Princess Diana’s Return to the Pop Culture Spotlight

Despite the best efforts of the Royal Family, there’s no escaping the spectre of Princess Diana in the United Kingdom. She remains an enduring figure in the national school curriculum, mass-produced memorabilia is readily available in any souvenir shop, and when The Firm turned on Meghan Markle after her marriage to Prince Harry, plenty of observers were quick to point out the similarities between her ostracizing and the treatment of Lady Diana Spencer once she was no longer useful to the crown. In the past few years, Diana’s popularity has skyrocketed in the rest of the world, influencing popular culture perhaps even more than she did during her lifetime. Visible across film, fashion, and television, rarely a day goes by without her name appearing in headlines, more than two decades after her death. 

The renewed interest in Diana was first noticeable in 2017, when her sons William and Harry commissioned not one but two documentaries to celebrate her life on the 20th anniversary of her death. Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy and Diana, 7 Days were both broadcast that August, and received widespread acclaim for focusing on the perspective of her sons and how her sudden death in 1997 impacted British culture. A month later, fashion wunderkind Virgil Abloh debuted Off-White’s spring 2018 collection, which was clearly inspired by the wardrobe of the late princess. “Princess Diana is a role model for women of our time … I wanted to keep her name and legacy in the zeitgeist,” Abloh told The Guardian.

The following year, Prince Harry’s marriage to Markle drew the ire of the British tabloids (curiously even more than revelations surrounding Prince Andrew’s close friendship with elite sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein). Hounded by the press and subject to constant criticism (of which racism played a substantial part), in January 2020 Meghan and Harry announced their retirement from royal duties and moved to America — something Diana herself considered following her divorce from Prince Charles. The vilification of Markle by the press has been compared to its treatment of Diana. Given the context of Diana’s death, in which her car crashed while it was trying to evade paparazzi in Paris, it’s easy to understand why Meghan and Harry might opt for a simpler life across the Atlantic. 

Perhaps the current non-British obsession with the royals more generally is a side effect of Netflix’s glossy drama series The Crown, a longform biography of Queen Elizabeth which premiered in 2016 and has consistently drawn critical acclaim, public buzz, and awards recognition. By November 2020, the series’ storyline had reached the 1970s, with newcomer Emma Corrin as a roller-skating, ABBA-loving young Lady Diana and (somewhat generously) indie darling Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. Corrin’s uncanny resemblance to Diana aside, The Crown plays up the young royal’s growing sense of unease and isolation, as well as the stark difference between her and the family she married into. Corrin won a Golden Globe for her performance.

Emma Corrin as Diana Spencer in The Crown (image courtesy Netflix)

While The Crown’s fourth season was the toast of television, two designer sweaters became must-have pieces for pop-culture-savvy fashionistas: a wool number with a black sheep motif and a salmon-pink top with “I’M A LUXURY … FEW CAN AFFORD” emblazoned across the chest and back. Originally created by two now-defunct companies, Warm & Wonderful and Gyles & George, the designs gained popularity in the 1980s after being worn by Princess Diana. Almost 30 years later, US brand Rowing Blazers capitalized on her renewed popularity among Millennials and Gen-z’ers by licensing the designs. Priced at $300 each, the sweaters have sold out for months at a time, as customers sought to embody the effortless sports-luxe Sloane Ranger style of the People’s Princess. That trend endures, with lifestyle brands Sleeper and Anthropologie both releasing Diana-inspired collections in the past month alone.

The world’s love affair with Spencer shows no sign of abating, with three separate projects about her debuting between this September and November. The first came at the Venice Film Festival, when Pablo Larraín’s hotly anticipated biopic Spencer premiered, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana and hoping for a better critical reception than Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana (starring Naomi Watts) received in 2013. Taking place over a four-day period in 1991, the film covers a fraught Christmas at the royal Sandringham estate, where Diana is met by her frosty in-laws and begins to unravel under the scrutiny of Queen and Country. 

Spencer is not a flattering portrayal for anyone involved. While the royals are perhaps appropriately haughty, Diana is reduced to a terrified caricature, flitting around the palace with tears constantly in her eyes. The influence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is obvious and interesting, but the film has no interest in Diana as anything other than a tragic heroine whose fate was apparently written in the stars. It’s insultingly simplistic, and its attempts to grapple with Diana’s well-documented struggles with bulimia with self-harm end up leaving her devoid of agency or strength. Stewart’s accent work is unconvincing, while Johnny Greenwood’s jazz-inspired score feels intrusive in moments of purported emotional crisis. But the most mawkish element of Steven Knight’s script is the comparison he draws between Spencer and Anne Boleyn, going as far as to include Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a recurring visual. Allusions to Diana’s eventual death are present too, with the princess speeding in her sports car down winding roads. There’s even a nod to the long-enduring conspiracy theory that Diana’s death was orchestrated by the Royal Family, which feels particularly en vogue given how popular such ideas are on social media.

But Spencer is not the worst recent depiction of Diana. That dubious honor belongs to Diana: The Musical, which is slated to finally open on Broadway after a long COVID delay. You don’t have to go to NYC to see it, though; a filmed version of the play hit Netflix on October 1. With a breakneck pace, performances so hammy they should be sitting on a butcher’s counter, and awful songs (a standout line: “Harry, my ginger-haired son / you’ll always be second to none”), the show attempts to chart Diana’s life from her first meeting with Charles until her death. It feels like a satire of bad biographies, but alas, it is hauntingly sincere. 

Jeanna de Waal as Diana and Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles in Diana: The Musical (2021), dir. Christopher Ashley (image courtesy Netflix)

Meanwhile, CNN’s six-part nonfiction series Diana offers perhaps the most granular take, attempting a more objective approach. The miniseries relies on a range of contributors (including Diana’s friends) and sources to show her both as a person and as an enduring cultural figure, examining her life, her role as a mother, and her activism. It has more nuance than the fictional portrayals, though it lacks their glamour. It’s also worth noting that CNN marketed the documentary to the press by sending out PR packages containing those $300 replica sweaters, well aware that Diana’s cultural currency is at an all-time high.

Kristen Stewart is the current favorite for the 2022 Best Actress Oscar. There’s a long line of performers who used biopics to gain the gold. Often it feels as though recognizability and affection for a public figure have more influence on these accolades than actual performance quality. (Case in point: Rami Malek’s many wins for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.) But even beyond the brief lifespan of an awards season, it’s clear that Diana’s posthumous framing as a rebel against the establishment with an undercurrent of feminine fragility resonates — even among those who weren’t old enough to witness her dancing to “Uptown Girl” at the Royal Ballet Gala or see the “revenge dress” the first time around. This might be a glaring oversimplification of the woman herself (she was born into aristocracy, and according to friends nowhere near as meek as many portraits would have us believe), but when has the truth ever gotten in the way of a good story?

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