I, like many others I suspect, approached (yesterday) the watching of Channel 4’s documentary of Diana’s private tapes with trepidation. I wondered, after all the pearl wringing anguish in the media, if watching the publication of private footage, never meant for public consumption, was in good taste – and if we, as a nation, still even had a concept of it.
In short, I’m glad I did. The documentary had a peculiar effect on me. Many people on social media described themselves as feeling haunted, and I definitely felt that sentiment too. Diana, unlike many public figures today, had (and still has) such an ability to move people with emotion. Some, of course, do not like it and still accuse Diana of manipulation as if she were exercising her spells from the grave: if anything such criticism reinforces her abilities as a public figure because to suggest that Diana is still manipulating us even now, is a testament to her power.
Why does she still have such a profound effect not only on the British psyche but around the world? It’s hard to define, but I’ll attempt to try. I think some of the things that make Diana so special are a combination of a few factors (some of which are also shared with other icons).
- Beauty and innocence combined: as obvious as this may seem this is a relatively rare combination. There is no doubt about Diana’s beauty, especially when she got older, but what marked her out was her guileless virginal innocence – she didn’t have a clue. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, I mean that she really did not know what to expect, did not know ‘the rules’ and was genuinely hurt when her Prince made it clear he was ambivalent in his feelings towards her. She could not just play along, as other historical spouses have done and just grind her teeth, do her duty and go shopping. She was, and felt, betrayed: something universal we can all understand.
- Compassion for others: this is a virtue that Diana embodied to a very high degree. The bitchy side swipes about her academic intelligence will always be tossed her way, but as ever – as policy makers continually brow beat the youth into passing academic tests – emotional intelligence is overlooked and neglected. Diana’s emotional intelligence was profound and that is part of why we are still talking about her today and why she still compels. She had the ability to speak from the heart, and that was one of the things I found most interesting about the documentary was her coaching to bring out and define that ‘voice of compassion’.
- Noblesse Oblige: an old French phrase (Nobility Obligates) that has long fallen out of fashion and is ripe for revival. I’d say if there is one thing that broader society has lost upon the death of Diana then it is the memory of this important concept. The idea that those in a position of privilege should do their best to set a good moral standard and do their bit to benefit others less fortunate, is not a new concept: and the modern Royals carry out their duties without complaining. I argue that the key difference with society at large today is that Oligarchs and other persons of considerable wealth no longer feel a sense that they should be noble. We forget just how much Diana held this group enthralled, does anyone remember the near desperate clamouring for her presence at charity galas? Donations to various charities Diana supported plummeted after her death. These days if you’re rich and beautiful you’re expected to have a reality TV show, plug products and be in music videos. I don’t want to get too evangelical, but society lost a leading role model for compassion and conscious effort to those that are less fortunate, and that those in privilege – which are many these days – should be aware of that and try to give back. What we see now, unfortunately, everywhere is the rich monopolising every opportunity they can for their own kind to the exclusion of everyone else. Imagine if Diana were still alive and she brought her power to those devastated by the Grenfell Tower disaster: people would have been hurled in jail already, I suspect. Today the poor are treated with indifference. What would the government do today if Diana were able to walk into hospital wards and not only give support to patients but then turn to the world’s media and give a heartfelt speech about the nurses going to food banks to make ends meet? It would be cause for national and international embarrassment – society would not allow it and real moves would have been made to improve wages. I doubt the government would have felt they had the moral high-ground to hold back public sector pay for yet another year. That’s why a national figure of compassion counts – because all of those with the power to influence lives must consider their positions.
- Power: every child knows that no Princess is a real Princess without some sort of power – be it practical, moral, spiritual or magical. It’s an unspoken truth, but it is as still true today as it has been for millennia. Diana grew into formidable power. So much so that she started to become not just a threat to the monarchy for its moral identity and relevance, but to the global order. Have we forgotten how Diana, at a stroke, managed to achieve a global end to the proliferation of landmines with a well-timed photo shoot in Angola? That is tremendous power: for one person to wield such an effect. Angola still struggles, but Mozambique is free. The effect Diana had on the perception and funding for people with AIDS is undisputed – literally saving millions of lives: that is not an over statement. Diana, in a simple act of holding hands with those suffering, did much to lift the global stigma that was rife at that time. People gave generously to AIDS foundations. Sir Elton John and Elizabeth Taylor, among many others, made vast contributions to the cause. But one can argue that Diana’s actions had a huge ripple effect that not only changed hearts and minds but galvanised and made a pathway for those fighting and researching the virus. Without her help, the suffering would have been maligned and possibly discarded.
- Subversion: Diana admitted in her tapes that deep down she was a rebel. The rebel is another universal concept that continually manifests itself to poke its finger in the eyes of power. However, without the guidance of compassion and thought, rebels do more harm than good: Trump is a rebel and look where that is leading the globe. I propose: with Diana still in the world could we even have Trump’s scatological grasp on the Presidency? Diana’s effect on those in power was profound – her combination of Royalty, Celebrity, Compassion, Beauty, and Moral authority made her almost impossible to resist. I argue the juxtaposition of the two (Diana and Trump) would have been too jarring in the global mind, and more scrutiny, within America, would have been placed on Trump’s moral value within the electorate. How else could the Rust Belt voter believe that a billionaire of questionable motives is ‘one of them’? These are big claims I’m making, but such was her genuine global influence it’s hard to see how her benevolent effect on public opinion could NOT have affected perceptions and policy. I argue in America, in particular, that worshipped a living Diana the wider electorate could not elect Trump. Someone else, of course, would have been elected instead. I’m not saying that person would be much better than Trump, but the naked justification by some that voted for him that he’s equipped for the job just because he’s rich would have fallen down – assessing his moral worth would have been a factor, which it clearly wasn’t during the election. Allow me to make an outrageous conjecture: imagine if in some of Trump’s recordings he said he’d like to grab a certain part of Diana’s body, and that was revealed to the public, as his true revelations about his attitudes to women were. Do we think his campaign would have lasted? Do we think his wife could have defended his comments on national television? I think not. Diana also helped give women, in a larger sense, a voice and permission to take up space – that beauty could also mean not just fashion but power – that is a meaningful subversion that has been underestimated and forgotten.
- Courage: Diana in many ways showed great courage to become what she became. I’ve written about her more obvious demonstrations of courage in terms of AIDS and landmines, but I want to highlight the courage a person requires to overcome personal struggles. When Diana spoke about bulimia it raised global awareness. Sharing her strife allowed others to speak of their own demons and thus helped unburden so many others: that takes courage. How many global figures today would you hear confessing to personal struggles in front of packed media – saying where they went wrong or where they felt they had room for development? The tumble weed blows across the tundra. Now we have ‘Reality TV’ where people are paid to show all and plug a few products at the same time. It is not the same thing and we all know it. Confessing a weakness for no personal gain requires great courage because there is no compensation if ridicule should follow. Standing up to institutions, like the monarchy, and demanding reform requires tremendous courage. Human memory is short. How many people would have whistled injustice whilst in the lap of luxury? Not many, which is why what Diana did by speaking out about her marriage and her bulimia is so remarkable – people in general, let alone Royalty, did not do this at the time. Diana’s, perhaps unintended, gift to our current monarchy was the more informality and warmth that they enjoy today. Flexibility HAD to be embraced and Diana’s death commanded that from the public which had to be reflected in how the monarchy conducted itself.
- Tragic death while young: that old chestnut. A death when at the peak of one’s powers will always be compelling to the human psyche. Who knows what Diana could have achieved if she lived. And for many conspiracy theorists – that’s the point. We collectively can now only speculate, but it’s hard to imagine how she may have affected the world if she had another 20 years of her life. I suppose the effects would have been spectacular. At her death Diana was the undisputed most famous woman in the world bar none: and that too is not an exaggeration. I argue that such was the hole left in general media that the void has since been filled with empty celebrity. Is it any coincidence that Big Brother started on channel 4 in 1997? The human mind will always desire beauty and glamour – t’was ever thus – but now we have a hollow consumption of lifestyles and ‘celebrity’ that does not achieve anything and is no longer expected to: celebrity now exists for its own sake or will help sell something. I argue that Fame and Function have become separated. One no longer need be GOOD at something – social media is not a talent. Genuine talent, or worth, is constantly sidelined in preference for sales or a ‘good look’. The idea that fame should have some innate value or achievement attached is now an alien concept: fame is no longer a manifestation of the extraordinary. Now we’re all quasi-celebrities producing and consuming our own media for the sake of it. Of course, this blog I’m writing is social media – and social media does have some value for expression – but I argue there must be a point. Statements about what one ate for breakfast is fun, but it’s not news – I like food photos too, but it does not ADD anything. I argue we’re not asking ourselves if what we see and consume is of any merit. I doubt Kim Kardashian will be strolling through fields littered with landmines, in a clingy dress, whilst wearing faux mink anytime soon: the idea would not occur. The trouble is, collectively, the idea does not occur to us either – and that is a problem.
Closing thoughts: so here we are, in the 20 years of Diana’s death we now live in a society that, I feel at least, is more morally impoverished for the lack of positive role models. It may have seemed grandiose, or even maudlin, to some when Diana said that she wanted to be a queen of people’s hearts – but she was. I look around at the role models now and see a vast emptiness of substance, especially when there is so much that needs to be talked about in heartfelt and meaningful ways. Maybe it is an unfair comparison but I don’t feel it is the same when I hear Teresa May talking about those suffering from their mental health. Just like those that found her hollow when it came to her responses to those in Grenfell Tower. I argue that today Diana is needed more than ever in our nation of food banks and yawning inequalities: in a nation that has abandoned Noblesse Oblige.