Princess Diana in real life and Emma Corrin as Diana in “The Crown”. Photo: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images and Des Willies via Netflix. Image: Sam Boxer
Spencer. The crown. Diane the musical. Diana: queen of style. All TV and movie 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 a must see this year. Between the actresses who play the role of her and her son in the news for having followed in her mother’s footsteps and breaking the royal tradition, the conditions were ripe for a year of worship for Diana. After all, 2021 has been another odd and existentially threatening year; it is not surprising that we have drawn cultural inspiration from another era in the past.
Placing Diana on a pedestal – despite having been dead for almost a quarter of a century – encompasses a lot about how film and television culture works today: our new way of moralizing that often leads to the same old results, our love of reboots, and, in the case of Diane the musical, our insistence on doing absolutely everything that looks great on a “out of context” Twitter account, but probably not elsewhere.
She makes the perfect subject for 2021 – both familiar and beloved, with distinctive personality and ways (see: this look), and the star of her fair share of culture-dominating moments, many of which are ripe for reenactment, like the ‘revenge dress’ incident just filmed by Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki for the upcoming series of The crown.
But, crucially and tragically, Diana is also frozen in time. We don’t know who or what she might become by 2021. She may have stood out from the rest of the Royal Family by her tolerance and acceptance, suggesting that she would have progressed with time if she had. lived, but she also did not have time to tell us with certainty, or, on the other hand, to make mistakes that would be deemed worthy of cancellation according to the standards of the very culture which currently exalts her. .
This means that we can turn it into whatever we want, within the parameters of a myth whose beats we already know by heart. In The crown, she is a sympathetic vehicle for Republican viewers’ distaste for the monarchy; an avatar for society’s treatment of famous and imperfect women in Spencer; and in contemporary fashion, she’s a retro style queen – little ‘q’ – whose fashion sense can be yours for £ 280, brought back in force by the Rowing Blazers brand in recent months (the Style queen Channel 4 documentary called her “the ultimate influencer”).
The Cult of Diana also exemplifies Hollywood’s current obsession with remakes and reboots – the dominant narrative in our narrative, with little getting off the spiral. We see it in the constant redesigns of superhero franchises and self-referential banter in the place of any consistent statement in the world’s greatest cinematic property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s in the “origin stories” of characters that very few people cared about in the first place – Cruel, the next Wonka – and, increasingly, in the real-life stories requisitioned by movie studios, TV channels and streaming platforms vying for the most clickable content. After all, there are only a limited number of fictional villains to humanize, and they were already scratching the barrel with ratchet.
Two of the biggest box office films currently feature tales of actual events – king richard, which stars Will Smith and tells the story of the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and Gucci House, with Lady Gaga as Lady Gaga playing the real killer Patrizia Reggiani – on television, The crown and american crime story are the first examples of how real stories can be turned into audience success, in large part thanks to the novelty of the star cast.
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 Invent Anna) and the leak in 1995 of the sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee (Pam and Tommy from Hulu). While biopics and TV based on true stories aren’t new, the number of outlets creating content has exploded in recent years. That makes them a lucrative bait for the Oscars and Emmy, given how audiences love to see famous actors transform into characters they already know. It also means that more and more real-life events become content, often with less and less time between current events and the glossy series or the processing of the film on our screens.
The biggest problem with this is that these shows quickly become stereotypical and boring. We know how most of these things end, after all, and a lot of their talking points boil down to gimmicks and new perspectives they offer on what might otherwise be received wisdom.
Sometimes it can be worth it. In the case of The crownit is useful to remember Diana’s suffering at the hands of the British press and the royal family, especially in light of events of recent years (Megxit; long-standing questions about Prince Andrew’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein , etc.).
Other times, as with Spencerthe brutal use of the Anne Boleyn motif, it seems disbelieving, actively removing any sense of the real person and instead contributing to the suggestion that they are just a container for any story that needs to be told on this day, by those people. And it gets even more complex when your titular protagonist is still alive – in the case of Pam and TommyAnderson herself has expressed her dissatisfaction with the project despite her alleged feminist-leaning claim of its public shame.
This is the kind of situation that Princess Diana has faced in her own life: a fascinated medium that projected both positivity and hate upon her, an audience that idolized her, awe that loomed over her. ‘almost imprisoned. I’m not really saying this to express sympathy, necessarily, although it is clear that she was a kind and troubled person, crushed by forces much more powerful than her – but rather to ask how much the filtering steadfastness of her life through ingenuous actresses and prestige scripts is so different to the treatment she received during her lifetime.
And so, our year of “Reclaiming Diana” didn’t end up feeling as noble as it originally might have seemed. What did we get it for? And, perhaps most importantly, was it even up to us to recover in the first place?