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The pop cultural obsession with Princess Diana’s innocence, explained

Why we’re still talking about Princess Diana in 2020.

Diana, Princess of Wales, sitting on a step at her home, Highgrove House, in Doughton, Gloucestershire, in 1986.
Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Fame is a dragon. We feed it with virgin sacrifices. And was there ever a virgin sacrifice like Princess Diana?

From the moment that Diana first appears on Netflix’s The Crown, a gawky 16-year-old tiptoeing away from Prince Charles with her supermodel face peeping out from behind a schoolgirl’s costume mask, a thread of electricity runs into the show: Ah, at last, there she is. There is Princess Diana, who will win over a nation, rend the Windsors apart, and die young and beautiful and tragic. We’ve been waiting for her.

We’ve been waiting for Diana to show up and liven things up with scandal. And most importantly, we’ve been waiting for her to die. Her death is built into the structure of the show, the moment we’ve all been waiting for it to catch up to. What, after all, was the 2006 film The Queen — written by The Crown showrunner Peter Morgan and taking place in the days after the car accident that killed Diana — if not a statement of intention that her death is the moment that must be the inevitable climax of The Crown?

So The Crown lingers on the foreknowledge of that moment with exquisite care. It features shot after shot of her slipping into the back seat of a black Mercedes like the one she died in; shot after shot of the paparazzi coming in too close, just as they did on the night she died. The Crown has been laying out a seven-course meal for seasons now, and Diana and her death are the entrée.

There must be something about Diana’s story that is very appealing to us, because we repeat it so often. Not just in tellings and retellings about Diana herself, but in the stories of other virgin sacrifices, other famous women who match the Diana archetype.

It’s the story of Marilyn Monroe. It’s the story of Britney Spears. It’s the story of the women whose combined innocence and sex appeal and star power makes the public worship them; the story of women hounded for the idea that they might be using all that sex appeal and star power to make the public worship them on purpose, rather than out of sheer innocence. It’s the story of the women we love to death.

Diana became famous for being accidentally sexy. The contradiction was fundamental to her image.

From left: Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven-Year Itch; Diana Spencer in the 1980 photo that made her famous; Britney Spears in the video for “Baby One More Time.”
Left and center: Getty; Right: SME

The picture that made Princess Diana famous was taken when she was still known as Diana Spencer, before she was engaged to Prince Charles. She was just his unremarkable new girlfriend, the one the tabloids had dubbed Shy Di because of her trick of ducking her head and laughing nervously when the paparazzi photographed her. She didn’t strike the press, then, as particularly pretty or particularly special.

Then one day in 1980, a photographer from the Evening Standard came to the kindergarten where Diana worked and asked to take a picture. Diana posed outside with a couple of children from the classroom, and halfway through the shoot, the sun came out, backlighting Diana’s skirt. The fabric went transparent, so that in the finished photograph, Diana’s soon-to-be-famous long legs form a striking silhouette. “I knew your legs were good,” Prince Charles is said to have commented upon seeing the resulting news spread, “but I didn’t realize they were that spectacular.”

From then on, whether or not a love affair blossomed between Diana and Charles, there was certainly a love affair blooming between Diana and the media. And it wasn’t only because they had realized she was pretty. Diana was a lovely girl, but there were plenty of lovely girls hanging around Prince Charles in 1980. What made the picture iconic, and what made Diana an instant sensation, is the fact that she clearly did not know her legs would be visible in the photograph, that she clearly had no intention of showing them off, and yet there they were anyway.

“The picture was so obviously, and beguilingly, a show of inexperience,” writes Tina Brown in The Diana Chronicles, the definitive Diana text. “The British public was instantly enchanted by this delightful mixture of feminine messages — modesty, sexuality, and affection for children.”

Diana would manage to preserve that contradiction all the way through to her wedding day. “I have never seen such a strong charge of innocently provocative sex,” wrote one wedding guest in his diary afterward.

This idea that sex appeal is at its most appealing when it is unintentional, a product of innocence, is a familiar one. The same idea was at the heart of Marilyn Monroe’s star image: that she couldn’t really help being so sexy, it just breathed naturally out of her.

“She was our angel, the sweet angel of sex,” wrote Norman Mailer of Monroe, “and the sugar of sex came up from her like a resonance of sound in the clearest grain of a violin.” Marilyn helped along the idea that it was all pure accident, with frequent quotes that managed to sound both dirty and unintentional. “It’s not true I had nothing on,” she said of her nude calendar photos. “I had the radio on.”

An insistence that Marilyn’s sexuality was a pure and natural accident she did not intend is part of why the famous photograph of Marilyn with her skirt flying up over the subway grate in The Seven-Year Itch became so indelible: As with Diana 25 years later, part of the play of the moment is that Marilyn doesn’t intend to show off her legs. It’s not her fault. Her skirt was caught by the passing breeze of a subway train. She’s at the mercy of the elements, just like Diana with the sun. It just happens.

In the 1990s, the media would perform a similar dance with a young Britney Spears and the newly released video for “Baby One More Time,” which features Spears in a tiny, midriff-baring schoolgirl outfit. The archetype of the sexy schoolgirl was already a play on the idea of adolescent innocence intertwined with adult sexuality, and whenever Spears spoke about it in public, she did so with wide-eyed incredulity at the idea that anyone would consider her outfit to be provocative. “All I did was tie up my shirt!” she told Rolling Stone, in a line that would have done Marilyn proud.

It’s this combination of innocence and sexuality that the press would find so intoxicating in Diana, Marilyn, and Britney alike: These women were all hot, but they didn’t know it, and they weren’t doing it on purpose. (It goes without saying that this contradiction works best with a blonde.) Underlying this archetype is a sort of reassuring whisper to the watching man — and it is always a man who is assumed to be watching — “It’s okay. She can’t manipulate you because she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She will never use sex to get her own way because she doesn’t know she’s sexy. It’s safe to want her. You will always have more power than she has.”

Unless the woman does know what she’s doing. Unless she’s not a real virgin after all. That would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?

As Diana’s wedding to Charles approached, the press went into a frenzy over her virginity

Princess Diana and Prince Charles on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day, July 29, 1981.
Terry Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Princess Diana had to be a virgin. The Windsors were very clear on that: The woman who married Prince Charles, the woman who would someday be queen, had to walk to the altar virgo intacta. By 1980, this view was already so retro that wags would crack that Charles married Diana solely because she was the only aristocratic virgin left in England.

But Diana’s virginity — the proof of her desirable youth and desirable innocence — was central to the fairy tale glamour of her myth. It had to be protected from any threat of scandal.

In November 1980, Diana’s uncle gave an infamous interview to the Daily Star. “Purity seems to be at a premium when it comes to discussing a possible bride for Prince Charles at the moment,” he said. “And after one or two of his most recent girlfriends I am not surprised. Diana, I can assure you, has never had a lover.”

Less than a week later, the Sunday Mirror reported that Prince Charles had smuggled his new fiancée, the now-19-year-old Diana Spencer, onto the Royal Train, where he was known to take his girlfriends for unsupervised overnight visits. The Mirror reported that Diana had spent two consecutive nights on the train, where “there followed hours alone together for the couple whose friendship has captured the country’s imagination.”

Charles and Diana, the paper was suggesting, had done it.

A furious Diana issued outraged denials. “I am not a liar,” she said. “I have never been on that train. I have never even been near it.” The queen’s press secretary wrote to the Mirror demanding an apology. While the Mirror stood by its sourcing and its story, an editor agreed to publish correspondence from the palace making its denials known. Plausible deniability had to remain in place all the way up to the wedding march.

So strong was the insistence on Diana’s virginity, so fundamental was it to her image, that the idea of violating that image added an extra frisson of intrigue to the intrusive paparazzi photos of Diana’s pregnant belly in a bikini in 1982, taken in secret with a long-distance lens when she was pregnant with Prince William. Queen Elizabeth called it “the blackest day in the history of British journalism.”

“In those pre-Demi Moore days,” writes Tina Brown in The Diana Chronicles, “a photograph of a beautiful pregnant woman, the bare skin of her swollen belly unmistakably proclaiming her sexual experience, bordered on the pornographic. If the woman was not only famous but also famously demure, private, ‘innocent,’ and protected, and if she had been photographed against her will, then to the thrill of voyeurism was added the stronger kick of — the word is all too apt — violation.”

There was the virgin fairy tale princess, knocked up. What a feast of signifiers.

A few decades earlier, the tabloids had never quite dared to speculate about Marilyn Monroe’s virginity. At that point, the official story of the press was that you were a virgin unless you were married. But Marilyn knew that the careful balancing act of her image could never survive a hint of sexual knowingness.

When Truman Capote was looking for an actress to play the courtesan Holly Golightly as his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s went from stage to screen, he thought at once of Marilyn Monroe. But Marilyn took herself out of the running. She would not, she said, play a lady of the evening.

Unspoken in Marilyn’s refusal was the idea that putting the sheen of sexual impropriety on an actress whose image depended on balancing sex with innocence risked blowing the whole thing up. Instead, the role went to Audrey Hepburn, whose image was so unsexed that audiences left the theater remarking not on Holly’s scandalous job but on Audrey’s cool elegance.

Forty years later, Britney Spears would not be so lucky. By the time Britney’s fame reached its peak, the press felt no compunctions about inquiring after the status of her virginity.

“I am a virgin,” Britney said in a radio interview as a newly famous 18-year-old. “I definitely want to try not to have had sex until I’m married. I just want to wait for this special someone.”

“Britney Spears swirls her virginity about like a tasselled nipple,” said an article in the Guardian in 2000. And that tease, the article concludes, is what makes Britney fascinating: “It’s what makes her videos so exciting — she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, or singing, or how she’s thrilling her boy fans with her customised school uniform. She is that innocent.”

In 2001, an interviewer asked Britney point-blank if she was still a virgin. “That’s private,” Britney protested — but the speculation was rampant nonetheless.

The Church of England hailed her as a “great ambassador for virginity.” Justin Timberlake gossiped that she wasn’t a real virgin in post-breakup interviews. Britney confessed in a 2003 interview to having sex with Timberlake, and in 2008, her mom made headlines when she claimed that Britney had had sex at age 14.

The fairy tale virgin pop princess, not that innocent after all. What a feast of signifiers, yet again.

For the virgin sacrifice to work, the virgin can’t know what she’s doing

Princess Diana in a “black sheep” sweater that electrified the press, at Windsor Polo, June 1981.
Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images

What’s at stake in all this Sturm und Drang over virginity is a more metaphorical question that has to do with knowingness.

When pop culture’s princesses are virgins, the press treats their sexuality as unthreatening. They are hot, but not in a scary way; they don’t know what they’re doing; they are safe to want.

But if they begin to wield their sexuality knowingly, everything changes. And their relationship with the public changes, too.

The big question with Diana, the question on the cover of The Diana Chronicles: How much of it did she do on purpose?

“Was she ‘the people’s princess,’ who electrified the world with her beauty and humanitarian missions?” asks Brown. “Or was she a manipulative, media-savvy neurotic who nearly brought down the monarchy?”

Any honest reckoning of Diana would have to say the answer to that question is both. She was beautiful; she did have a remarkable gift for connecting with disenfranchised people doing humanitarian work — and she also spent much of her time as Princess of Wales in the grips of bulimia and suicidal ideation, using her skill with the press as her most potent weapon against the Windsors.

Throughout Diana’s marriage to Charles, she consistently outshined and outworked him. At public gatherings and charity events, she was able to genuinely connect with the crowds in a way Charles couldn’t. She would crouch down on her knees to talk to the kids. She would shake hands with an AIDS patient. Such moments established both her reputation as the “people’s princess” — the saint in the killer designer suit who could love her subjects more than anyone else could, who could transcend the monarchy — and her reputation as a schemer who was upstaging the monarchy on purpose, out of selfishness and greed. And after Diana’s divorce from Charles in 1996, as she partied her way across multiple continents and began campaigning against land mines, those two ideas became ever stronger.

But Brown frames her question in a way that suggests these two opposing images of Diana are mutually exclusive. The idea that Diana might have been intentionally using the press, that she might have desired to be as famous and beloved as she was and that she might have intentionally wielded her beauty and charisma to get there, seems to somehow negate the idea of saintly Diana, the people’s princess.

And if Diana courted the press, if she used them in the same way they used her — well, how does that square with the way she died? How can we say that Diana was using the press that drove her off the road and to her death?

A similar contradiction runs through Britney Spears’s career, a similar deep concern around the question of how much of her life and her success are of her own making. It emerged early, when she was a fresh-faced young star on the make singing “Baby One More Time”: Was she the architect of her own image, or was she just a passable singer being molded by brilliant music producers?

It still exists today, as the #FreeBritney movement rages and Britney fails, once again, to have her father removed from the conservatorship that controls her life: Is Britney surviving and thriving in a conservatorship that gives her life shape and meaning and purpose? Or is she being held captive by her family, and by her very fame?

As for Marilyn Monroe, the question of whether she might have had control over her own image wasn’t a subject of major attention until after she died. Audiences and producers alike considered her to be interchangeable with the dumb blondes she played onscreen, and she wasn’t allowed to leave those dumb blondes behind until she broke her contract with 20th Century Fox and started her own production company. Only in the decades since has the idea that Marilyn was smart — and that she built her dumb blonde persona deliberately — begun to take center stage.

“I began my book with the expectation that the way she was viewed over time, from her death in 1962 until I finished writing, which was 2004, would have changed according to changing ideas about women — the gradual acceptance of feminism, basically,” remarked Marilyn image analyst Sarah Churchwell in 2004. “And how wrong I was.”

The virgin sacrifice can’t survive her own story

Lady Diana Spencer
Diana Spencer walks to her flat surrounded by paparazzi, November 1980.
Alisdair Macdonald/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The story of the virgin sacrifice can only end one way: with her destruction. And like her rise, her end comes as a collaboration between the virgin sacrifice and the press that worships her, one in which complicity and responsibility are deeply muddied.

“A sex symbol becomes a thing,” Marilyn Monroe remarked a week before she died by suicide. “I just hate to be a thing.” She seems to have increasingly experienced her public image as a trap, and to know that it was one she had little chance of escaping.

Britney Spears managed to survive her own destruction. But her public nadir in 2007 was both a reaction to and fueled by furious press coverage. The paparazzi followed her around for upskirt shots. She started yelling at them in a British accent. She shaved her own head, allegedly telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair, while paparazzi photographed every angle through the windows of the hair salon. She attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She went in and out of rehab. She sleepwalked through her performance at the 2007 VMAs so badly that Perez Hilton lectured her for being “disrespectful” to her fans, and then the press made fun of her for gaining weight.

In 2008, Britney’s father petitioned the court for emergency conservatorship over Britney. She’s been living under that conservatorship ever since.

In contrast, Diana’s destruction wasn’t metaphorical, and the press was intimately involved. Diana died in a car crash with her boyfriend after paparazzi aggressively tailed them out of the Ritz in Paris. The car’s driver was drinking and using prescription drugs, and a formal investigation would later clear the paparazzi of responsibility for the crash. But the image of the paparazzi mobbing Diana in that black Mercedes is an inextricable part of the spectacle of her death. And so is the rage that her family directed at the press afterward.

“I always believed that the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother Earl Spencer shortly after she died. “But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case. It would appear that every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on their hands today.”

In The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown describes Diana on the night of her death as displaying “an almost compulsive need to be seen.” She went to the Ritz, mobbed with tourists, and walked in the front door instead of the back. Three times she and her boyfriend would make the circuit — in through the Ritz’s front door, inside, out again to another destination, and back to the Ritz — and every time, the crowd of fans outside was bigger. It was as though the press couldn’t get enough of her, and she couldn’t get enough of them either.

“The camera was Diana’s fatal attraction,” Brown writes. “It had created the image that had given her so much power, and she was addicted to its magic, even when it hurt. Her life’s obsession was how to control the genie she had released.”

But the point of the story of the virgin sacrifice is that she is not allowed to control her own power. We treat her with profound suspicion the second we begin to suspect that she’s trying. We want her to be always as she was when we first saw her: vulnerable and open and possessed of a charisma she does not fully understand, such that her vulnerability is even more compounded. Such that she is easy prey for unscrupulous men.

That’s how Diana first appears in The Crown, flirting bashfully with the man who will unleash disaster on her life. The scene gets its juice from the horror of its foreshadowing: She is so innocent, she is so beautiful, she has no idea how pretty she is, she has no idea of what’s to come, and isn’t it awful? You can’t look away.

We feast on the spectacle of the virgin sacrifice. And the spectacle climaxes with her destruction.

That’s always how the story of the virgin sacrifice ends, the one we tell over and over and over again. That’s the story of Princess Diana.