Twenty-three years after her untimely death, Princess Diana remains both a beloved and controversial figure who continues to wield power and influence over a royal family she nearly brought down. Her evolution from the shy, demure teenager uncomfortable with the public spotlight to a potent, confident figure on the world stage is one of the great makeovers of the twentieth century. What drove her to this evolution? How did her unhappy marriage with the future King of England influence this incredible transformation and how much of a role did her mother-in-law and Queen play in her fate? Why does the legacy of this young woman endure? These are just some of the issues raised in Season 4 of THE CROWN as the courtship and early years of the union in the Royal House of Windsor are retold in dramatic fashion.
In my previous two posts regarding THE CROWN, I wrote of the Queen’s concern towards the working poor and persecuted South African Blacks. But her empathy was often limited to the public sphere as she apparently didn’t always extend this compassion to her vulnerable daughter-in-law. As the monarch, she believed that duty to Great Britain took precedence over considerations of personal happiness and that the proper response to an unhappy marriage was a stiff upper lip. THE CROWN portrays Queen Elizabeth as advocating for what can best be described as an arranged marriage. And who can blame her for wanting Diana as the future Princess of Wales? Lady Diana Spencer checked all the boxes. She was beautiful. She was still a teenager so she would be able to provide the royal family with an heir and a spare. She came from an aristocratic background, so she had already mastered the social graces required of being a member of the royal family. There was no hint of scandal in her background. And perhaps most significantly, she possessed an eager-to-please personality suggesting she’d be pliable and submissive to the demands of the royal family. The monarch pushed for a marriage without considering the harsh realities of being a royal and the toll it could take on a vulnerable girl not remotely savvy in the ways of the worldly and emotionally remote Windsors.
The world is familiar with the story of this ill-fated match. THE CROWN faithfully depicts the extent of the turmoil this marriage exerted on the young Princess while it also takes care to show her as a woman of substance who possessed a strong character and fierce determination to advocate for those not born into her privileged position. She rose above her personal torment and unhappiness and, at least, initially became the monarch’s secret weapon in cementing its influence. She accompanies her husband on a strategically important visit to Australia, a country that was then on the verge of leaving the commonwealth. Princess Diana proved enormously popular with the Australian public, drawing enormous crowds. The trip was a huge success and Princess Diana was rightfully credited (or blamed depending on your point of view) with Australia remaining member of the commonwealth.
But it’s the compassion she displayed towards others where she truly shined and made her greatest mark on the world, contributions that resonated on a global scale. This probably accounts for why she remains such a beloved figure. THE CROWN reenacts her tour of New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis. On this trip, her first solo diplomatic tour, she earns the title bestowed on her after her death as the “People’s Princess.” She is taken to the pediatric wing of Harlem Hospital which was at the time treating children suffering from AIDS. She makes headlines cradling a small child ailing from the disease, an act considered controversial at the time as there was a great deal of prejudice and fear surrounding the illness. But Princess Diana’s act helped to lessen the stigma of the disease and reminded the world of the humanity of those suffering from it.
Lamentably, Princess Diana was punished for her success rather than rewarded, a predicament to which many women can relate. THE CROWN depicts the fallout from the trip as contributing to the demise of her marriage. It’s the end of her fairytale marriage but the start of her liberation from the restraints of both an ill-suited husband and the royal family.
Does Princess Diana deserve to be remembered as a feminist heroine? I think she does. Yes, it’s true that as a former member of the royal family she was in a position of great privilege but that didn’t insulate her from the personal pain and struggles to which many women can relate and empathize. Future seasons of THE CROWN will undoubtedly depict the growing stature of Princess Diana as an activist and philanthropist who became a potent symbol as a single woman who thrived after the heartbreak of being cast aside by her husband and his family. Her legend continues to captivate the public and she remains a beloved figure, perhaps best remembered as the demure teenager who would go on to nearly topple a system that treated her with such contempt.
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