Dead Woman Walking

Why Princess Diana just won't leave us be.


Tomorrow we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of the sainted Diana, Princess of Wales, highlighting the paradox that only her death ensured she would remain alive through remembrance. Had Diana not gone so violently, she would have likely turned into a royal postscript, a specter haunting the resorts of Europe.

In fact, the princess was well on that path when she died. The "fairytale" marriage with Prince Charles had been exposed as an extravagant sham; both parties had unbecomingly manipulated the media to advance their divorce agendas; and Diana seemed to have a taste for worthless men (barring Pakistani surgeon Hasnat Khan, the "great love" whom nobody noticed). The princess' effort to ban landmines was put forth as proof that she wasn't superficiality incarnate—and the exception confirming that she was. Diana, through her tribulations, often seemed a strikingly normal person; but then again normal people can be crashing bores.

So why will many people turn embarrassingly lachrymose this August 31, unloading bushels of clichés explaining why we're memorializing a one-dimensional socialite with so little to be memorialized for?

Sudden death is one reason, but there are others. One of them is that Diana will benefit eternally from the contrast she invited with her dysfunctional in-laws in the British royal family. The princess was a certified oddball, but the Windsors—out of touch, static, insensitive, repressed, clannish, and dim—were ideal foils. Witness the commercial success last year of Steven Frears' The Queen. The film focused on how the royals proved incapable of comprehending, let alone responding to, the public's grief after Diana's death. But the real damage came in that the filmmakers tore away the patina of royalty to show the Windsors looking like a mean-spirited British middle class family.

There was oversimplification, to be sure. The script seemed only to grant Queen Elizabeth some complexity. Prince Philip, a boor of international repute, was yet too forced as a boor of international repute. The Queen Mother had few redeeming qualities, though depicting her as a tough old bitch was closer to the bone than many would admit of a woman who ruthlessly engineered the isolation of Edward VIII after his abdication to better advantage her husband, George VI.

However, this misses the point. People flocked to The Queen because it played to their deepest belief that Diana was the good one while the Windsors were poison. That Manichean plotline is why the Diana cult still gets so much mileage from the saga of the princess' failed marriage.

A second reason why Diana survives is that she was a distillation of aristocracy and pop culture-two things irresistible to most people. The argument is hardly original, following on from the princess' favorable comparison to the Windsors. But there is more to it than that. Diana's status affirms why popular culture can be more powerful than high culture. The princess embodied that transformation, moving from the stifling ways of Windsor traditionalism to mass stardom. Quite a lot of people came to use her in their own private narratives or fantasies.

Writing in Reason in 2003 about the decidedly different context of Arab music videos, contributing editor Charles Paul Freund nevertheless put his finger on what makes pop icons so influential: "What these videos offer their audience is an imagined world in which Arabs can shape and assert their identities in any way they please. The question is whether the videos are a leading cultural indicator of social and political change that enables Arabs to do the same in the real world."

Like the Arab divas, Diana became less important for what she was than as a medium serving the practical aspirations of her admirers. Through her they could define aspects of their own personal identity—lifestyle, clothing, attitudes toward landmines, whatever. Nationally, the princess allowed Britons to define their changing views of the monarchy, forcing the Windsors to dust themselves off and be more in tune with society. The acme of the Diana cult came when Elton John sang "Candle in the Wind" at the princess' funeral. The event remains memorable precisely because everyone could partake of a colossal pop moment, all mawkishness and kitsch, when any other royal funeral would have remained elegantly distant, with Elgar as its musical centerpiece.

This explains why Diana qualifies for a 10-year commemoration, but the person herself is mostly absent from it. The princess didn't will the car crash that brought her temporary immortality; nor was she better than the royal family she so effortlessly overshadowed. Even Diana's metamorphosis into an object of popular devotion had more to do with what people wanted to see in her than innate qualities she displayed. We can pity the princess for having become a sunken ship periodically raised to the surface. But we should really pity ourselves for not moving on.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.