Des Willie/Netflix

February 10, 2021

The People’s Princess

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Nominated for six Golden Globes this awards season, the Netflix drama that chronicles the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, “The Crown,” has pumped fresh blood into the specter of Princess Diana. Diana has remained a fixture of cultural consciousness since her untimely death in a 1997 car crash. In the wake of the show’s fourth season, the recent outpouring of articles on Diana and the reissue of some of her most iconic sweaters have demonstrated that her image, story and renown can capture the imaginations of today’s generation as they did for multiple previous generations.  

In the new season’s first episode, Charles and Diana’s first encounter is depicted as a meet-cute. Charles, while waiting for Diana’s sister Sarah in the parlor of the Spencer family home, has a run-in with Diana, dressed as a tree for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They discuss Shakespeare, who emerges as a common interest, given Charles’ own love of the theater.

This evocation of Shakespeare may be meaningful in other ways. I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s historical plays, particularly the eight that dramatize the Plantagenet kings and examine monarchy, war, national identity and the memory and telling of history itself. In these plays, women appear to be marginal but in fact emerge as complex, multivalent figures that evoke anxieties around kingship, masculinity and marriage. They’re both contained and subversive. They each preserve and threaten bloodlines. They are used to mark the boundaries between a national self and a foreign other but are often themselves sites of dangerous otherness.

The fictionalization of Diana, both in the media during her lifetime and in onscreen representations after death, shows that these resonances are neither outdated nor culturally irrelevant. At the beginning of her life, she was presented as a Cinderella figure: A young, shy, demure woman with blond hair and blue eyes who had found a Prince Charming in Charles. In one of her earliest public photographs, the sun shines through her white dress, silhouetting her legs, and she holds a child in her arms as another stands by her side, underscoring both her virginity and maternity, while idealizing her as the English rose par excellence. These associations remained relevant in her later life as she performed humanitarian work,  establishing her as a moral force, “the people’s princess.

There was also the survivor narrative: the woman who went from wronged wife and mater dolorosa to fashion icon, who took charge of her own life and narrative as a divorcée, who resisted the old, cold, patriarchal rigidity of the British monarchy to become an avenging Artemis. She overcame her personal struggles with bulimia, self-harm and a loveless marriage with grace and aplomb, opening up a discussion around mental health in the process. Her relationships with Hasnat Khan and Dodi Fayed could be read as standing in opposition to the monarchy’s conservative whiteness and embracing the idea of a more inclusive, post-Imperial Britain.

The Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks is one espouser of this survivor narrative th tagging each post #FyouCC (“CC” = Charles and Camilla). Diana’s glamor translates easily to social media, largely because so much of her mythicization took place in the realm of photographs and videos. Fittingly for the mediums through which her myth was transmitted, her life had a melodramatic, soap-opera quality; for example, in a desperate act of throwing herself down a flight of stairs while pregnant, one might be eerily reminded of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” Her death by car crash with Fayed is strangely reminiscent of Brigitte Bardot’s tragic ending in “Le Mépris.”

But in all this drama, the person gets lost in the persona. We see Diana attempt to mediate between a private, “true” self and the public, royal role in her infamous “Panorama” interview, but the lines keep blurring as the private becomes performative. Like the most successful of celebrities, she “contain[ed] multitudes;” her multiple and diverse identities refracted one another, yet precluded real sight of the person behind the persona. 

Emma Corrin’s portrayal of Diana in “The Crown” is an attempt to get at this interiority and, in many ways, she succeeds. She shows us both the shy naivety of the teenager and the burgeoning resilience of the young married woman, and her depiction of Diana’s mental health struggles feels real and compassionate. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which she, too — to borrow from Anne Carson’s description of Brecht’s “Antigone” stands outside of Diana’s door.

“The Crown” has been accused of sacrificing fact to fiction and failing to distinguish the moments it has fabricated. But, these accusations ignore another key fact: Public figures are always already part-fiction, ritually sacrificed to the god we call history.  

A short story by Pauline Melville, “English Table Wuk,” begins with a group of characters in Georgetown, Guyana, watching the broadcast of Diana’s funeral on TV. As residents of a country that achieved independence from the British Empire in 1966, they have a hard time understanding why people are so invested in “all that sentimental rubbish and fantasy,” embodied in the glamorization of a woman with so much wealth and privilege. But one character sums it up best when they say, “We jus’ watching the English monarchy reinvent itself. She’s part of the process. Why don’t people see reality?”

Ramya Yandava is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].