Netflix’s The Crown has resurrected – if only for a few weeks – Princess Diana’s mythological tale of horror, pity and passion. A story to fill the entertainment hole, it has proved, yet again, that Britain loves a tragedy. We seem to have intimate knowledge on the life of Princess Diana, which, according to scholars, not even she had. Today, the Royal family disappears into a cultural vacuum of mediocrity and showbiz values. Meanwhile, Diana is kept alive, a princess trapped inside a tower built on sentimentality, melancholy and hope. How does history remember her? She was a victim who became a princess before she became a woman. It has been over two decades since her premature death in 1997. But Diana is the woman who will not die. We won’t let her.
The intrigue of beautiful women who died young – including Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, Caroline Flack – is that we elevate them into deities, when often the nature of their deaths is far more grotesque and somewhat wasteful. We impose cultural narratives – the demon, the victim, the princess, the evil Godmother with her corgis – which place no actual value on perceiving reality. Princess Diana was a victim, but she was also a volunteer member of an establishment known for its abuse of power, aggression, fear and Xenophobia. She died for a reason no less banal than reckless driving.
Of course, like most myths, there was something unremittingly magical about her. She was attractive, blonde, funny and photogenic with a kind of charisma that is hard to argue with, let alone ignore. But like many who lived in the public eye, she embodied some obviously violent contradictions within character: her face was a mask of beauty, controlled by narcissism and charm. Behind that ruthlessly attractive front: insecurity, emotional instability, courage and cowardice, innocence and a talent for fear. Perhaps the pressure of being ‘the very essence of compassion’ (as her brother described) was a little too much for her. She was a myth, martyr and even a song (recall Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’) but she never quite accomplished the task of becoming a person.
She holds up a mirror to the ways in which a female human being is trained to act
My feeling with Diana is that she learnt to only exist through the eyes of others; seeing herself reflected in the mirrors in the public conscience. So how did we distort this dream woman? There is a danger in turning Diana into a doormat, a metaphor for victim-hood. Perhaps she was a victim. Did she not describe herself as a ‘sacrificial lamb to the slaughter’ or ‘an individual crucifying herself on the inside’? She certainly knew how to wear the mask of tragedy. This is not to say her life wasn’t difficult, any woman who marries a man twice her age is asking for trouble. But, as is the case with Markle, Shy Di, with her bashful lowered blue eyeliner gaze, certainly knew how to play her audience. She is a mixture of tragedy and aesthetic.
Princess Diana was and, in many ways, still is, the Queen of people’s hearts. Even in pictures, her beauty floats around her. Her fashion – from revenge dresses to holiday mom outfits – was a politically charged tool of empowerment. Diana was always the centre of attention, but never the centre of power. She holds up a mirror to the ways in which a female human being is trained to act. Her life becomes the story of being a female impersonator. Now we search in vain for the woman behind the mask, the person behind the princess. We are still in the dark.
Questions still haunt the public imagination: would Princess Diana have remarried? Would she have continued her introspective transition from victim to goddess to finally becoming a mortal woman, ready to face the ultimate enemy: ageing? Let’s not forget all the beautiful women who didn’t die young: Hepburn, Madonna, Twiggy? Ageing for a woman is a death of sorts. Could Diana have stopped her disastrous relationships with men whose identity she wanted to absorb? Could she have kicked her bulimia and chronic self-dissatisfaction? Most importantly, could she have escaped the tyranny of victimhood, and finally learn how to become a person, free from the fetishes, prejudices and wish-fulfilments of the public?
Everyone thinks of her affectionately, because she embodies, like Jesus and John Lennon, the romantic image of suffering
Of all the lies we’re fed on in our comfort addicted world, where Netflix has conquered reality, nothing is more insidious or futile than the notion of the icon. The seductive but infantile notion that someone can hold up a model of existence, someone who we can vicariously live through, someone to teach us the way. Of course, this illusion keeps us from ever being complete in and of ourselves, and eventually encourages us to despise our shortcomings our flaws. If Diana was ‘the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty’, then where does that leave us?
Everyone likes the idea of Diana. Everyone thinks of her affectionately, because she embodies, like Jesus and John Lennon, the romantic image of suffering. She’s a martyr for the masses. We could admire her for her unhappiness, even revel in her tragedy. Images of her blubbing in public became cultural gossip and gospel: poor Di. As Bill Clinton would say, I feel your pain. We remember her for what she never became, conveniently forgetting what she never was. She appears before us like a fairy Godmother, a vision of radiantly shallow perfection, and that is what we wanted of her. She was the Marilyn Monroe or Greta Garbo of real life – tragic in a good way, tragic without trying to be deep or seriously make us think. The Crown has done a very good job of prolonging her death. It keeps her alive as a fantasy. Perhaps we don’t want the truly grotesque elements of her life – which range from the banal to the ridiculous – only that she cry and fall and allow us to rescue her.