Time to go Diana-watching again. The People’s Princess is once again back on our screens, and one of the most beloved sports on both sides of the pond is back in season. All the classic iconography is there, again and again. The sapphire engagement ring, the black sheep sweater, the dashing blonde haircut; in Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, in The Crown, in Diana: The Musical (which is streaming on Netflix and soon to reopen on Broadway): there she is, there she is, there she is.
As all of these Diana stories are happy to remind you, Princess Diana, who married Prince Charles in 1981 and divorced him in 1996, died in a car crash in 1997. You would be forgiven for wondering why, then, she seems to be suddenly inescapable 24 years later. Yet here she is, over and over again, on screen after screen, ducking her head and smiling shyly up at the camera lens, lovely and tragic and doomed.
Something about Diana seems to strike us, just now, as perfect for revisitation. In Spencer, Diana is a gothic heroine, wandering around the queen’s moldering country seat in the lonely splendor of her white evening gown, palpably aware that she has been imprisoned by her own beauty. In The Crown, she’s part innocent naif, part calculating manipulator, roller skating through the palace with her headphones on. In Diana: The Musical, she’s a put-upon girlboss, striving for global celebrity and adoration in the face of obstacle after obstacle from the recalcitrant royal family. Always, she becomes a metaphor for femininity writ large: its glamours and seductions, the way it traps and limits with its queasily close embrace.
Here are three of the big reasons Princess Diana is so inescapable just now.
Diana fits the classic cultural archetype of the virgin sacrifice
From the very beginning of her fame, back when she was just Prince Charles’s girlfriend, Diana has been an object of fascination because she fits a particular cultural trope. She was one of those blondes who seems to be simultaneously very innocent and very sexy, and whose innocence works to render her sexiness nonthreatening: It’s safe to desire her, because she does not realize that she is desirable. (Marilyn Monroe and Britney Spears fit the same archetype.) “I have never seen such a strong charge of innocently provocative sex,” one of Diana’s wedding guests wrote in his diary the night of the wedding.
I call this pop cultural trope the virgin sacrifice. The name fits first because we are usually fascinated by the virginity or lack thereof of the women who fit the trope, and second because we tend to devour these women alive at the merest hint that they might not be as innocent as they seem: that they might wield their charisma intentionally, as a weapon; that they might not be virgins after all. The contradiction seems to continually fuel both obsession and outrage, driving us to pant lasciviously after tabloid coverage. We seem to long to see the innocent virgin at the heights of her desirability, and at her most fallen and desperate.
Diana embodied this binary with considerable style within her lifetime, which is part of why she was one of the most discussed and photographed women in the world at the time. But to look at why she’s having another moment right now, we’ll have to look at two of today’s big cultural conversations.
We’re currently fascinated by looking back at wronged women
As a culture, we are currently obsessed with looking back at the stories of the wronged women of the ’90s and the ’00s. The revisitation is sometimes pegged to the premiere of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary that argued earlier this year that Spears was unfairly targeted by a predatory media, but it would be more accurate to say that Framing Britney Spears is the culmination of a longer, ongoing trend of looking backward.
The popular podcast You’re Wrong About, which began in 2018, built its name in part on debunking cultural myths about women like Anna Nicole Smith and Monica Lewinsky. Tonya Harding was the subject of an Oscar-winning film in 2017, and an acclaimed 2019 documentary revisited Lorena Bobbitt. Hardly a month seems to go by these days without a cultural artifact informing us that we all got it badly wrong when we made one particular woman the butt of a global joke 20 years ago.
Part of this reconsideration seems to come from how drastically the cultural norms around feminism and misogyny have shifted over the past few decades, especially after the tumultuous upheaval brought on by the Me Too movement in 2017 and 2018. We veered out of one decade where snickering over nonconsensual upskirt photos was a perfectly normal late-night comedy joke into another in which revenge porn has a name and a criminal sentence attached to it. It’s natural, in the wake of such a rapid shift, to want to look back with wide and blinking eyes: Wow. We really all said some things then that we never would today, didn’t we?
And as the baby boomers begin to age out of their long-held positions as cultural gatekeepers, millennials have begun to take their place. With that changing of the guard comes enough accumulated cultural power that those who grew up in the ’90s and ’00s can indulge in a preoccupation with the decades of their childhood, and with how retrograde they can appear in hindsight.
“For me, it was kind of a rite of passage to look at stories that I remembered adults reporting on when I was a child and then seeing just how bad of a job they’ve done some of the time,” Sarah Marshall, co-host of You’re Wrong About, told Vox earlier this year. “We just abused women for sport in the media, and I feel like that’s generationally something important to look at. What was in the media and the bloodstream when you were a child? How were the adults who were in charge of the culture then maybe not doing as good a job as you would like to try and do now?”
Enter Diana, literally hounded to her death by a ravenous tabloid press. The tragedy of Diana’s story makes her a perfect fit for our current moment of reexamination. But there’s an added wrinkle to Diana’s story that no one else has, one that makes her especially ripe for revisitation this year.
Meghan Markle is a walking, talking reminder of Diana’s legacy
One of the signs that Diana is having a moment is that the women’s retailer Anthropologie has what is clearly a full Diana-themed section on its website this fall, complete with a Diana-look-alike model. But interspersed among all the photographs of shaggy blonde pageboy haircuts and classic English riding boots, there are photos of another model whom Anthropologie seems to believe goes with Diana: a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Meghan Markle, the daughter-in-law Diana would never live to see.
Meghan Markle, who knows her way around a publicity narrative as well as Diana did, has repeatedly aligned herself with Princess Diana in the time since she and her husband Prince Harry left the royal family in 2020. In a much-discussed interview with Oprah this March, Meghan and Harry explained that much like Diana, Meghan had faced intense mental health struggles upon joining the royal family.
“What I was seeing was history repeating itself,” Harry said, adding, “When I’m talking about history repeating itself, I’m talking about my mother. When you can see something happening in the same kind of way, anybody would ask for help.”
The pair said they relied on the money Harry inherited from Diana to support themselves as they withdrew from the royal family, and Meghan compared their decision to talk to Oprah to Diana’s infamous choice to go public about her discontent with her marriage to Prince Charles. Throughout the interview, Meghan wore a diamond bracelet that had belonged to Diana.
Meghan and Harry offer a potent reminder of the power of the Diana story: the tale of a beautiful princess trapped within an unfeeling royal system, driven slowly toward despair, is a killer narrative arc in any decade. But they also offer a valuable new twist on the old tale.
Diana was caught in a loveless marriage, and Charles was both unable and unwilling to support her in the way she needed to be supported. But Meghan and Harry have made it clear that they are facing their own trials and tribulations together, as partners — so when Meghan needed to leave the royal family, Harry left with her.
They’re offering the public a rare chance to redeem the memory of the virgin sacrifice whose life we destroyed. So while pop culture remains committed to constantly revisiting the details of what happened to Diana and why, Harry and Meghan offer us a chance to retell the Diana story yet again — this time with a happy ending at last.