How Princess Diana changed her culture

Why Diana Mattered

Rebel Heart: From shy bride to passionate campaigner, Diana, Princess of Wales didn’t just transform herself—she changed her country

by Catherine Mayer, Time Magazine, August 16, 2007

The British have always been good at silence — at family meals spent wordlessly; intense emotions expressed through a hand on the shoulder — but on Sept. 6, 1997, they surpassed themselves. London, the big, braying capital, was stilled as over a million mourners of Diana, Princess of Wales, kept vigil along the route to Westminster Abbey. The hush amplified the sounds of the cortège as it set out from Kensington Palace: the rumble of wheels on tarmac, the clopping of horses’ hooves, and a bell that tolled at listless intervals. But as the procession came into view, turning out of the palace gates onto the public road, a shriek pierced the morning air: “Diana, my Diana!” and then a despairing wail: “We love you, Diana!” Britain’s customary stoicism had been overwhelmed by raw, unbridled grief. 

It has become commonplace in the decade since Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997, to say that the festival of mourning which culminated in her extraordinary funeral marked a transformation — the moment when the old British virtues of reserve and silent suffering, of “mustn’t grumble” and “could be worse,” gave way to publicly expressed catharsis. The People’s Princess had unlocked hearts, reordered values, presided at the triumph of emotional intelligence over cold intellect, of compassion over tradition. 

The truth is harder to pin down, as tricky as the Princess herself could be. If Diana mattered, her significance rests in a series of interlocking social and political revolutions in a nation with a disproportionate impact on global culture, high and low — revolutions in which she participated, part unwitting catalyst, part canny activist. 

This October will see the resumption of the inquest into her death by the British courts, the third inquiry to examine her fatal car crash in Paris. But even before these proceedings are concluded, there is little real doubt that Diana’s death was precisely what it seemed to be at the time: a tragic accident. 

Ten years on, Diana is still the world’s most famous Briton, but many of her own compatriots don’t seem sure if she did much more than wear designer dresses and shift a lot of tabloids. So here are a few incontrovertible facts. Diana shook up the British monarchy and speeded its modernization. She helped to tear down prejudices about AIDS. She raised awareness of eating disorders. She coalesced opposition to land mines. These are pretty hefty achievements for a woman of little education who mocked herself for being “thick as a plank.” Add to these a more dubious accomplishment — her skillful manipulation of media images — and it’s clear why, a decade after her death, Diana remains an inescapable presence in British life: mostly, but not always, benign; a restless and seductive ghost. It’s time to peer into the many corners she still haunts. 

Modernizing the Monarchy 
When 19-year-old Diana asked Charles if he loved her, her churlish fiancé replied “whatever that means.” Yet the Windsors thought they knew about love. It looked like patriotism. It was respectful and waved flags. It didn’t sob on the streets or scream like a teenage girl glimpsing her rock idol. The quiet affection of the British people for Queen Elizabeth II has barely wavered during her 54-year reign. There was a low ebb early in 1998 — Diana’s legacy — but even then the monarch’s popularity rating dipped no lower than 66%. It’s now 85%. 

Of course, there has always been dissent: some 18% of Britons have called for the abolition of the monarchy since MORI, a polling firm, first began gathering opinions on the royals in 1969. That figure seemed as impervious to change as the Queen’s fashion sense. Then Diana died and, for one week, republican numbers swelled. 

The Queen never gives interviews — a wise policy that has helped to preserve the fraying mystique of royalty. But as her subjects wept on the streets and dying flowers carpeted the sidewalks, Elizabeth’s Trappist vow looked either boneheaded or stone-hearted. Dickie Arbiter, a former press secretary to the Queen, Charles and Diana who was responsible for the media arrangements for Diana’s funeral, says it was neither. “The Queen was always going to pay tribute to Diana,” he says, but she planned from the outset to make her broadcast shortly before the funeral. “There was a furor because she was at [the Scottish castle] Balmoral and not down with the sniveling mobs in London. [But] William and Harry needed her more than hundreds and thousands of people keeping Kleenex in business.” 
Yet while the Queen and her immediate family kept their grief to themselves, there was a whiff of revolution beyond the palace gates. The U.S. academic Camille Paglia, speaking two days after the Paris car crash, foretold the fall of the house of Windsor. “With its acquisition of Diana, the monarchy had restored its modernity,” she told Salon.com. “Instead its treatment — its mistreatment — of her … may mean the end of the monarchy.” Not so. As soon as the Queen walked among the mourners, support for ditching her plunged to historic lows. It was as if Britons had peered into the abyss of republicanism and drawn back in horror. The royals had learned a lesson too, says Robert Worcester, MORI’s founder: “The monarchy realized that it stands or falls on public opinion.” That realization has informed a program of stealthy reform that has made the monarchy, by almost imperceptible degrees, more professional. The Queen agreed to change the rules on primogeniture to allow her female descendants equal rights in the succession to the throne. Her children took stock and decided they had better justify their existence to the outside world. 

Granted, their options for doing so are limited. In her charitable work, Diana set a standard that’s hard to equal. She ignored the prevailing prejudices and fears about AIDS to clasp the hands of sufferers, and embraced leprosy patients in Indonesia. Arbiter remembers a visit to a home for the blind where Diana noticed that an old resident was crying: “She asked what was the matter and he said, ‘I can’t see you.’ So she took his hand and put it on her face.” Charles still doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but it’s increasingly evident that it’s in the right place. His Prince’s Trust organization raises a good deal of money for charities helping young people, and he’s gaining respect for his stance on environmental issues, as mainstream thought catches up with views he’s propagated for years. 

In other ways, too, Diana lives on in her family. Charles has visibly stepped up to the task of rearing their boys, not in the model of his own upbringing, but just as the Princess would have wanted. William and Harry see how much happier their father has become. Charles’ visible contentment has also helped to turn around public opinion, once set firmly against Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, his second wife and longtime lover. Just before Diana died, MORI asked in a poll if Camilla should become Queen; only 15% supported the idea. By April of last year, that figure had grown to 38%. Voices in the British press have fulminated at plans for the Duchess to attend a memorial service for Diana later this month; there’s some sympathy with this view, but little sign of a real backlash. With no small irony, the ideas the Princess popularized — the pursuit of personal happiness, compassion for human weaknesses — have helped the cause of a woman she detested. 

Unbuttoning Britain 
Diana had been brought up in about as old-fashioned an environment as was possible in the last quarter of the 20th century, but nothing could have prepared her for the antiquity of palace life. Britain had been postimperial for more than a generation, which meant that the values associated with empire (or with its rulers) had long lost their edge. By the time she married it was already — and especially in London — a place less homogeneous, more multicolored than it had ever been, and far less deferential to the Victorian virtues that the royal family represented. Yet in the royal household, those virtues — and that deference — held sway. The new Princess could not fit in. Her rebellion, inchoate and self-destructive at first, reverberated far beyond the palace walls. Tina Brown, the latest of Diana’s biographers, relates asking former Prime Minister Tony Blair if Diana had found a new way to be royal. “No,” Blair replied. “Diana taught us a new way to be British.” 

Blair’s party, New Labour, had been given power by electors who were reviewing their values. After the brash, moneymaking 1980s came the hangover of the early 1990s. Britons were searching for spiritual and emotional succor. That didn’t make them deep. They set increasing store by celebrity. Success was measured by the ability to find fulfillment. It was a confessional age. Even before the country convulsed in grief for its lost Princess, Brits were eager to let it all hang out — at least by comparison with their grandparents and great-grandparents. If you doubt that, consider this passage in The Ascent of Everest, the account of the first conquest of the mountain in 1953, by John Hunt, who led the expedition. Hunt is describing the return of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to camp after summiting. “Everyone was pouring out of the tents, there were shouts of exclamation and joy. The next moment I was with them: handshakes — even, I blush to say, hugs — for the triumphant pair.” 

Diana led the charge for emotion and the unembarrassed displays that now routinely go with it: from hugs and kisses to public tears. Unlike her remote royal in-laws, she touched the people she met, literally touched them, and bought their trust with a coinage she had in endless supply: her most personal thoughts and feelings. That’s partly because her unhappiness drove her humanitarian impulses. Arbiter says, “She always championed the downtrodden” because she was attracted to their suffering. “She was a bit of an ambulance chaser, with the best of intentions.” She also experimented with different therapies that encouraged her to unburden, if not necessarily in public. The comedian David Baddiel, whose novel Whatever Love Means begins on the day of Diana’s funeral, sees her as an exponent of “a degraded version of therapy culture,” a self-help addict who couldn’t stop spilling her guts. She “didn’t know who she was but gained an identity through her messiness, through her lack of identity, by splattering her lack of identity on the walls of our culture,” he says. “People chimed with that.” 
After her separation and divorce, Diana’s efforts to redefine herself took on an edge of urgency. She had given up her patronage of most of the charities she once represented. She fantasized about becoming the wife of one of her boyfriends, a heart surgeon called Hasnat Khan, and living in anonymity. Yet she could never hope to become normal. Instead she became a celebrity. Then came Dodi Fayed. 

Though friends say he was just a distraction, her choice of two Muslim boyfriends looked set to test how deep the tolerance of New Labour’s Britain would go. This much is plain: she had long since escaped or shed the attitudes of many white Britons. After her death, Trevor Phillips, a black Labour politician who now chairs Britain’s Commission for Equality and Human Rights, told Newsweek Diana “embraced the modern, multicultural, multi-ethnic Britain without reservation.” Unlike most Europeans, she had “no flinch, no anxiety about race … for nonwhite Britons, she was like a beacon in the darkness.” 

Wayne Sleep, a ballet dancer and media personality, got to know Diana well and remembers her “poking fun at aristocracy.” In her final years, she mingled less and less with her own class, preferring instead the company of the self-made aristocracy of entertainment and fashion. The members of this élite were from different countries and cultures — gay, straight, black, white and united by fame. In Blair’s Britain, they could expect invitations to 10 Downing Street, not always because of their talent. (Britain may have shrugged off its forelock-tugging subservience to the ruling classes, but in Cool Britannia money and celebrity counted.) Diana fitted into this new world perfectly. She wasn’t seen as posh. She was one of the people. By example, she reassured them that anyone could be a star. All you needed, she seemed to imply, was the chance to display yourself to the world. After all, she’d done that more than once herself. In 1985, at a gala evening to celebrate Charles’ 37th birthday, she left the royal box and appeared on stage, shimmying with Sleep. Charles was appalled. Diana’s scheme to please him may have come undone, but she had helped Britain to unbutton. 

From Fairy Tale to PostFeminist 
Imagine this: Diana is still alive. She’s a well-preserved 46, with a new boyfriend and an apartment in Manhattan. Is she popular? Maybe. A legend? No way. By dying young, Diana ensured her immortality. Better dead than wrinkled. 

Celebrity culture is cruel, but especially to women. “One of the characteristics of celebrity culture is that you first build someone up and then you write about their downfall,” says German writer Tom Levine, the author of a book on Britain’s first family. “If Diana had lived she would have been going on that up-and-down train.” Her last summer was already something of a downward ride. A slight weight gain set the press speculating she might be pregnant. She wasn’t, and such close attention could not have been easy for a bulimic. But her public admission of her eating disorder in a 1995 interview with Martin Bashir for the BBC had encouraged hidden sufferers to seek help. Her life reflected many of the concerns of ordinary women — their weight, their relationship troubles — and by talking openly she also eroded the stigma attached to failure. Even a Princess battled the bulge, even a beauty lost her husband. Diana was criticized for her “American style of emotionalism,” says feminist writer Naomi Wolf, but her approach actually represented a liberation theology in hidebound Britain. “It was very radical. She didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk.” 

That was not the fate feminists predicted when the news of her engagement to Charles broke. The feminist magazine Spare Rib ran an article headed “DON’T DO IT DI”. This slogan, rendered as a lapel button, became a fashionable accessory for the thinking woman. “On 29 July 1981,” wrote the British journalist Beatrix Campbell of the fairy-tale wedding in St. Paul’s Cathedral, “the deceitful and depressed engagement ended when this thin, wan, whiter-than-white woman walked down the aisle, propping up the aged patriarch who had got her into all this … Her ivory silk wedding dress was a shroud.” 

By the time Diana died, however, many feminists had read her struggle against a sclerotic system as a parable of empowerment. Paglia dubbed her an “incredible superstar.” That she was, but she would never have located herself in the feminist firmament. She wasn’t interested in gender equality. She fought against a patriarchy because it was old-fashioned and restrictive, not because she repudiated its male values. The Princess was one of the first and most potent symbols of the “girl power” celebrated by the Spice Girls with their mildly predatory allure and celebration of girly friendship. It was a neat fit for Diana, with her close women friends and her troubled search for a mate. What Royal Spice really, really wanted was not at all radical: to love and be loved. 
The Political Princess 
Diana’s body was transported to Westminster Abbey on a gun carriage. Arbiter says that’s a detail of Diana’s funeral that troubled Blair’s communications chief, Alastair Campbell, and his team. The vehicle had been chosen because, unlike a hearse, it would be open to the crowds. To the palace it also seemed appropriate: Diana had, after all, been the honorary Colonel-in-Chief of six regiments. 

Yet Diana’s last, passionate campaign was distinctly unmilitary: she called for the abolition of land mines. She had visited Angola with the British Red Cross in January 1997, angering some Conservative MPs, who thought she was showboating. Peter Viggers, a Tory member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: “This is an important, sophisticated argument. It doesn’t help simply to point at the amputees and say how terrible it is.” Undaunted, Diana spoke at a conference on land mines and made a second fact-finding trip, to Bosnia. 

Few would have predicted such engagement from the plummy girl who emerged onto the public stage in 1980 as Charles’ latest squeeze. The royal wedding in 1981 — with Diana’s endless train, the pages and flower girls, the choirs and coaches — was widely seen at the time as a reaffirmation of tradition in Britain, a throwback to an age when nobility and pomp held the nation in thrall. That it should have taken place during Margaret Thatcher’s first term only added to the idea that Britain was becoming a more conservative society, and that Diana, the girl from the old aristocracy who had married into royalty, epitomized it. 

Yet the Princess was never in tune with the Iron Lady. “Who is society? There is no such thing,” Thatcher told Woman’s Own magazine in 1987. “There are individual men and women and there are families.” Thatcher’s bracing doctrine of personal responsibility was always at odds with Diana’s faith in the power of redemptive understanding, of allowing the weak to be weak. Her belief system very much included an entity called society, which rejected and marginalized people. “Someone has got to go out there and love people and show it,” she said in her BBC interview. 

By the time the Princess died, Thatcher was long gone, her pallid successor John Major was vanquished and Blair was in 10 Downing Street, with a huge popular mandate to build a more inclusive, caring Britain. That agenda echoed Diana’s. The Princess had two secret meetings with Blair before his election. According to Alastair Campbell’s recently published diaries, she told the intermediary who set up the meetings that “she would like to help [Labour] if she could.” Diana had certainly made her mark on Campbell, who recorded that the Princess “had perfect skin and her whole face lit up when she spoke and there were moments when I had to fight to hear the words because I’m just lost in the beauty.” Today Campbell has a more sober assessment: “She was very small-p political. I have no idea if she would have ended up taking some kind of unofficial role with a Labour government, but I am sure she would have found a way of harnessing her own skills and popularity to the sense of Britain as a more modern and compassionate country.” 

We will never know if she would have achieved such a dispensation. But the fact that she was — undeniably — on occasion manipulative, deceitful and self-centered should not blind us to the fact that, during her 17 years in the limelight, she had grown as Britain had grown, changed as Britain had changed, and that by the time she died she had something increasingly vital to offer. Arbiter recalls a strange, muted, mournful night after the Princess died when he encountered a group of wheelchair users on their way to lay flowers at Kensington Palace. “They were saying, ‘Who’s going to speak for us, now?’ They had a point. The disabled: who’s going to speak for them? The AIDS patients: who’s going to speak for them? The drug addicts, the down-and-outs, the homeless, the elderly? She was their voice and drew attention to their plight.” Arbiter pauses. “She’d have made a good Queen, you know. But that’s it. She’s gone.” Gone? As anyone who knows anything about the strains that make up modern Britain will tell you, that is very far from true. 

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