The Princess Puzzle
Why do women who thought they'd outgrown fairy tales find that a dream died with Diana?
Two nights after the death of Princess Diana, my 4-year-old son happened to tell me, in our habitual bedtime chat, about an important difference between him and his best friend. "When Zoe grows up," he told me, "she's going to be Princess Honorine."
And what, I asked him, are you going to be?
"I'm just going to be Willie," he said, in the patient tone of one stating the obvious. And there it is, already, the essential divide that explains why men and women, in America at least, had radically different reactions to Princess Diana's death.
As women swapped confessions about crying when they heard the news, many men scratched their heads in anthropological wonderment at the convulsive grief around them. While women talked about "Di" as if she had been someone they really knew--about her genuineness, her charity work, the way she raised her boys--men seemed to fix on the chemistry of whether the driver had imbibed three times--or was it four?--the legal alcohol limit before climbing behind the wheel.
The contrast was perfectly captured by Internet chat rooms, where women posted messages of devastation describing an "angel" and a "saint." The men--greatly outnumbered--seemed chiefly animated by conspiracy theories (Was it British intelligence? Or was it the palace?). In the online magazine Salon, a female contributor, Kate Moses, wrote an article explaining "Why part of me died with Diana." The magazine's section for reader responses had a discussion thread titled "I Don't Give a Rat's [Posterior] About the Death of Diana." It was, of course, initiated by a man.
Royal-watching has always been more the province of women than of men: Where male Anglophiles go in for hunting prints and Winston Churchill biographies, female Anglophiles fill their homes with Windsor tea caddies and coronation plates. Not surprisingly, 89 percent of the readers of the British magazine Majesty are female.
But Diana's entry onto the scene in 1981 launched a far more visceral phenomenon. Diana meant something to women from the first time we saw her. As the wedding approached, some women bought into Diana's nascent myth with the same uncomplicated hunger that sent them to paperback romances, while others saw it as a chance to sneak a wistful snack from the enchanting bridal pastry. Many women of Diana's own generation, schooled in feminism, wallowed a bit ruefully in the fantasy being enacted before our eyes, yet still we wallowed. A female colleague who was then in the Air Force remembers her fellow military intelligence trainees, fresh from the rigors of basic training, sitting a predawn vigil in their barracks to watch the royal wedding, their eyes glazed with yearning.
The reason wasn't hard to grasp. Diana brought to life, on the grandest scale, the archetype of the princess inscribed on every girl's heart. It is written there by fairy tale, by girls' games and jump-rope rhymes, by Uncle Walt and his insidious successors at Disney. (Even today, Disney's fall merchandise catalog includes not only a junior Cinderella costume, but an adult version, priced at $56. "You're never too old to dream of being a princess," the ad copy advises.) Every little girl has, at some age, some totem--a swirling dress, a tattered wand, a spangled tutu--that is her own claim to the throne.
Note, though, that it is the rare little girl who wants to grow up to be queen. To wish to be a princess is not simply to aspire upward, to royalty; it is also to aspire to perpetual daughter-hood, to permanent shelter. To dependency. And this is where Diana's grip on our imagination grew more complicated. For even at the start, it was easy to see the drawbacks. There was the complete loss of freedom. There were the medieval undertones to the whole deal. (How did they know she was a virgin? we asked our friends; and, well, who conducted the negotiations on this point, and how?) And there was that chilling suspicion that Charles was, by nature, a less than fervent suitor: When an early interviewer asked the couple if they were in love, and the dewy bride-to-be Diana replied, "Of course," Charles muttered the quintessential guy disclaimer, "Whatever love is." Any modern woman who had been around the block knew this routine.
The bounder. Over time, Diana's awful marriage subverted the myth as fully as she had embodied it in the first place. Women only loved her more for this. Those who most deeply believed in the fairy tale felt a great sense of loss, to be sure. But these women remained fiercely attached to her in her trials, stubbornly hoping to see the dream redeemed.
Women of a more feminist bent felt relief, even gratitude, at the crumbling of the Windsor marriage. With every sign of her unhappiness, we could tell ourselves that, yes, our yearnings toward dependency notwithstanding, it really was a better deal out here on the pavement. Whichever way we saw it, we had crucial things at stake in the collapse of the myth.
While her example enabled us to escape some of our illusions about life in the castle, Diana wasn't so fortunate. She never really escaped the castle itself. And she was let down not just by her own marriage and her role but by almost every man she seems to have loved.
Beyond Charles there was Capt. James Hewitt, the riding instructor who kissed and told. And there was Dodi Fayed, with his fast life and bad debts and abandoned California fiancee. There remained some women--those whose illusions had the hardiest roots--who hoped he might finally prove to be the happy ending, the One True Prince. But he was so transparently a bad bet: a man who, in another age, would have been called a bounder.
And even if she found some well-deserved delight in his arms, he failed her in the end as badly as one person can fail another. Once the hysterics surrounding the paparazzi's deplorable behavior subside, there will be only one clear conclusion to draw from Diana's sad end in a car owned by the Fayeds and driven to its violent stop by an intoxicated Fayed functionary: that for all her fame and her 36 years and her accomplished motherhood and her millions, the life of a princess prepared her very poorly to look after herself.
Gilt carriage. And this is why the manner of her death, even more than her life, has a terrible power for women. It is such a stark lesson to us all, from those who still cling to their princess fantasies to those who have entirely relinquished them to the greater number of women who fall somewhere between those extremes. As long as Diana was out there, plying her glamorous, uncertain path to a full self, we could at least retain our ambivalence about the myth. We've known for a while that trying to be a princess can stifle you, but it's horrible to think it can kill you.
This is where men begin to adopt puzzled frowns. Can this old drama really be so powerful in the lives of modern women? In fact, this drama is girlhood and young womanhood in America: a succession of choices between the possibilities of independence and the seductions of dependence.
It is the rare woman who hasn't a story about silencing her own fears while riding shotgun, as a teenager or a young woman, in a car driven unsafely by a guy she wanted to please. I have my own humiliating memory of riding through France, as it happens, on a vacation--in a car with three other people: my boyfriend, his brother, and the brother's girlfriend. I was almost 10 years younger than Diana was at the time of her death. The brother, at the wheel of our rented Renault, drove at a terrifying speed around the stony corners of the towns we passed through. It was one of the few times I've feared for my life in a car. But in the course of four or five hours, I only managed to peep a few times, in my most apologetic, placatory, good-girl tones, that I wished he would slow down.
My cowardice is unthinkable to me today. Yet I still have pangs of nostalgia about being swept off to France; and there are times, I regret to say, when I miss that good girl's easy manner and pleasing ways.
This, finally, is the difference in men's and women's feelings about the life and death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The moral of the story is that whether she's riding in a gilt carriage that bears her to St. Paul's Cathedral for the wedding of the century, or in a black Mercedes that bears her to her death, a passenger--which is the most a princess can hope to be--is never in charge. It's a hard lesson for women to learn, and it's one that men knew all along.
This story appears in the September 15, 1997 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.