Is the royal marriage story we're being sold really a fairytale come true? Or is it a story spun by Buckingham Palace out of self-interest, one shrouded in myth and make-believe?

In the coverage of next May's marriage between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, two main narratives have emerged.

One is Markle's mixed race, American background and how her "acceptance" signals a monarchy willing to loosen its rigid rules.

The other is an improbable love story: a girl from South Central Los Angeles is plucked from the streets by her dashing Prince Charming.

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Both have elements of truth, but they also ignore the royal family's complicated history with race and "blood" and its insistence on outdated traditions. As a sociologist who researches race, power and ideology, I believe we are missing the real significance of this marriage.

Out with the old? Not really. The "modern royal family" narrative overlooks the fact that the monarchy continues to embody a fundamentally traditional idea of British identity, a patriarchal institution steeped in nostalgia for the days of empire.

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In their carefully choreographed first joint interview with the BBC, Markle — a self-described feminist — confirmed that she was giving up her acting career to take up her new "role" as the wife of Prince Harry.

Meanwhile, the British establishment's long history of anti-Catholicism was on full view. Buckingham Palace was quick to announce Markle would be baptised into the Church of England before the wedding, presumably to assuage any lingering concerns she might actually be Catholic. (She attended a private Catholic school in Los Angeles.)

Finally, despite some media reports, Meghan isn't about to become a princess. Because she doesn't have "royal blood", she is likely to be given the title "Her Royal Highness", not "Princess Meghan".

Bloody nonsense

The idea of a distinct blood category for the upper classes is, of course, absurd. "Blue blood", we should remember, is a racialised metaphor. Skin so pale you could see the blue blood beneath signalled a distance from blackness and poverty.

Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle pose for photographers during a photocall in the grounds of Kensington Palace in London. Photo / AP
Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle pose for photographers during a photocall in the grounds of Kensington Palace in London. Photo / AP

As the historian Kate Williams notes, it was used to differentiate "the royals from the tanned peasants working in the fields and the people of colour who were increasingly part of European society".

When news of the relationship surfaced last year, some coverage was driven by a racial paranoia that the supposed sanctity of the royal lineage was being broken ("Harry to marry into gangster royalty?" a Daily Star headline read).

Others pointed to the risk not just to Harry's safety in dating a woman from South Central Los Angeles, a place "plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs", but to the integrity of the royal family.

Historically, the idea of "Britishness" has carried unspoken racial connotations; as cultural historian Stuart Hall noted: "In common understanding, the nation is usually imagined as white."

In this context, the royal family represents the national family, imagined and implicitly understood as white.

Prince Harry, to his credit, rebuked the media for the "racial undertones of comment pieces".

It appears, then, that this is an important moment in the slow and uneven — but nonetheless real — shift in Britain towards acknowledging the evolution of a multiracial society. But the significance of one so-called "interracial" marriage shouldn't be overstated. European royal families have been breeding across ethnic and national lines for centuries.

The ever-so-English sounding "House of Windsor" was in fact substituted for the original House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha because of anti-German sentiment in World War I.

Even "black blood" among the "blue bloods" isn't new. Some historians have suggested that Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, may have had black African ancestry.

A shot in the (pale) arm?

For decades, royalists have worried about the monarchy's future once the Queen dies. Prince Charles, the next in line, isn't widely liked so this marriage could be a lifeline.

Ironically, it is the Windsors who stand to gain the most by maintaining their popular standing — and therefore their legitimacy — by adding a touch of beautiful, light-skinned "diversity" to the lily-white family tree.

"Genetically, [Markle] is blessed," enthused journalist Rachel Johnson, using eugenics-style reasoning.

Contrary to the British press narrative, we might say Harry is the one "marrying up" — not the black actress from LA.

Ben Carrington is an associate professor of sociology and journalism at the University of Southern California.

- The Conversation