Deb Stratas always felt that Princess Diana was a soul mate. She saw parallels between their lives: young marriages, motherhood, the pain of divorce. Stratas read “dozens and dozens of books” on the Princess of Wales to better understand her private joys and anxieties.
And yet, “I always felt that his voice was missing,” recalls Stratas. “You read all these biographers – the security guard, the butler, the reporter – and they write about things that have happened. But what was she thinking and feeling?
Stratas tried to answer this question on her own. She has written three novels about Diana, a trilogy that traces her early years in the British royal family until her tragic death in 1997. She published a fourth book, a documentary chronicle, in February 2020.
The impulse to go into Diana’s mind is everywhere in popular culture these days. “Spencer,” a new biopic starring Kristen Stewart and directed by Chilean author Pablo Larraín who makes his theatrical debut on Friday, could become an Oscar nominee.
The film premieres a month after CNN began airing a six-part documentary series (and accompanying podcast) on the princess. Netflix is home to both “Diana,” a filmed portrayal of a Broadway musical about her life, and the drama series “The Crown”.
The most recent season of this Emmy-winning saga explored Diana’s personal struggles with intimacy bracing, freely mixing fact and speculation – and earned breakout star Emma Corrin a Golden Globe.
“Diana’s story seems to be lingering in the popular imagination, especially right now,” said Andrea McDonnell, media specialist and co-author of “Celebrity: A History of Fame.”
Conventional explanations for Diana’s enduring appeal 60 years after her birth aren’t hard to find. She was one of the most photographed people in the world. She has long been an international avatar of charisma, magnetism, traditional beauty and haute couture.
“I think Diana’s blend of glamor and vulnerability has always been linked to people around the world,” said Carolyn Harris, historian and author of “Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting”.
But why is her story so resonant – and seemingly so ubiquitous – at this particular moment?
McDonnell and Harris see several themes run through the times that are directly linked to Diana’s personal experiences and public image – themes that both shape our perceptions of new artwork about her and may help explain why they were produced in the first place.
The first is the reassessment of the culture of various women whose lives were breathtakingly documented and scrutinized by national media in the 1990s and early 2000s, from Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky to Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt.
In recent years, movies, TV shows, and books have attempted to reframe these women, replacing late-night punchlines and tabloid headlines with seriousness and empathy.
“I think there is a deeper examination of how women in public life have been treated by the press in recent decades, coupled with discussions of how popular culture portrays prominent women.” said Harris, who teaches history at the University of Toronto.
Diana hasn’t really been mocked by the US media, but she has been the subject of relentless global attention and pursued by photographers. It’s not lost on McDonnell and Harris that Diana died in a car crash in Paris as her driver fled the paparazzi.
McDonnell draws a direct line between Diana and pop singer Britney Spears. The two women may not appear to be counterparts, she said, but their experiences in the public eye highlight “the power of the tabloid press to functionally – and in Diana’s case, literally – ruin their lives. “.
“In an American context, I think Diana represents the potential dark side of stardom and the tragic dimensions of stardom,” McDonnell said.
Diana’s attempts to assert her own identity intrigued “Spencer” director Larraín, who focused his film on his decision to leave the royal family, mixing the facts with the imaginative speculation and subjectivity of its protagonist.
“We all grew up understanding what a fairy tale is, but Diana Spencer has changed the paradigm and the idealized icons that pop culture creates, forever,” Larraín said in a statement.
The film is “the story of a princess who decided not to become a queen, but chose to build her identity on her own,” he added. “It’s a fairy tale upside down.”
McDonnell said she believed there was symbolic significance in choosing Stewart for the title role.
“Kristen Stewart is also someone who has been subjected to the glamor of stardom, criticized for the way she behaves in the limelight,” McDonnell said. “I think we can understand this casting as a side story.”
Stewart, who generated Oscar buzz for her performance, said in a recent interview with “Access” that she recognizes the parallels, but she recognized a crucial difference between herself and Diana of the days of royalty. .
“She couldn’t be herself in public,” said Stewart. “I can.”
The new face of royalty
“The Crown” is a sumptuous ode to the splendor of Buckingham Palace which also casts a skeptical eye on the institution of the British royal family. Corrin’s version of Diana was the latest in a gallery of characters who feel trapped by lore and stifled by rigid decorum.
The acclaimed Netflix series has served as a virtual introduction to the royal family for many Americans, especially young viewers who are learning about Diana’s story for the first time.
But real-world events have also given many reasons to doubt the sanctity of the British monarchy, cultural analysts have said.
Harry and Meghan’s revelations about the racism and intimidation they say they faced as royal newlyweds have made it harder for the public to understand the British royal family. The same could be said of the reported personal connections between Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted financier and sex offender.
Changing perceptions of the Royal Family clearly sparked more interest in the hardships Diana faced when married to Prince Charles, deepening sympathy for her marital conflicts, experiences with an eating disorder, and other personal trials.
“The departure of Harry and Megan from the royal family has led to a closer examination of what it is like to be inside Buckingham Palace and the challenges that follow,” Harris said.
McDonnell echoed this observation by stating: “I think there is a more critical awareness that the British monarchy is something that could be challenged, or even should be challenged. Diana gives us a goal to reflect on our own relationship with Buckingham Palace.
Diana is by no means the first – and certainly not the last – historical figure to inspire a seemingly limitless supply of folk art and entertainment.
But one could argue that the circumstances of his life are uniquely suited to historical fiction, giving creators a compelling “dramatic arc,” Harris said.
“Clearly there is an arc for writers and playwrights to work with,” she said, explaining that Diana’s trajectory – from obscurity to glory, from fairytale marriage to bitter divorce, from private battles to public worship and ultimately to untimely death – plays out like an archetypal tragedy.
Stratas, the novelist, sees Diana in much more personal terms. The princess at the center of a media-fabricated ’90s soap opera has always seemed immensely’ relatable ‘, distant from her own everyday life in an obvious way but accessible in a deeper way.
Stratas said Diana – who was open about her sanity – could serve as a North Star for people in times of crisis. In the age of Covid-19, when ordinary people are under immense pressure, Diana can be seen as a role model: imperfect but honest and resilient.
“I think people these days, especially young people, look at all the uncertainty and anxiety and depression in the world and say, I better try and live my best life,” Stratas said.