Why the Princess was televised

Aima Khosa muses on the public image and global media obsession around Diana, Princess of Wales

It is the 20th death anniversary of Diana, Princess of Wales, and one can see from all the documentaries, articles and books on her life that a concerted attempt is being all over the world to consolidate her legacy and to historicise her for the new generation on this occasion.

I, too, watched a documentary produced for this purpose on Netflix last weekend; a two-part series titled The Story of Diana. As image after image of the beautiful Lady Diana in stunning ensembles flashed across the scene, I wondered what really was her legacy and what concrete lessons we could take from studying her extensively-covered life – especially from my own perspective: a 21st century one, moulded by feminism amongst other things.

One of the most important points that I took from the Netflix documentary, at any rate, was that the hysterical media coverage of every little detail of Diana’s life – especially in a Paparazzi context – coincided with the rise of cable news networks and live coverage all over the world.

For instance, some contemporaries in the documentary say that Diana brought to the British public the image of a modern woman in the house of a decadent old monarchy. “The People’s Princess,” and “The Queen of Hearts,” were, to be sure, natural epithets to use for her youthful personality which blossomed in the public eye over the course of two decades.

Yet, in Diana’s story, the promise of modernity to women is tragically missing. Instead, one can easily spot the way capitalism and patriarchy structured her life and dictated the terms of her existence. She was born into British nobility and after leading a sheltered life, she burst into the public domain when a photographer, who had sniffed out her name as the debutante that Prince Charles was courting, visited her at the school nursery where she worked. Here, he asked her to pose for some photographs. The published image showed the sunlight pouring through her translucent skirt, highlighting the curves of her thighs as she straddled two children on each of her hips. It was the image of a wholesome young woman, ripe with the promise a new life for the crown when it was deeply unpopular with the British public. It was an instant hit and it was at this very moment that media’s obsession with her was born.
And this is precisely what was so jolting about Diana's death: it was a ghastly reminder that there are no fairytales and happily-ever-afters

Diana’s life cannot be studied in isolation from other economic and social events of the time. As she rose in the public eye, so did Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of Neoliberalism. And so did the Page 3 Girls of British tabloids.

Once, in London, I was sitting next to an Associated Press photographer on the Tube. We struck up a conversation over a news item in an evening daily that I had picked up. At some point, I asked him why the British media had obsessed over Princess Diana so much. “But who wants to read about unemployment and healthcare when there are pictures of beautiful women in beautiful dresses?”

The image of Diana was used like fodder and everyone participating in this process knew what they were doing. This includes editors of British tabloids like The Sun who invented entirely new ways of gathering news, which included stalking and bribery. It included the British public, which consumed Diana’s images without any regard for where they came from and how they were obtained. And this unfortunate process also included the monarchy and the royal family who perpetuated a stifling culture. And finally, this included both Diana and Charles.

Their love story, in simple terms, is about a 19-year-old young girl who falls in love with a prince. Although she may have been genuinely in love, the prince was more pragmatic and looking to find a young woman with an unblemished character and a decent lineage as his queen. His heart belonged to someone else, a woman who was forbidden to him by society and he envisioned a loveless life with the woman he was going to marry. All of Diana’s life was reduced to her marriage with Charles – everything else revolved around it.

And so, to me at least, it is ironic at times to see a woman with such little control over her life, being hailed as a champion for empowerment. Of course, she eventually ended the unhappy marriage and found a way to contribute to society on her own terms. “I get a lot of media attention and I want to divert it towards things which can actually help people,” she said, and this was her greatest strength: the ability to engage media attention for causes and charities.

While Diana lived, her presence was felt in many parts of the world. She travelled widely and left an enduring footprint in these places. People from the most unlikely places and circumstances have found comfort in her memory. Students of Kinnaird College, which is my alma mater, proudly boast of Diana’s visit to the campus on Jail Road back in 1996. Many girls have beamed with joy when they were told that the princess walked down the same path that they trudge on every day. Similarly, many old residents of Model Town are able to point out the family home of Dr. Hasnat Khan, where reportedly Diana came for a dinner hoping to woo his family.

The word ‘fairytale’ has been consistently used by her contemporaries to describe the events of Diana’s life since Prince Charles began courting her. ‘The fairytale wedding’ and ‘the fairytale dress’ of ‘the fairy tale princess,’ have been regurgitated ad nauseam. And this is precisely what was so jolting about Diana’s death: it was a ghastly reminder that there are no fairytales and happily-ever-afters.

By a strange coincidence, I once found myself at the epicenter of this tragedy, in Paris. It was the 29th of April, 2011. I was a student in Paris and was preparing to cross the Seine via the Pont de l’Alma in the 8th arrondissement, to reach the 7th – where my university campus was. I noticed dozens of cameras at the Flame of Liberty, a full-sized, gold-leaf-covered replica of the flame carried by the Statue of Liberty in New York City. As I watched, people brought flowers to the spot and bowed their head as if in prayer.

“What is going on?” I asked my friend Monik, who lived close by and who was walking with me to campus.

“Oh it is William and Kate’s wedding today!” she said.

“So?” I asked. “Why are they gathering here?”

Monik looked at me with incredulity. “Don’t you know? Diana died in the underpass below this statue. She literally died underneath it. Since then, this spot has served as an informal memorial to her. People are gathering here to send her prayers and to wish her son well as he gets married.”

“And so the cycle continues – with a better adjusted royal consort for the future?” I found myself wondering…

The author works as an editor for Vanguard Books and tweets at @aimamk