We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana of Wales. Her philanthropic efforts and fashion impact maintains a key part of her legacy. As the years passed, it was inevitable that Princess Di would have a biopic adaptation. That biopic was welcomed with celebration and acclaim from the public who adored her.
What wasn’t expected was how close the variations of adapting her life would release in such quick succession. In the past two years we’ve had four Diana adaptations across different genres and mediums. The fourth season of The Crown (2020) released during lockdown had everyone glued to their screens. Emma Corrin’s performance of a naïve Diana in the early stages of her marriage was riveting. Broadway put on their choreographed take with Diana: The Musical (2021) which was met with mixed reviews; they sung pop ballads and tap-danced during serious moments of her life. Most recently, Kristen Stewart has stunned audiences in Spencer (2021). A psychological drama, set during one Christmas break at Sandringham when Diana decides to end her marriage to Prince Charles.
Later this year The Crown will return for its fifth season. It will continue chronicling Diana’s life with Elizabeth Debicki stepping in the jeweled shoes of her revenge dress post-divorce era. Add in a couple of direct-to-TV movies, documentaries and serial-themed podcasts and Diana’s life has become more commercialized in death than in life. It’s as if she herself is an intellectual property that Hollywood can reboot again and again.
This is why I’ve been convinced that all these movies and series could never capture Diana’s essence; not the way my mother and late-grandmother could. Diana was mentioned ever so casually in conversations and gossip sessions. She was mourned for as if she was a member of the family I had not met. For disclaimer’s sake I have to clarify that I am not British nor have I ever been to England; that I have no familial ties nor network connections to the Royal Family. But I am part of the South Asian diaspora. It seems like my mother, along with many other non-white immigrant and diaspora mothers of the 90s knew and loved Diana like a sister.
It would be shameful to reduce this to a ‘para-social’ relationship. That term which probably didn’t even exist when Diana was alive. This was more than just a celebrity and an obsessed fan. I say this despite the collection of plates painted with Diana’s face my mother used to own. And despite the vitriol rage that’s immediately activated when one mentions Prince Charles or Camilla. If Diana was seen as a long-lost sister, then Prince William and Prince Harry were the nephews my mother was deeply concerned over. They were “Diana’s boys” and her passing meant that they would grow up under their father’s influence.
My mother would page through tabloid newspapers and magazines while waiting in the grocery store line. A sigh escaping over the latest scandal of the Princes as they grew up to the men they are today. Diana was known as the “people’s princess”. But these experiences are prominent in Black and South Asian mothers no matter where in the world they grew up. Our mothers referred to Diana like their blood, and fought for her all the same.
If anything, the fame did not distance the relationship between our mothers and Diana. Her life was continuously captured in the beginning of the toxic paparazzi era. The public watched her achieve every girl’s dream: marriage. At this point in her life, Diana represented the belief held by so many immigrant women and families. Your life begins once you are married. This honeymoon phase was filled with beautiful dresses and dazzling jewelry, but Diana’s eloquence surpassed such materialistic definitions of a princess. While she accepted the cameras in her face with grace, our mothers saw through her façade of fake smiles, because it reflected their reality at the same time; unhappiness in marriage and interference from in-laws.
Essentially, Diana mirrored the experiences of immigrant women in the way which she faced disrespect and abuse, both from her family, from her husband and from the public. What was interesting to note is that if immigrant women didn’t see themselves as Diana, they definitely saw the men in their community as Charles. Men with power to protect their women who choose to let their wives bear the burdens of their mistakes.
Like Diana, immigrant women were held to impossible standards and expected to exceed those standards. This while also being held accountable for the actions of the men in their lives. Diana made immigrant women feel seen and, more importantly, she made immigrant women feel loved. Her struggles were similar to what was happening in their own lives, granted on a much grander and whiter scale. In the wake of Charles’ affair and the divorce that followed, immigrant women cheered for Diana’s strength. They were proud that she couldleave a marriage that no longer served her when they could not.
Women from cultural backgrounds and patriarchal communities were expected to remain in dysfunctional households and stay devoted to flawed men. All for fear of “what would the people say?”. Diana’s rebellion against her Royal in-laws, managing to pave her own path, was unheard of. For an independent woman to make a name for herself beyond her husband, and to achieve freedom and true love. Even if this freedom and true love was short-lived. This is where the fairy-tale ended, and where the sisterhood extended beyond her death.
While this tether between immigrant women and Diana remains strong, I can’t help but think back to all the years I didn’t understand when it comes to my own Royal para-social bond with Meghan Markle. As an avid watcher of Suits (2011-2019), Meghan played the tailored-cut Rachel Zane. She sparked my own interest in fashion and formality. It was like déjà vu – an actress I admired entered the Royal family, and as their hostilities towards her became known, I instinctively became protective over a woman I have never met.
My mother and I were glued to our screens when Prince Harry and Meghan sat down with Oprah Winfrey for a special televised episode after their choice to depart from the Royal family. Two generations of South Asian diaspora and this obscurely intimate bond we had with modern-day princesses steeped in emotional abuse from their in-laws. The sense of familiarity from the Oprah episode was not the gossip sessions and stories shared over tea that my mother and aunts had discussed over Diana, but my similar experiences and thoughts of entering historically white institutions like Meghan.
Harry’s remark that he was “worried history was going to repeat itself” rang alarms through us all. Unconsciously, Meghan inherited trauma from Diana the same way I, among many first-generation daughters, had inherited trauma from my mother. However, this time the fairy-tale had to end differently. Harry and Meghan worked to break the generational cycle of silencing women and the trauma of serving a family, an institution, that proved to be more harmful than beneficial. These small steps to break away and to empower young woman to carve their own path in life shone twice as much now as it did twenty years ago when Diana chose to flee.
Even in a time that has seen waves of feminism and queer theory, both of which were mere puddles in the 90s, Harry and Meghan’s vulnerability was empowering. How could I not root for Meghan in this instance? Diana and Meghan and immigrant women have found themselves in this cursed cave, echoing each other’s traumas and comforting each other’s inner conflicts. But there’s a way out of this cave and the path points towards the light. These women have shown that choosing yourself is the most difficult thing to do but you are never alone. You have a sister, even if she maybe thousands of miles away, she performs these silent acts of love towards your freedom. You are never alone.
For more from Amaarah check out her review of Cobra Kai Season 4 here.