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Examining the Psychological Narrative Behind "The Princess"

The HBO documentary illuminates the human charisma of Princess Diana.

Key points

  • The anniversary of Diana's death helps us reflect on our views of what is acceptable and realistic in healthy adult relationships.
  • Diana was one of the most heavily covered celebrities in our lifetimes, with the press caught in a toxic symbiotic relationship with her.
  • We learn from her that we can listen to that voice that tells us what is right and what we deserve in the face of emotional neglect and abuse.

Yet another famous anniversary comes all too quickly: this one being the 25th of the shocking and sad sudden death of Princess Diana in Paris. The veteran Chinese American journalist Howard Chua-Eoan wrote back then in Time Magazine (December 29, 1997) a moving summary of the mass mourning event for the People’s Princess:

Why did so many people mourn? Why do so many mourn her still? Was it because when the heroine of a fairy tale perishes, something dies in us as well?... In the monumental ruin of Diana's life, people saw the limits of their own aspirations…It is ourselves we mourn for.

Accordingly, this anniversary helps us reflect on the state of our own lives, and how we have matured in our views of what is acceptable and realistic in healthy adult relationships as we see what failed so painfully in Diana’s.

Unusual Documentary Technique

The recent HBO documentary "The Princess" uses a fascinating and unusual technique of piecing together existing footage without any direct commentary or narrative other than what people in the footage clips themselves are saying. Somehow, it really works in a show-not-tell way, even brutally at times, with thinly veiled barbs from Charles, sniping patronizingly at his young bride, or obnoxious reporters accusing her of sundry manipulations and hypocrisies, showing all their teeth to the viewers in this context.

The method also works because Diana was one of the most heavily covered celebrities in our lifetimes, with the press caught in a toxic symbiotic relationship with their idol and prey all at once, feasting on every snapshot and moment of her, even if she also obliged in kind at times and was occasionally able to control the beast to her advantage. Accordingly, there is a detailed record of the whole story, the private rendered public. We were all complicit in watching this story, even if it was also in some ways their duty as the antiquated institution of a royal family; they are paid by the government to be human figureheads, and they obliged in destructive detail, showing all the foibles of a mismatched and doomed marriage, in play-by-play format.

As many have noted, Diana and Charles both fell victim to outdated social expectations in an outdated establishment. They were pressured into an arranged marriage of an emotionally neglected but suitably aristocratic young virgin, barely of legal age, to a spoiled, entitled prince 12 years older. He was already in love with another married woman, one year older than him, but didn’t have the guts to pursue her until it was too late to avoid trouble. Neither was in any position to fulfill the psychological needs of the other, leading to increasing cruelty and heartbreak.

Diana, in particular, seemed left to flounder behind the scenes in a cold, repressive environment, in direct contrast to her natural gifts of emotional intelligence and political savvy as a more modern sort of public figure. Instead of nurturing those gifts, the royal family seemed to treat her with resentment and a kind of emotional abuse, as a usurper of their “god-given birthright” to dominance (which is, of course, also an outdated mindset that led directly to the elimination of most royal families in the early 20th century).

She reacted at home with psychological distress and pain, with her bulimia and multiple suicide attempts, which they used to just blame and pull away further from her. In terms of her public persona, she had a different sort of love–hate relationship with the public…seeking reassurance and love that she could not find at home, but that sometimes turned to obsessive and suffocating stalking by that public.

Flourishing in Her Later Years

Therefore, it was the most moving part of the documentary to see Diana herself emerging as increasingly confident and self-assured in her own power in her later years, ready to fight back against the dysfunctional world of the royals she had just escaped via a reluctant divorce, but ultimately losing her battle against the predatory media monster created in the void. (Ironically, there’s a moment when the media calls her the “monster” for asking them to back off during a press conference.) In her 30s, she was outspoken and frank in revealing how the royals had betrayed her, particularly Charles, who essentially never let go of his first love.

She also increasingly flourished in her role as a celebrity humanitarian, breaking through taboos that the uptight royals never would have crossed. She openly hugged and sympathized with patients with AIDS, starving children in Africa, victims of exploded mines in Asia, and more. She was always visibly a devoted mother to her two adorable sons. She then pursued a whirlwind interracial romance with Dodi Al-Fayed. One doesn’t know how the relationship would have ultimately ended, but it was still a sign of her self-assured willingness to put herself and her happiness first now. But her boldness only inflamed the rapacious attention of the monster, leading to the pursuit into the Paris roadway tunnels…and we know how that ended.

This makes the final tragedy all the more poignant: Diana was clearly rising into her best self and truly finding her voice when she sadly perished. She had the It Factor that made so many of us unable to turn away from the spotlight on her: a gift for human connection as a public figure. She was unafraid to show empathy and kindness to anyone, regardless of her royal status, and did not seem to want to follow repressive (and often patriarchal, sexist, and racist) social traditions simply for their own sake. A quarter century later, we can learn that lesson despite what happened to her: that we can listen to that voice that tells us what is right, what we deserve for ourselves and others in the face of emotional neglect or abuse, and we can free ourselves. It seems her son Harry has learned that lesson as well and followed in her footsteps.