“Stars,” wrote Richard Dyer, “articulate what it is to be a human being in contemporary society.” They embody not only the values and traits we avidly pursue in the modern world – style, beauty, youth, wealth, health – but also the torments and contradictions of actual living. In them, we, ordinary mortals, project our deepest desires and play out our most idiosyncratic fantasies. Diana was a star because she exemplified all these in her brief life.
She was a woman of great style and beauty, but in her case, these were also tempered by a hint of unease and shyness. From early media accounts, we learn that she came from an old titled English family, but she was not above finding work as a part-time nanny for the child of a middle-class American couple. Singled out by the future English king to become his bride, Diana immediately became the object of public fascination. For some curious reason, the more common the things she did, the more royal she seemed in the public eye.
The royalty in monarchic cultures inspires awe, but Diana inspired admiration. She was not remote and aloof like the royalty she married into; she remained accessible, friendly and popular. It was not at all surprising that she would be dubbed the “people’s princess”, for ordinary people could identify with her. This was the basis of her charisma.
That charisma became magnified when news of her unhappiness in her marriage and in the royal household began to be reported by media. Thereafter, the narrative of the underdog took over and supplied all the meanings to what was happening to the young princess’ life. The public was convinced that she was being treated badly by the royalty, and came to the conclusion that she had been drafted into the service of the empire solely in order to produce heirs to the throne.
This was all contrary to the text of the fairy-tale princess. With great sympathy, the public watched how this young lady was going to bear this oppression. Diana did not disappoint them. Whatever resentment she might have felt, she bore it with grace.
Speaking on television about her private life for the first time, she carried herself regally, with tremendous restraint, but with great humanity. She did not hide her pain, but she was never ugly about it. Her detractors said she had been rehearsed for this clever performance, but there was no doubt whatsoever that, after this appearance, Diana had become even more an icon of our age. In contrast, the rest of the royalty was accused of pettiness when after the divorce it was decided that Diana would no longer be able to use the title “Her Royal Highness”. How many times was it said thereafter that there was really only one royal person at the palace, and that was Diana.
There is a deep yearning in each of us to be royal. Not in title, of course, but in character. But what does it mean to be noble? A noble person, says, Nietzsche, creates values. In contrast, throughout human history, he adds, ‘the common man was only what he was considered: not at all used to positing values himself, he also attached no other value to himself than his masters attached to him (it is the characteristic right of masters to create values).”
Princess Diana posited values for herself. She refused to abide by the norms of behavior assigned to her by the monarchy. She breast-fed her children as infants, and took them to the neighborhood cinema to watch a film that had anti-English overtones. She held the hand of an AIDS victim at a time when there was pervasive misunderstanding about the real causes of AIDS. She campaigned against the use of anti-personnel land mines knowing that her own country was also a huge arms exporter.
But perhaps the greatest test of the noble soul is in the way we handle the temptation of resentment in our lives. It is human to feel aggrieved, Nietzsche reminds us, but we must get the grievance out of our system, even if this means resorting to little acts of revenge. Diana was wronged and had every reason to feel resentful, but she rose above it. She did not wallow in self-pity. She fought back even if this meant baring part of herself before media, and succeeded in getting a generous divorce settlement. And she did so with absolute grace and refinement.
She shone even brighter after her divorce from the future king. She reigned in the hearts of ordinary people like no member of the royal family before her. She used her enormous status as a celebrity to espouse the cause of the sick, the disabled, and the disadvantaged. In all her work, she personified what the British people have come to expect of their royalty in the modern world – to exude generosity and compassion, to show them what it is “to be a human being in the contemporary world.”
I am far from being a Diana fan, and being in television, I am incurably skeptical of the persona that media often love to construct and substitute for character. That is why in the beginning I was rather annoyed when CNN and BBC suspended their regular programming in order to begin a relentless Diana-watch. But for some reason, I was drawn to the obsessive reconstruction of this woman’s amazing story, and I could not help but follow every item about her. Each time, I came away convinced that her charisma could not possibly be all mirage from media. She is an authentic star.
For me, this recognition is somewhat like the experience that Nietzsche, again, tells us about stars: “The light of the remotest stars comes last to men; and until it has arrived man denies that there are – stars there.”
- Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, London: BFI, 1986. Cited in Andrew Tolson’s Mediations, London: Arnold, 1996.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Between Good and Evil, Walter Kaufmann, NY: Vintage Books, 1966, p.227.