It was 10 years ago this week when Diana, former princess of Wales and heroine of the most famous fractured fairy tale of the 20th century, crashed to her death in a Paris tunnel. Those who wondered whether her peculiar celebrity narrative would have staying power surely have their answer now.
Just this year, Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her title role in “The Queen,” a film about the aftermath of Diana’s death. Mirren’s uncanny portrayal pivoted on how Queen Elizabeth II was haunted by Diana’s emotional legacy. Iconic photographs of Diana continue to show up in British tabloids, while Tina Brown’s compelling biography, “The Diana Chronicles,” remains on best-seller lists after being a favorite beach-read all summer.
And, even if they won’t admit it, tens of thousands of accomplished women who couldn’t give a rat’s crumpet about the British royal family still could tell you exactly where they were when they heard that Diana had died.
After all the heat about predatory paparazzi and the harsh glare of celebrity culture that seemed to define Diana’s life and her death on Aug. 31, 1997, the element of her story that has proved the most lasting is that fairy tale gone awry. Despite the progress women have made in the past decades, we still can’t seem to get beyond our fascination with the glamour-girl as victim.
Diana’s beauty and her gift of empathy made her story even more compelling when she seemed incapable of finding true happiness. Being a tragic figure gave a hypnotic subtext to the hype.
In retrospect, maybe one of the strangest elements of Diana’s modern fairy tale is that she and so many young British aristocratic women of her generation were an anachronism. In “The Diana Chronicles,” Brown observes that as recently as the early ‘80s it was the norm for high-born English girls to be sent to finishing schools, as Diana was. Then they often did some menial job in London while prepping to be married off to a rich man who would see to it that they didn’t need a profession or a higher education.
This was especially odd since there was no shortage of dynamic women in England at the time. Setting aside that the queen had been on the throne for decades, Margaret Thatcher was soon to be governing with an iron hand at 10 Downing Street, Vivienne Westwood was rewriting the rules of British fashion and 25-year-old Tina Brown herself was in charge of resuscitating the gossip magazine Tatler.
The thought of teenage Diana being a nanny while she was waiting for her prince to come and make her life perfect clashed so thoroughly with the cultural moment that it should have seemed destined for disaster.
You would think that those of us who had benefited from the women’s movement would have been horrified or at least embarrassed for her. Instead, an alarming number of us Yankee girls stayed up until the wee hours on Diana’s wedding day that July in 1981 to coo and sigh as she arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral in a glass coach.
You could ask what in the world she was thinking, marrying a man she barely knew and with whom she had so little in common. But she was only 19 when she got engaged and was without, shall we say, a rigorous education. After all, she was bred to think this was the pinnacle of happiness. What the heck were we thinking to be so enthusiastic about it?
Still, the emancipated women of the world were only too happy to wish her luck and get a vicarious thrill as she was wedded into what Brown calls the “muffled misogyny” of the British monarchy. How fitting that when the marriage ended 15 years later, Brown quotes one of Diana’s divorce lawyers telling the princess, “We are not going to behave as if we are in a fairy story.”
For feminists who reverted to third-graders as we watched the wedding of the century, it’s a comfort to know that Diana did manage to have some great romances in her life despite her prince’s indifference toward her. Also, she was coming into her own as a philanthropist in the months before her death. Of course, she always had the hearts of the British people.
You could say that she went a little loony during her years in the palace, but who wouldn’t? It’s a relief to know that even for young women of the British aristocracy, Diana’s early life of being groomed only to be lady of the manor has gone out of fashion. (Witness her son Prince William’s longtime girlfriend, Kate Middleton, whom the prince met when they were both at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland.)
Given the enduring popularity of Disney princesses among little girls, perhaps you can argue that American females, too, are hard-wired from birth to go for the castle, the diamond tiara and being rescued by the prince on a white horse. Those stories die hard, even for most of us who know better by the time we’re teenagers.
For all Diana’s dazzle, what we’ll remember best about her is the fairy tale turned cautionary tale. It is as though she still whispers from her grave, “Be careful what you wish for.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sue Hutchison is a columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.
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