Why Are We Still Talking about Princess Diana 25 Years after Her Death?
She is one of a “long line of wronged women who continue to haunt, inspire, and motivate the public,” BU historian Arianne Chernock says
Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was killed at age 36 in a high-speed car crash in Paris after being chased by paparazzi. Her death unleashed an outpouring of grief, and her funeral at Westminster Abbey drew a television audience of 2.5 billion people.
Diana was just 20 when she married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in 1981. Their marriage ended 15 years later in an acrimonious divorce, following charges of infidelity by both. After a messy divorce, Diana became estranged from the royal family.
Throughout her life, Diana was a devoted mother to her sons, William and Harry, and a lifelong advocate for children, AIDS-related causes, and victims of landmines. Hailed as the “people’s princess,” she is also credited with helping to modernize the monarchy.
A quarter century after her death, she is as much a fixture in popular culture as she was during her lifetime. In just the last year, she’s been the subject of an Oscar-nominated film (Spencer starring Kristen Stewart as Diana), a Broadway musical (Diana), a TV miniseries (season four of The Crown), and most recently, an HBO documentary, The Princess.
“One of the picture’s final images is of a young Prince Harry at his mother’s funeral; the pain in his eyes is moving,” a New York Times review of the documentary says. “But it indirectly reminds us that Diana’s life and death have taught the world precisely nothing.”
BU Today talked to Arianne Chernock, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and an expert on modern British and European history, especially gender, culture, politics, and the monarchy, about Diana’s legacy and the ongoing fascination with her life. Chernock is currently at work on a book about women’s responses to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, and what they believed it would mean for their place in society.
With Arianne Chernock
BU Today: Before her death, Princess Diana was hailed for bringing a realness to the Windsors. What was it about her that captivated the public and continues to do so today?
Chernock: I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the lead-up to the anniversary of her death, thinking about why we continue to be fascinated by her and what was specific about her that made her such a focal point for attention. And there are aspects of her as an individual that are really central to this story: the fact that she wore so many hats, was a humanitarian. She was a young woman very much living her life and growing up in the public eye. She was a concerned mother, a fashionista, there were so many aspects to her that fueled a media frenzy, a curiosity about her. She was someone who was very proud to admit to her mistakes and to reveal the messiness of her life in a way that was quite distinct from some of the other royals, who tend to be much more scripted.
BU Today: In a recent essay you wrote for Cognoscenti, you said that we tend to think about queens and princesses when we process womanhood, that they become screens onto which we project our beliefs about women’s worth. Can you talk about that?
Chernock: I think we can focus on the specifics of Diana as a person, as a tragic figure. But we sometimes forget the larger pattern that she fits into, and I think it’s really important to put her back in the [context] of royal British history, where she is one of a long line of wronged women who continue to haunt, inspire, and motivate the public to be curious about them. So we can think about why we continue to be fascinated by Diana, and also we have to think about why a musical like Six would be on Broadway now, and that’s not about Diana. Maybe Anne Boleyn doesn’t quite sell copies of People, but in her own time and for centuries after, Anne Boleyn continued to [have a similar effect].
BU Today: Does Gen Z know and care about Diana the same way as those who grew up watching her?
Chernock: Many young people were not alive in 1997, but they see her life playing out through William, Harry, and their wives, and all of those dynamics. Both William and Harry have made Diana so central to their stories, whether it’s on a symbolic level or in terms of projects they take on, their attitudes towards the media. It’s hard to not think about Diana when you look at the choices they and their partners are making.
BU Today: Do you think in our #MeToo era, there is a certain “wokeness” around Diana? If she was alive today, do you think there would have been a concern and sympathy surrounding the way she was hounded by the media and her struggles with mental health?
Chernock: I think it would be a very different narrative. But I don’t want to say entirely differently, because look at the challenges Meghan Markle [Prince Harry’s wife], for example, has faced in trying to give brutally honest answers to press inquiries. We need to place Diana in this broader history, or broader context, and part of it is seeing the continued misogyny that’s expressed in different ways.