Diana: The day the fairy tale died
By Rod Van Mechelen
1997 Bellevue, Wash. - History will little note nor long remember today's British Royal family, for little they have done is worth noting. Joining most of their predecessors, they will gather like lint in the musty vaults of a sometimes noble tradition. Their oiled portraits will loiter with all the rest along corridors of state, faces from the past whose lives left no lasting impression.
This day, this hour, with the death of Princess Di, they occupy the focal point of world attention. Yet, so lacking in substance is Britain's monarchy that, generations hence, Diana Spencer may be the only one anybody remembers. When the man who would be King, Charles, joins her, will anyone be able to say he accomplished more than Diana, who not only brought a simple humanity to the halls of Buckingham palace, but learned to use the paparazzi, whom she hated, to promote noteworthy causes.
Ask the press, they will tell you Princess Di's fairy tale life ended August 31, 1997. What most miss, however, is that the fairy tale died in 1963, before Diana was even two years old.
England's First Housewife
That was the year Betty Friedan began the modern feminist movement by giving a name to the feelings of dread, depression and despair felt by millions of nuclear family housewives, whose primary purposes were to make babies and homes, be the "little woman," and engage in community-maintenance charity work. The The Feminine Mystique impugned the very institution Britain expected Diana to fulfill.
Once married, Diana became England's First Housewife; June Cleaver on a high pedestal. At 19, however, Di was no Barbara Billingsley keeping a tidy little castle in Whitebread, America, but a society teen whose highest aspirations were to bop, shop and talk. Not that Charles was much of a prize, beyond his hereditary title. His primary interests, beyond fulfilling his own obligations as heir, include horses, gardening and looking at old buildings. Not exactly the stuff of legend.
Once upon a time, such things might have not mattered. Breed more heirs, appear at official functions, and carry on royal dalliances at a discrete distance from public life. Not anymore. British fascination with the Windsors created the paparazzi, who, we must wonder, might do anything to snap a shot of one of them taking a royal dump.
Paparazzi to blame?
Many, of course, blame the paparazzi for Diana's untimely death. In turn, many of the paparazzi protest the very people who blame them are the ones who created the market that sustains the tabloids who buy the privacy-violating portraits of life behind the royal veil. Indeed, such was their appetite for a taste of royal blood that even the princess grumbled, "any sane person would have left (Britain) long ago." She may have endeared herself to her public, but they did precious little to endear themselves to her. What price the privileges of rank?
"Don't blame us if the plebes demand bread and circuses; we but cater to their desires." An easy excuse, and a lame one, too: cater to the lowest common denominator, and the lowest common denominator is what you will get. Cultivate the good, ...but there's a vocation worthy, one might say, of a prince. Or a princess. Something Diana, after years of playing the virtuous victim of an aloof husband and stuffy in-laws, seemed prepared to do.
With a divorce settlement of $22.5 million and $600,000 a year in her pocket, the princess outgrew her role as victim to fulfill the fantasy of "liberated" single mothers everywhere. At last, she had it all: fame, fortune, the wherewithal to be the ultimate earth mother, and the attention of dashing rakes everywhere.
She used her celebrity precisely how we might hope someone in her position would. How we might think her ex husband should. The way countless generations of women before her, she used her femininity to draw our attention to needful things. Like the Red Cross campaign against land mine use. She may have gotten her power the old fashioned way, and then consolidated it in a way that would do pop feminists proud, but she used it with wisdom and grace.
Most of the time. Clearly, she was not above leveraging the glamour of the spotlight into love, and in the end, her taste in men may have contributed, more than anything else, to her demise. Ironically, had this been a movie -- Hollywood make-believe rather than real life -- pop feminist flakes, like Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, almost certainly would have railed against it as another example of sexist script writers punishing the liberated woman. But this was real life. Di may have matured as a humanitarian, but she had one too many dates with destiny, and his name was Dodi Fayed.
What kind of man rouses the passions of a princess?
Intimates say the teenage Diana dreamed of being a dancer, or the princess of Wales. Not long after one of those fantasies came true, it became very obvious she hadn't a clue what Royalty really do. How could she, the daughter of an Earl, not know? Perhaps because her step-grandmother is famed romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland.
As recently as the mid 1980s, Cartland's formula for romantic love set the standard for contemporary romance novels. Women, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, consumed her books by the millions. Compelling tales featuring shy, misunderstood women and the powerful men who swept them off their feet. To the young Lady Diana, Charles represented that man. A hero who would make her happy ever after.
As so many other women before and since, Di soon discovered fairy tales aren't real. Happily ever after isn't free. Young love cannot conquer disillusionment and boredom. Even heroes are human.
With the divorce and a reasonable degree of wealth, Diana was free as few women ever are to look for the kind of man whose interests and activities complemented her own. Was Dodi Fayed, the high living playboy notorious for not paying his bills, really that man? Or was he another icon drawn from the host of handsome rakes in Cartland's novels?
Despite all she had been through, was the princess still living in a soap opera, the sordid old giving way to the sordid new? Had they lived, would Dodi have dumped her as he did so many other women? Like so many other women, would she have bitterly surmised all men are either hidebound members of "ye olde" guard, or predatory ne'er do wells? Or would she have at last come to the end of the fairy tale to find real life, real love and real joy?
We will not know. What we do know is she still had hope, still longed to love and be lovable, and that her decency and desire to do, not well so much as good, inspires us to hope that as she is laid to rest, all of us may learn from the lessons of her life.
Rod Van Mechelen
Rod Van Mechelen is the author of What Everyone Should Know about Feminist Issues: The Male-Positive Perspective (the page now includes several articles by other authors), and the publisher of The Backlash! @ Backlash.com. He is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and served for 9-1/2 years on the Cowlitz Indian Tribal Council.