Deb Stratas always felt that Princess Diana was a kindred spirit. She saw parallels between their lives: adolescent marriages, motherhood, the pain of divorce. Stratas read “dozens and dozen of books” about the Princess of Wales to better understand her private joys and fears.
And yet: “I always had the feeling that her voice was missing,” recalls Stratas. “You read all these biographers – the security guard, the butler, the newspaper reporter – and they write about things that happened. But what did she think and feel? “
Stratas tried to answer this question for himself. She wrote three novels about Diana, a trilogy that traces back her early years in British royalty to her tragic death in 1997. In February 2020 she published a fourth book, a non-fiction chronicle.
The impulse to go into Diana’s mind can be found everywhere in popular culture these days. “Spencer,” a new biopic starring Kristen Stewart and directed by Chilean writer Pablo Larraín, which hits theaters on Friday, could be an Oscar contender.
The film celebrates a month after CNN aired a six-part documentary series (and an accompanying podcast) about the princess. Netflix hosts both Diana, a filmed performance 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 empowering intimacy, a free mix of facts and speculation – and earned breakout star Emma Corrin a Golden Globe.
“Diana’s story seems to be sticking up in popular imagination, especially now,” said Andrea McDonnell, media scholar and co-author of Celebrity: A History of Fame.
The traditional explanations for Diana’s enduring appeal 60 years after she was born are not difficult to uncover. She was one of the most photographed people in the world. She has long been an international avatar of charisma, magnetism, traditional beauty and high fashion.
“I think Diana’s blend of glamor and vulnerability has touched people all over the world,” said Carolyn Harris, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1,000 Years of Royal Parenting.
But why is their story so resonant at this particular moment – and seemingly so ubiquitous?
McDonnell and Harris see several themes moving through the zeitgeist that are directly related to Diana’s personal experiences and public image – themes that could both shape our perception of the new artworks about her and explain why they were produced in the first place.
The first is to reassess the culture of various women whose lives were breathlessly documented and carefully examined by the national news 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 reshape these women, replacing nighttime punchlines and tabloid headlines with seriousness and empathy.
“I think there is a broader study of how women in public life have been treated by the press over the past few decades, coupled with discussions of how popular culture portrays prominent women,” said Harris, who teaches history at the University of Toronto .
Diana wasn’t exactly ridiculed by the US media, but she has been the subject of relentless worldwide attention and hunted by photographers. Little do McDonnell and Harris know that Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris while her driver fled the paparazzi.
McDonnell draws a direct line between Diana and pop singer Britney Spears. The two women may not seem like counterparts, she said, but their public experience underscores “the power of the tabloids to functionally – and in the case of Diana, literally – ruin their lives.”
“In the American context, I think Diana represents the potential dark side of celebrity and the tragic dimensions of fame,” said McDonnell.
Diana’s attempts to assert her own identity intrigued “Spencer” director Larraín, who focused his film on her decision to leave the royal family by mixing facts with fanciful speculation and the subjectivity of its protagonist.
“We all grew up understanding what a fairy tale is, but Diana Spencer forever changed the paradigm and idealized icons that pop culture creates,” Larraín said in a statement.
The film is “the story of a princess who decided not to become a queen but decided to create her own identity,” he added. “It’s a fairy tale turned upside down.”
McDonnell said she believed casting Stewart in the title role was symbolic.
“Kristen Stewart is also someone who has been exposed to the glare of fame and criticized for how she behaves in the spotlight,” said McDonnell. “I think we can understand this casting as a parallel narrative.”
Stewart, who collected Oscar buzz for her portrayal, said in a last interview with “Access” she recognized the parallels, but she recognized a crucial difference between her present and the Diana of the royal era.
“She couldn’t be herself in public,” said Stewart. “I can.”
The new face of the royal family
“The Crown” is a lavish ode to the pomp of Buckingham Palace, which also views the institution of the British royal family with skepticism. Corrin’s version of Diana was the latest in a series of characters trapped by tradition and choked by stiff upper lip decor.
The acclaimed Netflix series serves as a virtual introduction to the royals for many in America, especially younger viewers who first encounter Diana’s story.
But events in the real world have also given many people cause to doubt the sanctity of the British monarchy, according to the cultural analysts.
Harry and Meghan’s revelations about racism and bullying they allegedly faced as the newlyweds have made the public more difficult to understand about the British royal family. The same could be said of reported personal connections between Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender.
The evolving perception of the royals clearly sparked more interest in the difficulties Diana faced during her marriage to Prince Charles, as well as deepening compassion for her marital dispute, experience with an eating disorder, and other personal trials.
“Harry and Megan’s departure from the royal family has led to further exploration of what it is like to be at Buckingham Palace and the challenges that come with it,” said Harris.
Repeating this observation, McDonnell said, “I think there is a more critical awareness that the British monarchy is something that could or should be challenged. Diana gives us a lens 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 range of popular art and entertainment.
But one could argue that the circumstances of their lives are particularly suited to historical fiction and offer creators a compelling “dramatic arc,” Harris said.
“It is clear that there is a bow for scriptwriters and playwrights to work with,” she said, explaining that Diana’s path – darkness to fame, fairytale wedding to bitter divorce, private struggles to public worship and, finally, premature death – as an archetypal tragedy plays out.
Stratas, the novelist, sees Diana much more personally. The princess, who was the focus of a media-produced soap opera in the 90s, always seemed to her to be immensely “relatable”, obviously removed from her own everyday life, but accessible in deeper things.
Stratas said Diana – who was open about her mental health – could serve as a pole star for people in times of crisis. In times of Covid-19, in which people’s everyday lives are enormously burdened, Diana can be seen as a role model: flawed, but honest and resilient.
“I think people nowadays, especially young people, look at all the insecurity, anxiety and depression in the world and say, I better try to live my best life,” said Stratas.