My obsession with the royal family began with The Crown. Watching the perfection that is Claire Foy in Seasons 1 and 2, I felt like I finally understood their cultural essentiality—plus, I could practice my uber-posh accent while I watched. I was pretty comfortable with my vague sympathy for Queen Elizabeth as well as my general irritation with the rest of the family, until the most recent season led me down a completely different rabbit hole with new implications.
That rabbit hole had everything to do with the life of the former Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, who appears for the first time in Season 4. Even 23 years after her death, I still felt close to her story and yearned for more. Maybe it’s because I love to watch an underdog succeed against all odds. Or it could have been her fashion sense, her side-eyed smile. But maybe it’s the fact that her life was a tragedy.
By that, I don’t mean that Diana’s entire life and career as Princess was a failure—but I do notice that society can’t help but lean in when we see a woman in turmoil. Would we honestly still be talking about her if that fateful day in 1997 hadn’t occurred? There are countless things we could point to as the reasons for why we’re still entranced by Diana Spencer, but I think that we’re afraid to look one particular reason in the face: plainly put, we are intrigued by her suffering.
This conversation can’t truly begin without acknowledging the ways in which Diana’s life embodies the role that has been predestined for women in Western society. In Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking existential feminist study, The Second Sex, she explains, “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.” In other words, the aesthetics of womanhood that we often unconsciously propagate have been drawn in the image of men, and our existence as women is based on our relationship to the patriarchy.
While Diana was a groundbreaking member of the royal family, she certainly did not become a sensation because of the autonomy that was given to her. The expectations of her as the young, fresh-faced Princess of Wales were, of course, established by the highly concentrated container of antiquated patriarchy that is the royal family.
Diana gained relevance due to Prince Charles: once their union was even remotely hinted at in the public sphere, her womanhood became defined by her prospective marriage. She was pressured by both royals and the public as to what femininity should look like, all under the guise of being a relatable commoner turned royal. The thing is, regardless of whether we were in on it or not, this process of reconfiguration would have happened behind the scenes. The difference for Diana was that her proximity to the everyday world gave everyone else access to that process, too.
What happens when we are given full accessibility to a public-facing woman? We learn the language of defining people in relation to the masculine, and we practice on said woman herself. The Diana that was so loved wasn’t an individual acting of her own accord, but a vector onto which everyone else’s expectations, hopes, dreams, and disappointments were projected. As Beauvoir suggests, we need women to become canvases so that the power structures of patriarchy can remain stable: “No man would consent to being a woman, but all want there to be women.”
We have an inherent expectation for women to reach the highest highs and the lowest lows of being a human being, and we expect nothing less. I’ll admit that the first time I started to truly investigate why I was so fascinated by Diana’s life—and why everyone else seemed to be, too—was when I heard about the upcoming film Spencer starring Kristen Stewart. Seeing the image of Stewart in a full Diana getup didn’t sit right with me. It felt like proof that the very real person that had been Diana Spencer was somehow becoming a female Hamlet—a person that all young actresses with the right hair and body type could take a stab at once they felt they were ready. And just like Hamlet, the impressive part of being able to put on the costume of Diana’s life is being able to handle the tragedy of it.
In an interview with InStyle, Stewart said, “It’s one of the saddest stories to exist ever, and I don’t want to just play Diana—I want to know her implicitly.”
Once we have gone through the process of attaching to a woman like Diana, I think there comes a point when we all “want to know her implicitly.” The voyeurism involved in doing so almost feels invited because of how close we are able to get to what seems like the real her. Stewart’s comments show us that it’s easy to simultaneously acknowledge how sad her story is while still wanting to know absolutely everything about her. But we must acknowledge that the hunger for that information does not equal entitlement to it. When we allow ourselves to feel beholden to every detail about a stranger, it’s important to question why that is and where that access came from. I’m uncomfortable with the way that I was able to attach myself to Diana, and it wasn’t until I fully investigated where that impulse came from that I understood the ways that male-centered media and language had packaged her for my consumption.
I ultimately don’t believe there’s anything wrong with pursuing a Diana obsession if you have it. Watch The Crown, and watch Diana: In Her Own Words, but do not forget to think about the parts of her that have been conveniently removed from the collective consciousness—those parts that we never should be allowed to intimately know. There will always be unanswered questions about her life, and there will always be people trying to answer them in different ways, but we don’t need to look for catharsis through the hardships of women—whether or not they are Princess Diana.
By Mya Ison