Halloween took place the week before the UK release of Spencer, the drama of Pablo Larrain focusing on a weekend in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. As I scoured social media to live vicariously through people who attended parties and actually celebrated the day, I saw a lot of people dressed up as Diana. There have been some pretty impressive attempts at her meringue wedding dress. But above all, what I saw were “normal” Diana costumes: relaxed Diana in cycling shorts, a loose sweatshirt with a logo on the chest, sassy sunglasses and a handbag. brand. Lots of Instagramers were copying this paparazzi image of Diana rummaging through her bag while clinging to her keys with her mouth. It was the Diana the Internet had clung to: the devoid of all royal pageantry that was becoming somewhat commonplace, or, at the very least, could choose her own clothes. If this iconic little black dress is the outfit that earned her the label, these moments of relaxed Diana rejecting the constraints of her noble occupation are just as much a moment of revenge.
Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, never left after her tragic death in 1997. She is as pervasive in her afterlife as she was when she was the most photographed woman on the planet. Yet there has been a noticeable increase in its cultural footprint over the past two years. Her long-awaited appearance in Netflix’s royal drama The crown brought the show some of its strongest criticisms and a wave of false scandals from the UK press. Spencer sent Kristen Stewart to the top of this year’s list of potential Oscar contenders for Best Actress thanks to her best career tour as a princess at a time of crisis. There’s also a really terrible Broadway musical currently airing on Netflix for those of us who wanted to know what would happen if Hamilton were all white and insanely stupid. The thirst for royal stories devoid of royalist pimping and the conservative illusion of ‘tradition’ (not to mention all things Meghan Markle) seem to have inspired these often damning responses to the tale we’ve heard so many times before.
Any project related to Diana could be accompanied by the subtitle “F ** k Tradition”. All of these stories have, at their heart, the conflict between an archaic institution and the struggles of a stranger brought into the fold. It’s quite surprising how strongly we hold onto the fairytale princess narrative in 2021, especially after the way Markle was treated as well as women like those in the Japanese Imperial Family. Even now, the UK press likes to play Kate Middleton’s tale of the ‘ordinary girl turned future queen’ and drool over every minor member of the nobility finding a woman who looks good in a tiara. The supposed ruggedness of the royal family, that family designed to unify a tormented nation and act as a safe harbor in storms, turns out to be just a string of shoddy theatrics. In addition, as The crown spent several seasons establishing, they are freaky fucking king. It is disconcerting that such an institution still exists, but even more so that people raised in such absurd circumstances can hope to be anything other than completely disconnected from those they are meant to represent. Diana’s relative normality by comparison – she describes herself in Spencer like a nice middle class girl who likes the simple things – can’t help but feel crucial.
There has been a recent cultural assessment of the “difficult women” in history, although in this case the emphasis is more on combating an institutional decay that has made a 19 year old a sacrificial lamb. . We reconsider the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, etc., but with Diana, our re-examination of the past seems more biased. Her death had already forced us to come to terms with the pain she suffered, often at the hands of a brutal press who quickly claimed not to be complicit in her trauma after years of chasing her with cameras. Death provides a curious blur of history, and soon Diana was a saint, which didn’t seem to be particularly fair or honest in the face of the abrasiveness of her life and struggles. Perhaps that’s what’s different about the current revival of pop culture: it cares more about the person than the image or how it is projected onto us.
So who is the person? Can we really know the unknowable? The biopic genre is built on the implicit promise to the audience to receive answers. The celebs they idolized will be given the ultimate armchair psychology session, and be broken down into easy-to-digest chunks that offer immediate closure before the end credits. The formula is so worn out that it is now parody. Diana’s terrible musical tries that out, with an exposure so awkward that it’s surprising you can’t hear literal noises among the orchestra. For me, this is one of the great weaknesses of the genre, this desperation to tie all the ends of reality to the borders of fiction.
Surprisingly, Spencer do not do that. The sharpness of the resolution didn’t matter when the pain was so obvious. Larrain turns the film like a horror at times, with bursts of jarring jazz music from Jonny Greenwood and the omnipresent eyes of the staff bringing home the claustrophobic nightmare of royal life. You don’t need straightforward answers when presented with this sort of mood piece, one more intrigued by sentiment than a Wikipedia-style list of facts. As The crown, Spencer is intrigued by the hypocrisy of Diana’s fairytale tale, the lie agreed upon by the Windsor clan and the nation as a whole. There is something slightly disabled every moment of the film: these iconic outfits are just different enough from what we remember to arouse suspicion; we feel the thrill of the rarely well heated castle in a way that turns the magic of the place into the maddening; the rest of the royal family is rarely seen, let alone heard, a collection of dusty waxes that only exist to despise. Or The crown obsessed with recreating densely reported details, Spencer is more concerned with altering the protective luster of this fairytale propaganda.
There is something about Diana that has made her a unifying figure in an extremely rare way in pop culture. She is as beloved by liberals as by conservatives, a gay icon obsessed with Daily Express readers. Both royalists and republicans claim her as one of their own. To me it’s true that it’s biased as hell, but I find it hard to watch this bunch of Diana stories and not immediately start shouting “abolish the monarchy” into the void because even the most pro-Windsor narrative cannot completely rewrite the past. That’s part of what makes this period of pop culture revenge so appealing to Diana: it clearly changed a lot of perspectives on The Firm, and not for the better. Prince Charles has spent over 20 years working to rehabilitate his post-divorce image and everything was called off by the time Emma Corrin arrived The crown. Can it last long enough to make an impact or does the royalist media monster continue as if nothing had happened? I guess the latter, to be honest, because those contradictory and stifling traditions that Diana’s tales so skillfully dismantle are endlessly fetishized by those with the biggest platforms.
Yet Diana’s story will endure. How could he not? The alternative seems so horrible. Why be a princess when you can be a person?
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Source of header image: Neon