On August 31, it will have been 20 years since the Princess of Wales died in a car crash at the age of 36, leaving behind two young sons, millions of mourners who never knew her, and an ongoing controversy about both her life and her death. One of the most closely watched human beings of the 20th century, half of the first couple in the modern history of the British monarchy to divorce, a glamorous but shy, troubled but audacious, admired but scorned woman whose every move drove paparazzi into spasms (and often apparently had the same effect on the Queen), Princess Diana was, to say the least, a complicated public figure. At a time when the British people were particularly disenchanted with “the Royals,” people related to and in many cases adored Diana.
But it was complicated. And the spate of commemorative documentaries unleashed this month on various networks attests to that clearly. Was Diana a victim or a tireless manipulator? Did the royal family hate her or was it more tangled than that? Did they have her killed? Did she die of self-destructive impulses, or in flight from a merciless fleet of paparazzi who wouldn’t leave her alone, no matter the cost? Did the people misunderstand? Was Charles a monster, or just a confused husband with no background in anything but doing as he pleased? Was the Queen heartless, or just conflicted? Was Diana disordered, Borderline, an attention-seeking Queen of Drama? Was she a courageous champion of the underdogs and little guys? Can all of these things be true at once?
Will the real Princess Di please stand up?
Do we need to talk about how people are portrayed and what is OK and what is not, when pubic figures are dissected? What are our ethical responsibilities to those people, to history, to posterity, to the truth? Is there a truth? Is there ever a readily discernible truth to anything?
The aforementioned documentaries range from pallid and obsequious to conniving and disrespectful, and I include the ones that are collaged from her own, privately staged interviews. But if you want to understand her story or context or indemnity, it’s worth watching more than one of them. Once you do that, certain through lines certainly emerge. Here’s what you can expect:
PBS: Diana: Her Story
Once upon a time, an entitled British teenager (and I mean entitled literally, as her family had a title) and self-styled “Sloane Ranger” got engaged to the Prince of Wales, for… reasons. Everyone insisted he was dashing and handsome, in what might have been an early exemplar of “fake news”; from what I can tell, Prince Charles was a spoiled, philandering arse who bore an uncanny resemblance to Alfred E. Newman. Nonetheless, it was a “fairy tale” that lifted the common people out of strife and turmoil and race- and class-related rioting. OK: Actually, it didn’t. But it drew a large crowd. Princess Diana was frequently depressed. She had married into a family that didn’t like her, and her husband flatly refused to stop seeing his horse-faced sidepiece, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Tension over the fact that her husband was flaunting his infidelity in a very public marriage led to Charles and Diana’s separation. At that point, she decided to focus on her own public image, leading her to find a new, more charismatic, less subservient voice, to be more audacious and daring in public, to shake off her shunning by the Royal Family and do Her Own Thang. Which, in the grand scheme of things, was apparently so tame it really shouldn’t have caused shunning.
Then she died in a car accident in Paris. Queen Elizabeth noticed that this made the British people en-masse bummed, so she “allowed” a normal princess-sized funeral to occur rather than…. Whatever else was on the table for funeral arrangements for a woman they’d been trying to sweep aside for years.
That’s about the size of it. People who are too young to remember Charles and Diana’s wedding and their marriage will learn spectacularly little from this documentary, though they will have an uncomfortable revelation about how bad 1980s sleeves were. People who do remember it will just be baffled. Honestly, I think this might be the closest I have been to literally crying from boredom while watching a PBS doc.
HBO: Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy
This documentary is also in the “pathologically respectful” category, but it at least has a focus that makes clear that it understands its own purpose. It’s Diana’s life story as recalled by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. While not especially substantive or deep, it is pleasantly intimate and gives viewers a legitimate peek at a point of view they probably haven’t had access to until now, as Diana’s sons have not spoken much about her in public. You can feel A Lot of Stuff getting glossed over, but it’s lightweight versus insincere. This particular documentary does a good job of reinforcing one of those through lines: Diana was, by all accounts, a loving and deeply engaged parent. This is a warm-hearted look at a couple of boys who are now men and who have never gotten over the untimely and sudden loss of one of their parents because, generally speaking, you don’t get over that. It’s… not typical, at least it wasn’t, for the British royal family to expose much about their private lives or their feelings (Charles and Diana’s incredibly public divorce changed that a bit), and William and Harry are restrained and circumspect in their remembrance of their mother. It’s kind of obvious that there’s a certain amount of reputation damage control going on here, and fair enough: The woman was so dogged by tabloid journalists and accused of everything from being an unfaithful bad-wife attention-seeking troublemaker to being downright mentally ill. This documentary does a really good and arguably needful job of reminding people that this adored and beleaguered public persona was also a human being and the mother of two other human beings who miss her.
Watch both of those documentaries and you’ll probably find yourself wondering: Wait, wasn’t there some kind of scandal? Wasn’t her death… not simple? Wasn’t there suspected foul play and all kinds of weirdness and is everyone going to go all stiff upper lip and pretend there wasn’t? Princess Diana was a tabloid cat-toy from the day she hitched her wagon to the Windsors. In fact, the deemed-guilty parties in the unfortunate accident that took her life were a fleet of overbearing Parisian photojournalists who hounded her car through the streets until the driver lost control in his effort to get away from them.
Are we not supposed to talk about that?
TLC: Princess Diana: Tragedy or Treason?
This is, first of all, a wretchedly bad piece of television, with fuzzed-over actors playing Diana and Charles and a repetitive, reality-show quality that seems to assume one commercial break will make you forget everything you just learned. But it certainly gets at the other side of the coin. In this version of her life and death, Diana was (probably) murdered by MI6 at the behest of someone inside Buckingham Palace. Possibly because she was pregnant out of wedlock, possibly because the baby daddy in question was an Egyptian Muslim, and that they were engaged, and possibly other reasons. Apparently, Diana told a couple of people close to her that she knew she had a bulls-eye on her royal rear and even predicted she would die in a mysterious car crash. They follow the father of Dodi Fayed, the man she was with when she died, as he goes on a quest to prove the royal family had murdered his son and the princess (the elder Fayed did ultimately abandon his pursuit of this conspiracy, though the documentary doesn’t make it completely clear whether that’s because he was presented with irrefutable evidence that he was mistaken, or simply stonewalled into submission). Conspiracy theorists, BFFs, Diana biographer Andrew Morton, and even astrologers and stylists weigh in on the “real” Diana and what maybe-probably might-could have happened to her on that night in Paris.
OK: It is, I suppose, useful for context to understand that these ideas also circulated and that plenty of people believed and continue to believe her death was not a tragic accident.
ABC: The Story of Diana
This is a slightly more, um, reasonable (?) treatment of a confusing and apparently highly compelling subject. The “Diana experts” in this one are less prurient, more measured; there’s interesting archival footage, and you get to know a little more about her own upbringing and some of the biographical tributaries that fed into who she was as Princess of Wales.
National Geographic Channel: Diana: In Her Own Words
Now let’s add in National Geographic’s special, because it is standing between us and the proverbial elephant in the room. A markedly, deliberately one-sided piece, constructed entirely from Diana’s own voice over archival footage, it’s compelling, well-executed, and gives a sense of the personal, the intimate—the sense that this is the “real” Princess Diana.
And that’s what none of these programs acknowledge at all: Diana, who complained bitterly about the media, and whose death is blamed figuratively and even literally on paparazzi, was a master orchestrator of her public persona. No one really goes into that part, into the notion that her own words might not be the most authentic or honest. Much of the “never before seen” footage in the documentaries comes from interviews she covertly orchestrated on her own behalf, and it seems clear enough that, regardless of who deserved what, she intended them to be landmines for the Windsors to step on. Princess Diana was an ace self-mythologizer. She very actively encouraged the image of herself as a lonely, isolated, wronged woman, suicidally depressed by her husband’s infidelity. Charles’ refusal to end his relationship with Parker-Bowles was, without a doubt, alienating, upsetting, probably humiliating for her, as it would be for most people with philandering spouses. But she knew exactly what she was marrying into and she did it anyway, all the while characterizing herself as a “lamb led to the slaughter” when she married into the royal family. She used public distaste for the monarchy to her advantage, and she did it deliberately. Master of the confessional, leaker of her own scandals, Diana curried favor with the British people by airing dirty laundry in a way the British monarchy had never previously experienced. She put not only Charles’ affair on display but her own depression and suicidality, cutting, bulimia. She never met with biographer Andrew Morton face to face, a clever move that gave her plausible deniability that she’d participated in the creation of the biography. But of course she participated. Early, and often.
Mix and match a few of these programs and a picture does emerge. It’s a mosaic, and it depicts the life of a woman who was both privileged and troubled, both courageous and manipulative, both generous and resentful, both attention-seeking in the extreme and desperate for refuge from the constant prying of a million eyes. She loved her sons and wanted them to live as “normally” as possible, not in the cosseted style of previous generations of the British royal family. She had an acrimonious divorce from a man who cheated on her. She cheated on him, too. She manipulated the media to win the hearts of the “common” people and it worked.
As it turns out, there is virtually never one answer to the question “But who was this person, really?”
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.