Diana, Princess of Wales, is having a moment – again.
The last year has reignited fierce interest in the beloved late royal, coinciding with a critical inflection point for the monarchy and the ’90s nostalgia cycle. Last December, The Crown finally reached the ’80s, when Lady Diana Spencer, played by Emma Corrin, married Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles and promptly came to regret it. Their ill-fated marriage was melodramatic catnip and a needed shot of adrenaline for the series, helping it sweep this year’s Emmys. Building on the momentum, The Crown is already teasing Elizabeth Debicki claiming the role in 2022 alongside Dominic West as Charles.
Netflix also recently premiered Diana: The Musical, a Hamilton-style recording of the Broadway musical that the COVID-19 pandemic delayed. The producers should’ve regarded the delay as a blessing in disguise. Diana is a titanic embarrassment, with its high-camp glam rock stylings, cringeworthy lyrics, and an inexplicably shirtless James Hewitt. Spencer, the film directed by Pablo Larraín and starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, looks the opposite. Like Larraín’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated Jackie, Spencer deeply examines Diana’s bruised psyche, this time through the prism of a tortuous Christmas with her in-laws. It has garnered rave reviews on the fall festival circuit, with Stewart vaulting to the forefront of the Best Actress Oscar race.
That is four separate incarnations of Diana in twelve months, on top of television specials and documentaries. Is it merely a coincidence?
Diana’s moment slots right into pop culture’s broader appraisal of the ‘90s. When we aren’t crying over Steve from Blue’s Clues, millennials are looking back and examining how we treated the prominent figures of our youth with the benefit of hindsight. Britney Spears and Monica Lewinsky, two of the era’s most famous women, have been vindicated by a contemporary lens that could see past the decade’s perceived progressivism to the sexist hypocrisy at the core of their scrutiny. Now, as a woman who eclipsed their or anyone else’s fame at the time, it’s Diana’s turn. Her 16 years on the global stage – from shy young princess to formidable humanitarian to tragically immortalized icon – serve as the most compelling microcosm, an anomaly and a harbinger of the culture she inadvertently shaped and left behind.
While she is an undeniable style icon, Diana has endured due largely to her modernity within the traditionalist monarchy and her natural and vulnerable rapport with the public. Diana leveraged the intense media interest to support causes like HIV/AIDS, homelessness, leprosy, and landmine removal, all controversial in their own right. Images of her shaking hands with HIV patients and walking through Angolan minefields spread worldwide, challenging stigmas and demonstrating how celebrities can use their power for the genuine good. When she wasn’t traveling as the world’s most photographed woman, Diana openly shared her struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and postpartum depression, long before celebrities openly discussed their mental health. Diana’s challenges – sometimes painful, other times humiliating, always public – endeared her to people across identities and set her at the peak of global renown.
That level of fame came with inevitable downsides. Demand for Diana incentivized the paparazzi and the media to follow her obsessively. Diana sometimes used the press to her advantage, especially as her marriage to Prince Charles imploded. In 1994, she upstaged her husband the night he confessed his adultery on television by wearing her famous “revenge dress.” The following year, she appeared on the BBC’s Panorama program and gave an interview so damaging that the Queen insisted on divorce (it should be noted that journalist Martin Bashir used false documents to curry her favor, as a recent inquiry into the interview found). Despite the marginal benefits, Diana couldn’t exert total control over the press or photographers. They hounded her relentlessly, bad enough for her to reduce her charitable engagements to escape them.
The Diana media machine continued undeterred. Magazines and newspapers with her on the cover flew off shelves (case in point: she covered People in the U.S. 58 times, more than any other subject). The public wanted Diana content, and editors paid top dollar for her image. That insatiable hunger culminated in that fateful Parisian night in 1997, where Diana and her boyfriend Dodi al-Fayed died in a car wreck chased by French paparazzi.
Diana’s death was a shocking cultural event that unleashed an unprecedented torrent of worldwide grief, especially in Britain. It also sparked the greatest existential threat to the monarchy since the abdication of King Edward VIII. As Londoners flooded the royal residences with flowers, the royal family stayed at their summer residence in Balmoral and didn’t fly a flag at half-mast at Buckingham Palace. There were extenuating circumstances (the family was tending to Diana’s sons William and Harry, and a flag is only flown at Buckingham Palace when the Queen is in residence). Still, the intensity of emotion, stoked by the British press desperately seeking absolution, overrode any nuance. The week following Diana’s death was the closest the royals had ever been to being “canceled.” Eventually, the anger subsided, and mourning commenced: 1 million people lined Diana’s funeral procession, an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide watched the ceremony, and Elton John’s tribute “Candle in the 1997″ became the most successful single in history.
More than incredible statistics, Diana’s death indicted nearly every facet of popular culture. And yet, despite the extraordinary reaction, little appeared to change, at first.
Some have argued that Diana’s relevance would fade, that the global outpouring of grief was but a hysterical aberration. That position doesn’t account for the cultural sea change that she would help lead. Diana fiercely advocated for deep connections between public figures and the public, famously declaring her desire to be a “queen of people’s hearts.” For better or worse, that is her legacy. Social media has eliminated barriers between celebrities and fans, made fame more accessible (to an extent), and propagated the parasocial relationships that terrorized and canonized Diana. Mental health discussions, unimaginable in the Diana years, are commonplace amongst celebrities. Simone Biles can share how mental health concerns led her to withdraw from Olympic events. Prince Harry can document his trauma therapy treatment for The Me You Can’t See, his Apple TV+ documentary series.
Speaking of Harry, Diana’s resurgence is undoubtedly linked to a re-evaluation of the royals themselves. A few years ago, Diana’s sons seemed poised to lead the modern and inclusive monarchy she had envisioned. Harry and Meghan’s bombshell interview with Oprah shattered that illusion and revealed a toxic, racist environment contributing to their decision to step back from senior royal duties. Meghan sharing her suicidal ideations bore stunning similarities to Diana’s experiences twenty years prior and confirmed that the institution is still making the same mistakes.
For the generation discovering Diana for the first time through this moment, her fame might be confounding and even unimpressive since she appears to be just another rich, white, straight woman. Whether or not that’s true, there are lessons to learn in this Diana moment. At the least, we can further evaluate our relationship to celebrity, assess its potential to breed good and bad in equal measure, and challenge the systems in place that push us dangerously close to another Diana-scale tragedy. Through The Crown and Spencer, we can understand why she mattered, celebrate her accomplishments, and insist that no other person is sacrificed at the altar of our collective consumption, regardless of their status.
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