What I remember about Princess Diana’s death is not caring about it at all. I was theoretically old enough to understand, but I didn’t. Instead, I was a baffled alien trying to comprehend the shock and mourning around me. Diana, to my eye, was a perfectly ordinary-looking human woman who for celebrity-worshipping reasons was splashed across the covers of every tabloid while people took intense positions on everything from her curious outfits to her beauty to her divorce. She seemed to distort the discourse around her into bizarre exaggerations; news about her wavered between gushing adoration and condemnation via gotcha photographs. I couldn’t understand why she was so wildly overpraised for doing things like hugging a sick boy, or why her being on a boat with a man was fascinating. It took The Crown—a show I have mixed opinions about—to help me finally “get” the Diana thing. Before watching it, despite my very best efforts, my position (snobby dismissiveness, as The Crown itself amply illustrates, is how one copes with feeling like an alien) was that the monarchy seemed pretty dumb, and fangirling over a princess—vastly exaggerating both her qualities and her struggles—was even dumber.
I still think the monarchy is dumb, but I’ve been trying to revisit past verdicts I now chalk up to the internalized misogyny of my youth, so when You’re Wrong About’s Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall did a five-part podcast series about Diana, I binged it all. They made a fascinating, detailed, and humane case for her in all her complexity. But while I found their sympathy for Diana quite moving and their analysis rock-solid, it didn’t make me like Diana any more. Quite the contrary—learning she’d shoved her stepmother down the stairs and later made her move her things out of the family home in garbage bags gave me colorful counterweights to the tiresome Diana hagiography I’d always rolled my eyes at, but the plaster saint had been replaced with something closer to a Real Housewife whose ballyhooed charm still eluded me. Still, by this point I’d learned enough about her struggles that I figured watching her famous interview with Martin Bashir with fresh eyes would lead me to deliver a different verdict. The truth is, I couldn’t get through it. Maybe I just knew too much to experience the interview as the bombshell it clearly was when it aired. (I’ve known the “three of us in this marriage” quote for ages.) But watching her with Bashir, I kept cringing in embarrassment. At what? I can’t quite put my finger on it—maybe her obvious (and understandable) desire for a little bit of revenge? Maybe her awkwardness? Maybe it’s just that an uncooked quality in her face reminds me of shame I sometimes feel about my own. I can’t explain it, but I found her just excruciating to watch.
Biopics are acts of cultural and temporal translation, and while I sometimes resent its extreme lack of subtlety, I want to give The Crown its due in this respect: Emma Corrin showed me what Diana means to a lot of people, and how she charmed them, in ways that footage of the woman herself has not. I see now that I missed Diana’s beginning, and maybe that’s what you need to appreciate her story. Growing up, I’d missed the whole fairy-tale phase of the prince and princess of Wales. Corrin expertly captures how tragically young she was when she made some of her biggest decisions. Her coy relation to stardom is believable, and so is her somewhat baffling approach to her husband’s increasing resentment of her fame. (Though it’s not quite what happened in real life, it’s a nice and tragically perfect character note that Corrin’s Diana dances to “Uptown Girl” supposedly “for Charles,” on his birthday, knowing full well that he resents her stealing his spotlight. It’s an asshole move, but she seems to genuinely not get that!) The Crown’s Diana is young and a little bit sly and deceptively malleable, but over the course of the fourth season, we watch her get firmer and stronger and lonelier and darker. Her absolute insistence on authentic relationships with the British royal family is as moving as their refusal to even momentarily accommodate her is appalling.
I doubt that the real Diana was as authentic as people perceived her to be, but I don’t think authenticity, all on its own, was ever the point. If Diana was initially loved for living out the fairy tale, she was loved even more for breaking from it, especially once it was clear just how awful the backdrop to her storybook wedding really was. She pierced the formal veil of the monarchy and made its (and her) messes legible to a public that is messy too. I didn’t understand my female relatives’ intense interest as a kid, but I see now that I particularly didn’t understand that the real stakes were a kind of affective warfare between the tabloids— trawling for scandal they could use to punish women—and Diana’s fans, many of whom had likely been punished for their own departures from the norm, in ways small and large. Devoted readers of the Sun and the Daily Mail might have lapped up their exploitative coverage, but in a funny way, they were rooting for her to outfox them. Maybe Diana mucked up a core feature of 1990s misogyny—namely, that female celebrities should cheerfully accept heavy surveillance as a price of fame, followed by exposure and punishment should they make moral or unfashionable mistakes. That was how it was supposed to work, but she kept jamming the machine: The more stories broke about “bad” things she did, the more people seemed to double down in her favor. She somehow got people to identify against their own consumption patterns and understand that she was a person being treated like a celebrity—a person just like them, even though she was nothing like them. She used the media to mobilize public sentiment against it.
My new hypothesis is that “getting” Diana requires having been taken in by the fairy-tale version first; it’s only a shock that Diana turned out to be human if you were conditioned to see her as something else. In fact, that rupture might have made a public voracious for Diana content more skeptical about subsequent media narratives that circulated about her. Watching Corrin’s version of Diana, I see now how affecting it would be to see a person that trapped—especially when you watched her wedding and thought she was living the dream!—grow up and insist on her right to disclose her troubles and her right to a good time, all while still appearing vulnerable and even somewhat introspective. The object of a fairy tale at first, she smashed it. Maybe she showed a public awash in their own sad or spoiled or vexed marriages that fairy tales don’t really work—for anybody, including royalty. And so maybe a story about success became a story about resilience—about someone chasing happiness instead of someone who’d achieved it. People were rooting for a woman who escaped the falsity of a royal “happily ever after” to embark on a happy new beginning on her own terms, and then she died.
I watched another Diana documentary after watching The Crown: Diana: In Her Own Words, which includes some of the private tapes she made with her voice coach. The taped conversations were intimate in ways her public interviews would never be, and I suppose it’s not surprising that they were moving to me in ways none of her public appearances were. I don’t know if this Diana was the “authentic” one, but it’s one layer closer, with a princess under less pressure to calibrate her disclosures. She’s sadder and has fewer animosities to indulge. I still don’t think much of the monarchy. But thanks to The Crown, I see how far Diana had to travel to get to the jaded unhappy point at which I first became aware of her, and why people love the whole complicated story she came to represent, even if I still don’t.