Today is the 20th anniversary of the Princess Diana’s death. All summer there have been Diana retrospectives, newly recycled Diana stories, photo albums, and documentaries. Diana, 7 Days aired in the UK on the BBC earlier this week. Diana, 7 Days will be broadcast here in Canada tomorrow on CTV and in America on NBC at 8pm. And this week there have been a number of essays published about Diana and her legacy, none more beautifully written than Hilary Mantel’s The Princess Myth for The Guardian. This work is spectacular. Every word is a great decision.
But some have described Hilary’s piece as an “attack” on Diana, an unfair criticism of a beloved icon taken from us too soon. That’s not how I read it. And I don’t think that’s how it was intended. It’s right there in the title: Diana is and was a myth and in death, her mythology – a mythology she herself had a hand in starting – has only become even more potent, even more powerful. Celebrity cannot exist without Mythology. Diana is the Ultimate Celebrity. Like all super-celebrities, she was of her time and she is beyond her time. Diana knew her angles, she knew which dress to wear to send a message or to become the message, she knew which reporters to leak information to so she could shape her narrative while complaining about being part of the narrative. Before reality television and confession cam interviews, before staged photos at Kitson and the Brentwood Country Mart, before Instagram and Snapchat, there was Diana, Princess of Wales, the “queen of people’s hearts”, the royal disruptor.
Diana not only disrupted the royal ecosystem but the way she managed her own celebrity was also a disruptive force in the Hollywood ecosystem, in the performance of celebrity the way we’ve increasingly seen celebrity performed over the last 15 years. From revenge dresses to solitary poses in front of historic monuments to tearful televised overshares, Diana’s influence over a new generation of celebrity is undeniable – and that, perhaps ironically, includes her heirs. In the short term, Diana’s death demanded the performance of royal emotion which, up to that point, was never where they lived. People were pissed that the Queen wasn’t showing us her sadness. Before Diana, royals were allowed to grieve and process in private. The royal way, outwardly at least, was to always hold it together, the finest, most cultivated brand of stoicism that can be traced back centuries. Until the celebrity of Diana required a different form of royal presentation – feelings had to be revealed, pain had to be visible, anguish had to be on display.
In an irreverent piece for The Spectator this week, Rod Liddle argues that the “Dianafication” of royal behaviour has actually endangered the British royals themselves by shortening and soon eliminating the distance between what is royal and what is common – no doubt, a snotty perspective, but the deliberately outrageous way he nostalgically remembers the 20th anniversary of Princess Anne’s rejection of Cherie Blair alongside the 20th anniversary of Diana’s passing is kind of hilarious in that it certainly speaks to the distaste that many old school British elitists view the new, modern royal accessibility. A different way of looking at it though, in direct opposition to Ron Little’s rather dire assessment of future royalty, is to consider whether or not Diana’s approach to her celebrity might actually save the monarchy, specifically for her heirs.
Did Diana play the Game Of Thrones? Writing for the BBC, Daniel Mendelsohn identifies the Diana effect in pop culture. Prior to Diana’s arrival on the royal scene, the royal family was expert at the spectacle but without the drama. The show was the story. They were never the story. Diana, however, fused spectacle and drama. She recognised that, more and more, the story propelled the show. And the story, well, it has to involve an audience. It has to relate to the audience. In reaching out to her audience, in directly appealing to them to take her side, to understand her as she attempted to understand them, this is where she culled her power – and that’s the direct line Daniel Mendelsohn is drawing between Diana…and Daenerys Targaryen… WHAT? I know, right? Diana, Princess of Wales, (spiritual) mother of the Mother of Dragons?
Click here to read Hilary Mantel on The Princess Myth. Click here to read Rod Liddle’s analysis of “Dianafication” and click here for Diana’s Game Of Thrones. If you have any Diana reading recommendations, send them over.
Yours in gossip,