All the recent press and TV coverage remembering the death of Princess Diana 20 years ago led me to dig up a column I wrote a few days after her fatal accident. It appeared in the West County News, a small but sturdy weekly newspaper based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, on September 5, 1997. I have edited it slightly.
Like media watchers all over the world, I spent much of this past weekend glued to my television set, trying to figure out what I and others thought about the fatally photogenic woman who used to be married to the Prince of Wales. Although I never had much interest in her when she was alive—except perhaps to envy her for getting her face on a biscuit tin (see above)—I find that Princess Diana’s death has fascinated me.
At first glance, the famous, regal Diana doesn’t seem like a natural topic for an essay in the West County News. Royalty doesn’t visit our quiet country towns very often. Nevertheless, most little girls—even little girls from rural western Massachusetts—have at one time or another wanted to marry a prince. Diana’s life choices, therefore, offer a lesson to us all, even to me.
Actually, I personally never really wanted to marry a prince. When I was small I did, however, cherish a burning ambition to become our nation’s first lady. This aspiration stemmed in part from my family’s reverence for Eleanor Roosevelt, who was rightly viewed in our home as one of the major figures of 20th-century politics and society.
More importantly, looking back, I realize that my desire to act at the White House in a supporting role also came from the sex-role training of my childhood. First ladies didn’t directly seek power; they merely enjoyed influence. They operated in the traditional feminine realms of charity, entertainment, and social issues. And of course they spent a lot of time wearing nice dresses, getting their hair done, and posing for glamorous photos.
I gave up my desire to be first lady a few years ago when I realized that in order to achieve that dream I would have to marry a politician: most of these creatures are supremely unappealing to a girl of taste. Nevertheless, I never completely lost the notion somewhere in the back of my mind that first-ladyhood would be a fun and noble thing to practice.
A bit belatedly for me, since I’m supposed to be a feminist, a look back at Diana’s life has thrown into question the idea of being famous as someone’s adjunct—as a glamorous, supporting figure. To begin with, at any rate, her wifehood was her sole claim to fame, a claim staked through her beauty, youth, and aristocratic connections rather than through any qualities of character. She was definitely not a figure to emulate.
Eventually, the princess turned many of the negatives of her situation around and became more admirable. Elevated to high privilege, she managed to embrace people who were not privileged through her charitable work, using her arbitrary celebrity in a directed, life-affirming way.
Her exposure of her own eating disorder led her to challenge the superficial ideals of beauty and thinness that had in part brought her her crown and her prince—and the attention of the public.
Finally, her divorce from Prince Charles led her to demystify the notion of royalty far more effectively than any speeches by members of Parliament or by pseudo-radicals like me. (At my one and only exposure to royalty, a public appearance by Prince Charles around 1989, I yelled, “Free the Irish!” Nobody paid any attention.)
All of these breakthroughs proved two edged, however. Diana’s charity work was always overshadowed by the personal renown of the woman accomplishing it; she couldn’t expose the unfairness of her exalted station without taking advantage of that station.
Despite her frank discussion of her eating disorder, the princess was still prized above all for her beauty—and clearly reveled in her looks, as a spread in Vanity Fair shortly before her death showed. I have trouble believing that she had conquered her obsession with slenderness when I study recent photographs of an almost painfully thin Diana. At best, then, her message about beauty was mixed.
Finally, even after her divorce from Prince Charles and despite her protests against the stultifying living situation of the British royal family, her royalty remained her base of power. Hailed in obituaries as “the most famous woman in the world,” she was famous mostly for being famous. That skewed fame was, apparently, what killed her.
If Diana’s life and death teach us anything, it is that it is time for all girls and women—from 19-year-old English aristocrats to 30-something New England journalists—to find more healthy ambitions for ourselves than marrying princes and presidents. We must all move beyond the scenarios of fairy tales in planning our lives.
Of course, I’d still love to have my face on a biscuit tin—but I’ll see whether I can do it by being me rather than by marrying someone.