My first memory of Princess Diana of Wales is in a blur reminiscent of old television. Countless times I have watched her walk down the aisle in her glamorous dress, which is now a relic of the 80s. I can still hear the announcers giving their play-by-play of “the wedding of the century,” as you probably can (CNN.
Fast-forward about 10 years and my mind is playing a slideshow of Lady Di with her boys, Princes William and Henry. I see them waving at the media and posing for a family photo on a skiing trip. In every memory, Princess Diana is smiling. I see it so clearly that I was shocked when I realized it had all happened years before I was born. Like so many other fascinating objects, Diana is timeless, as relevant now as she was over 20 years ago. Like Marilyn Monroe, like Jackie Onassis, like President Kennedy, Diana is engrained into our American culture. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t our princess, she’s in our books, our movies, our papers, she’s in our homes smiling on our TVs. Like President Kennedy it would all be over too soon and we couldn‘t get enough
Fast forward again, it’s the 90s now; I was actually alive for this part. Princess Diana is getting a divorce, the fairytale marriage is over and we American’s are buying more tabloids than toilet paper. We’re watching her, reading her, discussing her over dinner, “It’s over, it’s over, did you hear?” There she was on the news again putting on a smile for her boys. She didn’t belong to England anymore, she became the People’s Princess. She was ours.
She walked through third world countries feeding poor children, dating men with last names we couldn’t pronounce. She had a new life and the media had a field day. Lady Diana was no longer represented as a fairytale princess, but as a single mother, a rejected daughter-in-law, a forgotten ex-wife and a champion of the downtrodden. A few more years and we see her in a tunnel in Paris; we don’t see her come out again.
To this day, Men are still claiming to have slept with the “airy fairy” as Sir Elton John called the princess (The Times of India, Edinburgh Evening News).
Eleven years later, it’s 2008 and she’s still in the papers, biographies are still being written, what’s more they’re still being read. Some tell us the usual story of her wedding, her struggle with the royal family and her humanitarian efforts, others, like Sally Smith’s Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess, give us a darker representation of her as an “ignorant slut;” an emotionally unstable, superstitious, social climber (Shulevitz . They call her a media whore who spent more money than she was worth and flaunted her post-divorce relationships for the press (Shulevitz.
While most of us still think of Diana as a princess and a philanthropist, the fallout from her divorce and death removed her image from the realm of the magical. The more the media transformed her from a virginal princess to a woman of the world the more interested we became. When it comes to Princess Diana we were, and continue to be, stuck between the roles of voyeurs and worshippers.
But why are we as Americans, with our distrust of dynasties and our love of elected officials, still so fascinated with a woman who was a princess, wife of the heir to the English throne? Maybe it’s that “was” that tantalizes us. It’s the “look what you could have had” the “almost there, but not quite” aspect that gets to us. Like a certain fateful apple, Princess Diana’s life, tragic as it may have been, still represents the ever-tempting fruit of the unattainable. The fact that this Eve, like the former, fell after the first bite both confirms what is “unattainable” and increases our desire for it.
According to Roland Barthes, a French social theorist, people are fascinated by objects that simultaneously threaten and comfort them (70). It’s a little sadomasochism for the mind. In his essay, “The Brain of Einstein,” Barthes argues that the duality of objects that have multiple and contrasting representations is what holds our interest. Especially when those representations can both appease and challenge our cultural norms (70). Now, I suggest that this concoction of comfort and fear is what keeps us fixated on the late Princess Diana. It’s the representations of Diana before and after that aforementioned “was” that hold the interest of the American people. We’re playing a cat and mouse game with ourselves, we’re building her up and breaking her down, constantly shifting definitions, in order to comfort our own fears.
Diana’s Cinderella story was what first grabbed our attention. The media represented her as the commoner who married the prince and we loved that. Truthfully, Diana was not a member of the royal family or the common public, she was the daughter of a viscount, a distant member of the nobility (IMDB). But we’re Americans, the “Yes, we can” people, we want an underdog to root for so we pick Diana (Obama). At first we proudly watch our fledgling fly with the royalty, but then the jealously sets in. We are a nation of women who dreamed of being princesses and men who want to be the king’s of their castles. The majority of our country is stuck between the monotony of suburbia and the humdrum of the office and we’re content. What’s more American than Average Joe parking his minivan in his suburban garage? Princess Diana’s rise from peasant to princess makes us realize how static our social status really is. We are no longer content when we realize that we will never have a chance at becoming royalty like she did. We are not content, but we want to be.
American’s like to argue that we can do anything we set our minds to, but when we watch one of our own rise above us, it threatens our social structure and awakens our fear of social mobility. When one member of our class tries to achieve something more than the rest of us, we feel like they are saying we are not good enough. We are also afraid that if too many rise, then we, the left behind will be alone. And if we’re alone, we might have to challenge ourselves in order to keep up with the group and we’d rather not. We’ve all seen it in movies like the recent How She Move or Ratatouille when someone, let’s call him Johnny, tries to do something different and leaves his old gang behind for awhile. After Johnny’s achieves his goals, when he tries to come back home the old gang won’t except him. The old gang says things like, “I though you were too good for us, Johnny” or “Johnny, why don’t you go with your new better friends.” The old gang feels like they’ve lost one of their own, they no longer feel a sense of ownership for Johnny. In the movies, Johnny soon runs into a problem which only his old gang can rescue him from, but only after he admits that he is not like the rest of the overachievers, but still one of the old gang at heart.
In the end Johnny is just like Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, who can neither be equal with Professor Higgins, who is privileged by birth, nor comfortable on the streets, which she has risen above (Shaw). In fact, Johnny finds that he is not any happier than he used to be, thus proving that his new situation is not better than his old situation or old gang. You see, we are not afraid of social climbing as an individual. In fact if we happen to raise our own status we are quiet proud of it. We like being the Joneses, what we don’t like is having to keep up with them. We are only afraid of rising social statuses on the group level, when we are the status quo and Johnny is leaving us for something better.
Princess Diana is Johnny, she represents one of us, the middle class Americans. But she had a chance at something better and that threatens our middle class pride. When she failed to properly assimilate into the royal family, when she became the tabloid princess whose every move and mistake was watched by the world, we got to say “see, it’s safer, it’s better, to be one of us regular people” and that comforts us. It’s not that we wanted her to fail, we are not cruel for cruelty’s sake. But we need proof that it’s good to be who we are so that we can stay comfortable in our comfort zone. So when she was no longer England’s Princess but the People’s Princess, we, the people, were and continue to be her biggest fans.
Her story continues to challenge us with its elements of what could have been, but the lack of a happily-ever-after ending comforts those fears. We are unable to decide on a single concrete representation of Princess Diana. The result is an “almost there” frustration that continues to fascinate us. The cat never gets the mouse, but he enjoys the chase anyway. Lady Diana recognized that she was one of us even though she still had more assets, more prestige and better connections so we, in turn, welcomed her back. We, as Americans love equality even though so very few of us are equal. Therefore, as long as those who are better off continue to say that we are their equals we will accept them as one of our own. As George Orwell said “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” (vi).
CNN. “Princess Diana: A Beautiful, Tragic Life Cut Short.” CNN World News 8-31-97.
Barthes, Roland. “The Brain of Einstein.” Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Edinburgh Evening News. “Elton Says Diana was ‘Airy Fairy.’ The Scotsman 6-14-08. http://news.scotsman.com/entertainment/Elton-says-Diana-was-39airy.4186249.jp.
IMDB. “Biography for Princess Diana.” The Internet Movie Database 1990-2008. 6-15-08. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0697740/bio.
Obama, Barack. “Yes We Can.” Nashua, New Hampshire. 6-15-07.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. New York: Penguin Group, 1956.
Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. New York: Brentano, 1916.
Shulevitz, Judith. “Diana, You Ignorant Slut.” Slate. 9-2-99. 6-15-08. http://www.slate.com/id/1003525/.
The Times of India. “I slept with Diana: Butler.” The Times of India 6-15-08. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/I_slept_with_Diana_Butler/articleshow/3130746.cms.