Halloween took place the week before the British release of Spencer, the Pablo Larrain drama focusing on a weekend in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales. While browsing social media to live vicariously through people who attended parties and actually celebrated the day, I saw a hell of a lot of people dressed as Diana. There were a few rather impressive attempts at her meringue-esque wedding dress. But mostly, what I saw were costumes of ‘normal’ Diana: casual Diana in cycling shorts, a baggy sweatshirt with a logo across the chest, some sassy sunglasses, and a designer handbag. A lot of Instagrammers were copying that one paparazzi image of Diana digging through her bag while hanging onto her keys with her mouth. This was the Diana that the internet had latched onto: the one stripped of royal trappings who got to be somewhat mundane, or, at the very least, was able to choose her own clothes. While that iconic little black dress is the outfit that garners the label, these moments of casual Diana rejecting the constraints of her noble occupation are just as much a moment of revenge.
Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales, never went away after her tragic death in 1997. She is as omnipresent in her afterlife as she was when she was the most photographed woman on the planet. Yet there has been a noticeable increase in her cultural footprint over these past couple of years. Her long-awaited appearance in Netflix’s royal drama The Crown brought the show some of his strongest reviews and a flurry of faux outrage from the British press. Spencer has fired Kristen Stewart to the top of the pile of this year’s potential Best Actress Oscar contenders thanks to her career-best turn as the Princess at a moment of crisis. There’s also a truly terrible Broadway musical now screening on Netflix for those of us who wanted to know what would happen if Hamilton were all-white and wildly stupid. The hunger for royal stories stripped of royalist pandering and the conservative illusion of ‘tradition’ (not to forget everything related to Meghan Markle) seems to have inspired these oft-damning responses to the tale we’ve heard so many times before.
Any Diana-related project could come with the subtitle of ‘F**k Tradition.’ All of these stories have, at their heart, the conflict between an archaic institution and the struggles of an outsider brought into the fold. It’s kind of startling how tightly we hold onto the fairy-tale princess narrative in 2021, especially after the way Markle was treated as well as women like those in the Japanese Imperial family. Even now, the British press loves to play up the ‘regular girl turned future queen’ tale of Kate Middleton and drool over every minor member of nobility finding a wife who looks good in a tiara. The supposed sturdiness of the royals, this family designed to unify a tormented nation and act as a safe port in a storm, is revealed to be naught but a series of shoddy theatricalities. Moreover, as The Crown spent several seasons establishing, they’re f**king weird. It’s baffling that such an institution still exists but more so that people raised under such absurd circumstances could hope to be anything other than utterly disconnected from those they are meant to represent. Diana’s relative normalcy by comparison - she describes herself in Spencer as a nice middle-class girl who likes simple things - cannot help but feel crucial.
There’s been a recent cultural evaluation of history’s ‘difficult women’, although in this case, the focus is more on tackling an institutional rot that set up a 19-year-old to be a sacrificial lamb. We’re reconsidering the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, and so on, but with Diana, our re-examination of the past seems more slanted. Her death had already forced us to come to terms with the pain she’d been put through, often at the hands of a brutal press who quickly pretended they weren’t complicit in her trauma after years of chasing her with cameras. Death provides a curious smudging of history, and soon Diana was a saint, which didn’t seem to be particularly fair or honest to the abrasiveness of her life and struggles. Maybe that’s what’s different about the current pop culture revival: it cares more about the person rather than the image or its projection upon us.
So, who is the person? Can one truly know the unknowable? The biopic genre is built upon the implicit promise to audiences that they will receive answers. Those celebrities who they idolized will be given the ultimate session of armchair psychology and broken down into easy-to-digest chunks that offer immediate closure before the end credits roll. The formula is so well-worn that it’s now parody. The terrible Diana musical tries this, with exposition so clunky it’s a surprise that you can’t hear literal clangs among the orchestra. For me, this is one of the great weaknesses of the genre, this desperation to tie up all the loose ends of reality to suit the confines of fiction.
Strikingly, Spencer doesn’t do this. Neatness of resolution matters little when the pain was so evident. Larrain shoots the film like a horror at times, with Jonny Greenwood’s bursts of discordant jazz score and the ever-present eyes of staff driving home the claustrophobic nightmare of royal life. You don’t need simple answers when you’re presented with this kind of mood piece, one more intrigued with feeling than a Wikipedia-esque list of facts. Like The Crown, Spencer is intrigued by the hypocrisy of Diana’s fairy-tale narrative, the lie agreed upon by the Windsor clan and the nation at large. There’s something slightly off at every moment in the film: those iconic outfits are just different enough from what we remember to arouse suspicion; we feel the shiver of the seldom properly heated castle in a way that tips the magic of the location into the unnerving; the rest of the royal family are seldom seen and heard from even less, a collection of dusty waxworks who exist only to scorn. Where The Crown obsessed over recreating densely reported details, Spencer is more concerned with tainting the protective sheen of that fairy-tale propaganda.
There’s something about Diana that has made her a unifying figure in a way that is extremely rare in pop culture. She’s as beloved by liberals as she is conservatives, a gay icon obsessed over by Daily Express readers. Royalists and republicans alike claim her as one of their own. For me, it’s admittedly biased as all hell, but I struggle to watch this group of Diana stories and not immediately start screaming ‘abolish the monarchy’ into the void because even the most pro-Windsor narrative cannot fully rewrite the past. That’s partly what makes this period of pop culture revenge for Diana so alluring: it’s clearly changed a lot of people’s views of The Firm and not for the better. Prince Charles spent over 20 years working to rehabilitate his post-divorce image and it was all undone the moment Emma Corrin turned up on The Crown. Can it last long enough to make an impact or does the royalist media monster roll on as if nothing happened? I assume the latter, to be honest, because those contradictory and smothering traditions that Diana narratives so deftly dismantle are endlessly fetishized by those with the biggest platforms.
Still, Diana’s story will endure. How could it not? The alternative seems so horrid. Why be a princess when you can be a person?
Header Image Source: Neon