The ‘People’s Princess’ or ‘ar Di’? Exploring constructed images of Princess Diana

Our collective memory of Princess Diana is divided and arguably dichotomous. Is she really the demure, smiling People’s Princess? Or, is she a constructed symbol of white femininity? Is she a victim of the royal family’s coldness, or is she an antagonistic force against the existence of the British monarchy? Or, is she simply a style icon for our mothers and extensionally a subject of amusing internet memes for Gen Z?

I believe that at one point or another, in the minds of the members of the British public, she has assumed (or has been constructed to assume) all of these roles, transgressing from her traditionally assigned position in the Nation’s collective memory to a new role, symbolic of anti-monarchist sentiment. This is made blatant through the differing names assigned to her: Princess Diana, ‘The People’s Princess’ or even ‘’ar Di’. All these labels speak to differing interpretations of a national symbol embodied by one, singular woman.

I aim here, to tell the story of these varying constructed images of Diana and illustrate how the image of white femininity has been inverted using social media by Gen Z. As sources of information have evolved and multiplied, as has the way in which we perceive collective memories. This ever-increasing catalogue has exposed the way in which the nation was conditioned to grieve Diana and we see younger generations ‘re-membering’ Diana in a new way, a way in which a rising anti-monarchist sentiment is satisfied.

The tragedy of Princess Diana’s death was widely reported on in the media. The death of ‘The People’s Princess’, as Sarah Marshall puts it in the podcast You’re Wrong About (2020), is “the reason your mum cried that day”. However, it was not just mums who were touched by the tragedy. Diana’s death was met with a global outpouring of grief and was further accompanied by numerous items produced in the media including docuseries; newspaper supplements; television programmes; and even commemorative plates (Shome 2010, p.324). Defined as a moment of “unity, emotionality and intense adulation: for Diana” (Thomas, 2008, p.363), the initial mourning process was one which has been said to suppress discourses dissent and animosity towards the royal family by reconstructing Diana not as the mistreated ex-wife of the heir to the throne, but as a national symbol of white femininity (Shome, 2010).

White femininity is an institutionalised role of traditionally perceived feminine characteristics produced by the patriarchy. It is utilised as a tool to reinstate the strength of the quintessentially British nation (Shome, 2010). This is something which may have been particularly key at a time when animosity towards the Royal Family was raised through the divorce of Princess Diana and Prince Charles and the traditional values of the Conservative party were waning in popularity in the face of the new and successful Blairite government. Shome (2010) stipulates that white femininity here is not meant in a genetically predetermined sense but in the constructed sense, produced by patriarchal values and intended to naturalise racialised, gendered norms.

Therefore, in death, the role the media constructed for Diana was one which could fit the parameters of performative white femininity. This pervasive media coverage, all pursuing one goal and representation of Princess Diana is key in constructing a collective national memory of her which subsequently bolstered support for the royal family. Considering the previously constructed images of Diana as a ‘loose canon’ (Colombo 2020) whose criticisms of the royals were controversial; it is therefore poignant that the media chose to revert to initial presentations of Diana from the start of her royal journey. This narrow and reductive narrative has since been challenged, and in a more nonsensical way than you may expect.

A recent phenomenon has swept through the internet: the invention and construction of ‘ar Di’. Originating from a Facebook page entitled “Princess Diana- Keep Her Memory Alive (NO TROLLS ALLOWED)”, the new nickname is aimed at parodying the boomer aged ‘wine mums’ (Colombo 2020) who post on Facebook about their love for Princess Diana within her consigned white femininity role. The page features colloquialisms, misspellings and even vilifies Camilla Parker-Bowles further with a widely accepted nickname of ‘Cowmilla’ assigned to the Duchess of Cornwall. Images one and two are demonstrative of typical posts in the group. The more nonsensical the content, the more heightened the ambiguity as the author’s true feelings about the content. However, we’re still left to wonder: What is it about Diana that has inspired the humours of Gen Z?

Image 1

Image 2

These posts are predominantly produced by Gen-Z and millennial members, whose support for the royal family is markedly lower than their parents and grandparents. Support for a republic is the highest it has ever been and this trend is undeniably higher for younger individuals (Opium, 2021, p.5). These posts are therefore best understood as an expression of protest against the national identity and quintessential ‘Britishness’ that the constitutional monarchy has been constructed to represent (McGuigan, 2000).

With recent additions to the pop-culture zeitgeist such as The Crown (2020) and Spencer (2021) portraying the British monarchy as somewhat anarchic (particularly in relation to the treatment of Princess Diana’s struggle with her mental health), Princess Diana has now assumed a new role. No longer the symbol of traditional national identity, she is an icon utilised to (not so) jokingly perpetuate anti-monarchist sentiment. Can these memes therefore be interpreted not just as bizarre and somewhat inaccessible humour, but as politicised statements in favour of monarchist abolition? The negative light in which other members of the royal family are shown in the social media group would suggest as such. Image 3 is demonstrative of the consistent opinion on the page that Prince Charles is the vilified member of the marriage. As a result, there are distinctive, dichotomous roles assumed by each Royal. Diana the victim and hero: Charles the villain.

Image 3

It is notable that in spite of the embodiment of such diverse roles, the one consistent factor in the narrative surrounding Diana is the intense public adulation for her, spanning across all generations. Whether it be as a symbol of traditional white femininity, as portrayed by the British press and consumed by older generations; or as ‘ar Di’ the anti-monarchist icon, Diana’s popularity remains consistent, as does her status as a victim. However, her symbolism is used for entirely different means. In amongst such tragedy, one woman’s identity is utilised and highly politicised but for such contradicting goals. Princess Diana, therefore, in death as well as life, has become a provocative symbol utilised by opposing camps on the question of the monarchy.