For many ‘90s kids, Princess Diana’s funeral, on September 6, 1997, is one of those events that time-stamp the calendar of childhood. The televised event—watched by, by some estimates, 2.5 billion people—with its images of crowds lining the streets of the procession, piles of flowers and memorabilia stacked outside Kensington Palace, and young William and Harry walking behind their mother’s casket are etched deep into my mind. What I also remember are shots of candlelight vigils in places thousands of miles away. I too watched these scenes not from London, where the funeral took place, or Paris, which was the site of her fatal accident, or the United States, where Diana enjoyed immense popularity. I watched from my living room in India. By the time of her untimely death, the cult of “the people’s princess” had spread far and wide.
More than two decades later, that fascination with her is alive and well. The story of the young kindergarten teacher who married the heir apparent to the British throne, found herself in an unhappy marriage, struggled with debilitating mental health issues, and died tragically young is burned into Western public consciousness. Each year, the anniversary of her death is marked by mandatory reminiscing about the intimate details of her private life, recounting of conspiracy theories about the car crash that killed her, and inclusion in listicles of “where were you when…” moments. Investing in Diana memorabilia remains a thriving business. An entire online industry is now dedicated to collecting and selling Diana artifacts. Her life has been retold through countless films and documentaries, multiple television series and biographies, and even a Broadway musical. Most recently, the wide release of Pablo Larraín’s biopic Spencer, which chronicles the Christmas at Sandringham House in 1991 when Diana decided to leave Charles, is a testimony to the power that Diana—but more specifically, the image of Diana—still exerts over popular imagination.
What explains this fascination? Why the abiding worldwide emotional investment in a white, upper-class, heterosexual British woman most of the world’s population did not know? Media studies scholars tell us that people often form intimate but one-sided bonds with celebrities or public figures, mediated by television or the internet through repeated exposure. This phenomenon, known as a parasocial relationship, can only partly explain the obsession with Diana. For such one-sided bonds to persist more than two decades after a person’s death, something more must be at play. Dateline NBC correspondent Keith Morrison may have been on to something when he said this about Diana’s funeral: “All around the world a strange thing happened. …Diana who was flesh and blood, the English woman who died in the tunnel in Paris had already become a myth and more than that…” (emphasis mine). The moment of her death, according to media and cultural studies scholar Raka Shome, was used to organize “a national myth…around the body of a white upper-class heterosexual woman whose every aspect was being linked to ‘the people,’ both in the United Kingdom and beyond, and who came to signify a new (white) postcolonial British identity.”
This mythmaking is key to understanding why public imagination and pop culture narratives remain enthralled by the figure of Diana. From the “people’s princess” moniker, coined by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech following her death, to Diana’s own express desire to be “the queen of people’s hearts,” a plethora of representations—fairy-tale princess, virgin bride, fashion icon, wronged wife, devoted mother, media manipulator, and land-mine crusader—have been churned out, even long before her death. In the aftermath, these images were put into the service of the British monarchy, British identity, and British nationhood.
The spectacle of Diana and Charles’s wedding set in motion the narrative of a “fairy-tale princess come to life” and produced a “surplus of fantasy” in how she was viewed by the world, Cele Otnes and Pauline Maclaran write in their book, Royal Fever: The British Monarchy in Consumer Culture. Central to this narrative was a preoccupation with Diana’s virginity. At the royal family’s insistence, she was reportedly made to undergo a “purity test” before the wedding to ensure that her hymen was intact. Writing for Vox, Journalist Constance Grady suggests that when Queen Elizabeth II called the publication of paparazzi photographs of a pregnant Diana in a bikini “the blackest day of British journalism,” she was likely reacting to the violation of this carefully guarded image of sexual innocence.
An equally potent archetype has been built around Diana’s motherhood. One of the final scenes in Larraín’s Spencer reproduces her trips to KFC with William and Harry. In the film, this is a moment of rebellion, the point when Diana decides to break free from Charles and the royal family. Offscreen, the KFC trips, the school drop-offs, and her general hands-on parenting style have been used to gloss over Diana’s “rebel princess” image—and the royal family’s complicity in furthering that image—in favor of the more domesticated label of devoted mother.” In their media appearances, both William and Harry frequently share snippets of information about Diana’s parenting and humanitarian work. In the 2017 documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, they share photographs from Diana’s personal albums and recount their favorite childhood memories of “Mummy.” No doubt, these are genuine remembrances of a loved one, but they also work strategically to humanize the royal family. In the cultural consciousness, the memory of Diana, the virgin, and Diana, the estranged rebel princess, gradually gives way to Diana, the universal mother.
In the very public and messy divorce of Diana and Charles, the monarchy showed up as “highly dysfunctional” and mired in stifling traditions and restrictions, Otnes and Maclaran write in their book. Diana’s death, the Queen’s slow response, and the subsequent public reaction also represented “the biggest threat to the monarchy” under Elizabeth II. After their (very public) ostracization of Diana following the divorce, “the royal family has recently been repositioning the Diana brand within their overarching umbrella brand to keep the legend alive in a very positive way…. She’s now seen as the grandmother she would have been and for her charitable works,” Maclaran said in a recent interview. These interventions aimed at reclaiming the figure of Diana signal an imperial institution grasping to reinvent its image in a world where it continues to be as extractive and exploitative as before while increasingly losing relevance.
It’s not just the monarchy that has contributed to and utilized the mythmaking around Diana toward its own ends. Coming to power months before her death, Tony Blair’s Labour Party actively created and used the scripts of “mother to the world,” “global savior,” and “modern mother” that have since attached themselves to Diana to rebrand a neoliberal British identity, Shome writes in Diana and Beyond: White Femininity, National Identity, and Contemporary Media Culture. Images of Diana posing with Black and brown babies during her humanitarian work with the Red Cross were propped up to claim a break from an imperial past and signal the arrival of a cosmopolitan, multicultural Britain. In reality, these tactics merely allowed Britain to whitewash its imperial atrocities while refusing to acknowledge the shame of imperialism and to interiorize that shame as part of the nation, suggests sociologist Anne-Marie Fortier. The cracks in this professed multiculturalism were not too hard to find. The Blair administration used repeated references to Diana as the “can-do supermom” who successfully juggled work and children to justify its “welfare to workfare” policies that reduced subsidies to poor families and disproportionately targeted racialized single mothers.
Needless to say, the fairy-tale princess, supermom, and global savior tropes that solidified around the figure of Diana centered a particular version of femininity—white, heterosexual, and upper middle class. By signalling these qualities as representative of the new Britain, the rebranded multicultural British identity maintained the logic of whiteness even as its claims to multiculturalism seemingly accommodated (racialized and classed) difference.
The steady stream of biographies, films, and documentaries on Diana have dwelled extensively on these tropes and are thus central to the project of mythmaking. The rose-tinted dramatization of Diana and Charles’s wedding by rival U.S. television channels ABC and CBS in the 1980s was instrumental in ushering in the fantasy fairy-tale aura. The 1993 television documentary Diana: Her True Story, adapted from Andrew Morton’s book of the same name and released a year after the announcement of their separation, was an exercise in revictimization, homing in on Diana’s depression and bulimia and Charles’s infidelity. The 1995 interview by Martin Bashir for BBC’s Panorama, which recently came under scrutiny, may have allowed Diana to articulate with great clarity her struggles with mental health and the circumstances around the collapse of the marriage, but it also cemented the narratives of Diana the “avenging angel” and “innocent victim of circumstance.” Capitalizing on the prevailing public sentiment, the 1998 television drama Diana: A Tribute to the People’s Princess, which charted the last year of Diana’s life, was quick to pick up and echo the moniker coined by Blair. After a series of forgettable productions since the mid-2000s, Netflix’s The Crown rekindled the world’s interest in the British monarchy. The series doubled down on romanticizing an institution rooted in imperialism, even if it did take a few potshots at Elizabeth II by playing on Diana’s victim status. The latest to join this crowded Diana pop culture industry, Larraín’s Spencer is perhaps the most clear-eyed of them all. As Grace Lavery writes in a review of the film on this site, Larraín exhumes “Dynasty Di from her saintly casket” and presents Diana as “every bit as batshit” as the rest of the royal family.
The Blair administration used repeated references to Diana as the “can-do supermom” who successfully juggled work and children to justify its “welfare to workfare” policies that reduced subsidies to poor families and disproportionately targeted racialized single mothers.
One would think that the abiding fascination with Diana, perceived as stifled, excluded, and victimized by the outdated traditions and restrictions of the royal family, would have led to a gradual rejection of or disillusionment with the monarchy. Instead, as two polls earlier this year showed, the monarchy remains popular with a majority of British people, though the mood may have soured among the younger generation. The frenzied response to Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry following their abrupt separation from the royal family reiterated once again that the obsession with the royal family continues unabated.
This abiding interest is the result of a sustained mythmaking organized around the figure of Diana, the most visible face of the British royal family even in her death. So powerful is this mythmaking that Diana has always existed more as a representation or an image, making her physical existence redundant. The stories told about her have long ceased to be about her. Through ceaseless repetition, they have transformed into tropes and are now harnessed to create and uphold other myths about empire, monarchy, and multicultural Britain.
“If the nation is no longer an empire, what is it? …When the ‘fantasy of ethnological unity’—one people, one nation—can no longer be maintained, what kind of nation is left?” asks historian Catherine Hall, capturing the essential dilemma of British national identity in the 1990s. The mythmaking around Diana has provided the space in which to negotiate these questions, reinstating whiteness, heterosexuality, and class power as synonymous with the nation and retaining the extractive logics of empire and the monarchy in a purportedly postempire, postcolonial multicultural nation.