” “Prince thicko” or made him out to be a drug addict. He says in the book that one of the tabloid editors who allegedly tried to “blackmail” him went on to work for his father and stepmother. (Charles and Camilla have not publicly commented on the claim).
Now that Harry’s relationship with his family and the British press has deteriorated, the adjectives that are often used to describe him are even less flattering: soft, fragile, thin-skinned, spoiled and spiteful.
The racist and misogynistic media coverage that Harry’s wife Meghan Markle has experienced is well-documented. But what is discussed less often is how Harry’s own masculinity is leveraged against him. In fact, the gendered expectations of Harry’s behavior are a key driver of much of the vitriol he has received.
Prince Harry comes from a long line of military men who took pride in adopting a stiff upper lip attitude and getting on with the job. That was an image that his grandfather, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was particularly keen to present for himself as he continued royal duties well into his mid-90s.
Viewed through this prism, complaining is considered feminine and weak. Harry has alluded to this himself by making a distinction between “Institutional Harry” and “Husband Harry” – the latter of whom is more emotional.
Outside of the royal institution, there has been a cultural shift towards encouraging men to talk about their feelings and mental health. “Spare” takes us through Prince’s process of doing just that. And after examining some of the ways growing up in the royal institution damaged him, with the help of a therapist, it seems like he prefers “Husband Harry” to “Institutional Harry.”
The tension between the Prince’s two personas is really a microcosm of a wider cultural clash between different versions of masculinity. In the so-called “culture war” that the Sussexes have found themselves embroiled in, millennial masculinity has become a key battleground.
A number of conservative politicians and commentators have coalesced around the idea that today’s young men are no longer, as they might put it, “real men.” In 2020, conservative influencer Will Witt delivered a talk at the University of Denver titled “Make Men Masculine Again,” in which he argued that men no longer being masculine was causing deep societal problems.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s upcoming book, “Manhood: What America Needs,” similarly calls on American men to “stand up and embrace their God-given responsibility as husbands, fathers, and citizens.”
In the UK, right-wing political activist Laurence Fox was mocked for bemoaning the fact that men aren’t “hard” anymore, tweeting: “Bad Times make hard men. Hard men make good times. Good times make soft men. Soft men make bad times. We are in bad times. We need MEN.”
Fox has drawn criticism for claiming that society wants to “chop men’s balls off” and describing men he disagrees with as “woke cucks.”
But similar language has fueled the disturbing rise of “ultra-masculine” influencers like Andrew Tate. The British former kickboxer has built a lucrative social media platform by claiming he can teach men how to be “alphas.” In some of his videos, he has boasted about choking and hitting women. Alongside his brother Tristan, Tate was arrested in Romania as part of an investigation into sex trafficking and rape in December 2022. Their lawyer, Eugen Vidineac, has said the brothers both reject the allegations.
To these self-appointed saviors of “real” masculinity, feminists like Markle are the primary enemy. But hostility is also reserved for so-called “beta” males who don’t subscribe to their worldview.
In “Spare,” Harry recalls seeing a cartoon in one of Britain’s newspapers, which portrayed him on a dog leash that his wife was holding. He describes this as “textbook” misogyny, which blamed a woman for decisions he had made. But it was also a classic example because it sought to emasculate him for refusing to participate in the oppression of women – a key tactic used to uphold misogyny.
Similarly, Jeremy Clarkson dubbed Harry “Harold Markle” in his now-infamous newspaper column, where he wrote that he wanted to watch Markle being paraded naked through the streets and pelted with excrement. The Sun newspaper later removed the column and apologized. But it’s just another example of how the demonization of Markle goes hand-in-hand with the casual emasculation of her husband.
Older men like Clarkson and prominent Sussex critic Piers Morgan going out of their way to deride Prince Harry feels connected to his openness about being a man who is in therapy. Right-wing media has made a target out of the so-called “therapy industry” and often furthers the characterization of therapy as a self-indulgent practice.
On the eve of the release of “Spare,” the royal institution appeared to feed into this narrative by briefing journalists that Prince Harry has been “kidnapped by the cult of psychotherapy.” In this framing, a man presenting himself as a victim, or damaged in any way, is equated with weakness and narcissism.
On social media, I can sense a feeling of fatigue as the Sussexes continue to share their story via so many different mediums. But “Spare” has still become the UK’s fastest-selling non-fiction book ever. Most people will form their opinion based on the snippets of the memoir that media outlets or social media users have curated for them, not by reading the entire memoir.
But beyond the memes about the prince rubbing Elizabeth Arden cream on his frost-bitten penis or googling his future wife’s TV sex scenes, “Spare” is a story about a man of immense privilege who is at least trying to do better – even if that means going against the institutions and societal conventions which have previously benefited him.
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Yes, this book is occasionally contradictory, out-of-touch and features plenty of toe-curling details I would have been much happier not knowing. (For someone like Harry who often decries tabloid editors, there were a lot of details included here which seem tailor-made to make them salivate).
And yes, a break from hearing about the Sussexes would be very welcome. But I can’t shake the feeling that, for his loudest detractors, this is bigger than Prince Harry. His most virulent critics feel threatened and betrayed by the version of modern masculinity he represents – one that, like the Prince himself, is trying to break free from its past.