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.

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  1. Whew! I was just surprised and relieved not to read that Syria had had her killed.

  2. URKOBOLD denies any affair. The URKOBOLD remains, has remained, and will remain faithful to the Weibskobold.

    Plus, it was one of several problems with the driving school (and hier)

  3. Never could understand the Diana cult. Yes, she was less of a twit than, say, Paris Hilton, and it is admirable she devoted some of her time to charitable causes, unlike some other monied celebrities. But we could line up thousands of women to do the same if we gave them $$millions, provided designer clothes, first class accomodations, private jets, etc. and asked them to visit a few childrens’ hospitals and the like from time to time. Far better we revere the thousands of men and women who volunteer their time to causes (esp. libertarian causes), not expecting tabloid headlines or mass adulation.

  4. Always thought she was a goldplated whore.Famous for being famous.

  5. Maybe John Tierney can highlight the evolutionary precursors to worshiping useless people.

  6. Matthew Hogan: Ouch. But very nice.

  7. I never understood why all the flowers were tackily left in their cellophane wrappers. Where’s the aesthetic?

  8. So Michael Young takes a break from writing ludicrously inaccurate defenses of the Iraq War to focus on…trashing a dead lady and everyone associated with her.

    As always, you’re a class act, Young. A real class act.

  9. Too soon, madpad?

  10. Nah…I never had much of an opinion one way or another on ‘The People’s Princess.’ Which is to say, I didn’t swoon over her nor did I despise her in the fashion Michael Young appears to.

    While I never felt an attachment to her, I could understand how others did. But hey, I never felt an attachment to Pope John Paul II but I was kind and understanding to all my Catholic friends who mourned his death.

    As for Princess Di, we could go round and round about why she was famous and whether or not she deserved it and whether or not the royals were as bad and was she really all that committed to charities and what not…not that I really care about any of it.

    The point is, why does Young give a damn? Most of Young’s article is just opinion (then again he’s usually in poor possession of facts anyway) so what is the point of his article? It’s just a nasty screed…like some wise-ass college kid trashing his parent’s idols.

  11. I never understood why all the flowers were tackily left in their cellophane wrappers. Where’s the aesthetic?

    So they wouldn’t touch the other flowers. That would be unsanitary… or the flower version of miscegenation… or something.

  12. Michael Young remembers the tragic death of a vapid socialite-and urges us all to just move on.

    I thought it was going to be about Leona Helmsley. Well, in either case, I couldn’t agree more.

  13. I thought it was going to be about Leona Helmsley

    Leona was many things – a few admirable and many bad – but she was neither vapid nor a socialite.

  14. Arrgh!

    Reason has fallen into the Diana pit!

    Is there a “No Princess Di” zone left in the world? (Outside of North Korea)

  15. I never understood why all the flowers were tackily left in their cellophane wrappers. Where’s the aesthetic?

    Ever see some of the nativity scenes in certain Mexican homes?

    If you leave the baby doll in the packaging it came in, it shows respect for the Baby Jesus, I guess.

  16. I never understood why all the flowers were tackily left in their cellophane wrappers.

    There’s a joke about land mines or AIDS in there somewhere…I just know there is.

  17. Princess Di, I read about the Duchesse de Guermantes, I imagined the Duchesse de Guermantes; the Duchesse of Guermantes was a spectacular literary figure. Princess Di, you’re no Duchesse de Guermantes.

  18. This is poor journalism. Mr. Young was not personally acquainted with the Princess, yet he manages to trash her with no real information, just opinion and innuendos. Why does REASON use up space with this sort of tabloid quality stuff? Why does he want to write about her in this way?

    The House of Windsor’s vast wealth and sense of privelege is oppressive. I think people admire her because she tried to stand up to them.

  19. What do you mean “no real information,” it is common knowledge that Princess Di screwed everyone in Europe. Also, someone needs to tell the people that she was a rich bitty that was occasionally photographed visiting kids that got their arms and legs blown off, not a saint. Michael Young, keep up the good work.

  20. But hey, I never felt an attachment to Pope John Paul II but I was kind and understanding to all my Catholic friends who mourned his death.

    And in ten years, if they’re just as broken up about the death of a man they never even met, marking the anniversary every single year, will you be so understanding?

  21. I am as sick and tired of hearing about princess di now as I was when every media outlet was holding a “death watch” ten years ago. (AND I am sick and tired everytime someone calls the Kennedy’s “American Royalty.” Perhaps the only “royal” things about the Kennedys is their amazing ability to leave the scene of the crime and their inability to safely operate motor vehicles themselves.) I agree that REASON should focus on real issues and not pop bull-shit. But, hey, at least some media outlet is willing to say what we’re all thinking.

  22. This article shows that If Mr Young doesn’t get a job with the Fox Street Journal or the National Review he can always get a gig with ET or star magazine writing about the next Paris Hilton Scandal or maybe doing an opinion piece on Anna Nicole Smith.

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