Spencer. The Crown. Diana the Musical. Diana: Queen of Style. All TV and film properties that suggest the same thing: One of the most influential cultural figures of late 2020 and 2021 was a woman who died in 1997.
Princess Diana was inescapable this year. Between actresses taking award-contending turns as her, and her son in the news for following in his mother’s footsteps and breaking royal tradition, the conditions have been ripe for a year of Diana worship. After all, 2021 has been another strange, existentially threatening 12 months; it’s unsurprising that we’d reach into the past for cultural inspiration from a different time.
Diana’s placement on a pedestal – despite being dead for almost a quarter of a century – encompasses many things about how film and TV culture works today: our new way of moralising that often ends up with the same old results, our love of reboots, and, in the case of Diana the Musical, our insistence on making absolutely anything that will look good on an “outofcontext” Twitter account, but probably not elsewhere.
She makes for the perfect 2021 subject – both familiar and beloved, with a distinctive personality and mannerisms (see: that look), and the star of her fair share of culture-dominating moments, many of which are ripe for the reenactment, like the “revenge dress” incident only just filmed by Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki for the next series of The Crown.
But, crucially and tragically, Diana is also frozen in time. We don’t know who or what she might have become by 2021. She may have distinguished herself from the rest of the Royal Family through her tolerance and acceptance, suggesting she’d have progressed along with the times had she lived, but she also had no time to tell us for sure, or, on the other hand, to make mistakes that would be deemed cancellation-worthy by the standards of the very culture that currently exalts her.
That means we can turn her into whatever we wish, within the parameters of a myth that we already know the beats of by heart. In The Crown, she’s a sympathetic vehicle for republican viewers’ distaste for the monarchy; an avatar for society’s treatment of famous, flawed women in Spencer; and in contemporary fashion, she is a throwback style queen – small “q” – whose fashion sense can be yours for £280, brought back with a vengeance by the brand Rowing Blazers in recent months (the Queen of Style documentary on Channel 4 called her “the ultimate influencer”).
Diana worship also exemplifies Hollywood’s current obsession with remakes and reboots – the dominant narrative of our narrative, with little way out of the spiral. We see this in the constant re-dos of superhero franchises, and in the self-referential quips in place of any coherent statement in the world’s largest movie property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s in “origin stories” of characters that very few people cared about in the first place – Cruella, the upcoming Wonka – and, more and more, in the real-life narratives commandeered by movie studios, TV channels and streaming platforms vying for the clickiest content. After all, there are only so many fictional villains to be humanised, and they were already scraping the barrel with Ratched.
Two of the biggest box office movies right now feature retellings of real events – King Richard, which stars Will Smith and tells the story of the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and House of Gucci, with Lady Gaga as Lady Gaga playing real-life killer Patrizia Reggiani – while on TV, The Crown and American Crime Story are early examples of how real stories can be turned into ratings success, largely via the novelty of star casting.
In the first few months of next year, we can expect to see TV shows based on the 2018 Anna Delvey fraud scandal (Netflix and Shondaland’s Inventing Anna) and the 1995 leak of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape (Pam and Tommy from Hulu). While biopics and TV based on true stories are nothing new, the sheer number of outlets creating content has ballooned over recent years. This makes for lucrative Oscar and Emmy bait, given how much audiences love to see famous actors transforming into characters they already know. It also means that more and more real-life events are becoming content, often with less and less time elided between the events being in the news and the glossy series or film treatment on our screens.
The most important issue with this is that these shows quickly become formulaic and boring. We know how most of this stuff ends, after all, and many of their talking points come down to gimmickry, and the new perspectives they provide on what might otherwise be received wisdom.
Sometimes this can be worthwhile. In the case of The Crown, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of Diana’s suffering at the hands of the British press and the Royal Family, particularly in light of the events of the last few years (Megxit; long-standing questions over Prince Andrew’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, etc).
Other times, as with Spencer’s heavy-handed use of the Anne Boleyn motif, it feels incredulous, actively taking away from any sense of the real person and instead contributing to the suggestion that they are merely a vessel for whatever story needs to be told that day, by those people. And it gets even more complex when your titular protagonist still happens to be alive – in the case of Pam and Tommy, Anderson herself has expressed her unhappiness with the project in spite of its supposedly feminist-leaning reclamation of her public shaming.
It’s the kind of the situation Princess Diana faced in her own life: a fascinated media that projected both positivity and hate on to her, a public who idolised her, the admiration all but imprisoning her. I’m not saying this really to express sympathy, necessarily, though it’s clear she was a kind, troubled person crushed by forces much more powerful than herself – but more to ask how constantly filtering her life through ingénue actresses and prestige scripts is so different to the treatment she received while she was alive.
And so, our year of “reclaiming Diana” doesn’t end up feeling quite as noble as it might have originally seemed. To what end have we reclaimed her? And, perhaps most importantly, was she even ours to reclaim in the first place?