You can count on one hand how many figureheads of modern pop culture have ruled the roost both in life and after it. Obviously you’ve got your Monroes, your Presleys, your Aaliyahs and your Winehouses but none of these greats lives on through our lips, or in our hearts, quite like Princess Diana.
Then again, our Lady Di was certainly no ordinary cultural figure. She was a rose betwixt the thorns of Britain’s most famous family (other than the Beckhams), a living bridge between a wildly out-of-touch ruling class and British society at large, the singular catalyst for the cycling shorts revival of 2019. Need we go on?
She’s currently (once again) lighting up the Twitter trending list due to the forthcoming biopic starring Kristen Stewart, a Netflix musical and a popular revival of a certain handbag. So we’re curious what Gen Z (anyone born from 1997 aka the year of Diana’s death) think about the People’s Princess.
If you weren’t old enough to see the style chess move that was the Revenge Dress play out in real time or sit transfixed in front of the telly as she gave Martin Bashir an unprecedented peek into her own personal hell (aka marriage to the heir to the throne), you’d be forgiven for assuming that Diana was a figment of some folkloric myth whose acts of kindness and tenacity found their way into our lives through the whispers of elder family members and strangers on the internet. A new wave of high-budget cinema is fixing to change all that, quenching the world’s strange fascination with those taken before their time through the medium of film and, er, TikTok.
For Gen Z gays like me, Diana died before we were even born but she still actively contributes to our meme culture, which I think is hilarious.
Why now? It might be stating the obvious to say that interest – or, rather, scorn – surrounding the royal family has intensified enormously over the past year. From Prince Harry and Meghan Markle taking on the establishment in a landmark interview with Oprah Winfrey to the still-unfolding details of Prince Andrew’s alleged connection to Jeffrey Epstein, Britain’s most famous family certainly has a lot to answer for.
Most likely, though, it’s Emma Corrin’s portrayal of the people’s princess in Netflix’s The Crown that has Diana’s name on our lips once again. Over 10 episodes, Corrin took us through Diana’s meeting with Prince Charles (played by Josh O’Connor) at 16, the whirlwind romance that followed, tours of Australia and a looming divorce, capturing Di’s well-affected Britishness with haunting accuracy (excitingly, in August we were treated to the first glimpse of Elizabeth Debicki as Diana who is taking over from Corrin in the next series of The Crown).
Though Corrin’s performance was well-received, scoring her several awards, self-described ‘Diana reincarnate’ and casting researcher George Jones, 22, reckons there were more suitable candidates for the role. “She definitely wasn’t tall enough. I would have casted myself or Morgana Robinson (from the Natalie Cassidy sketch),” he jokes. Born two years after Diana’s death, Jones and HRH share a birthday, a spiritual connection and a penchant for self-expression that not even the Queen could quash.
So many women can relate to her struggle on a human level, regardless of the pressure of being a royal. She put on a brave face despite having her privacy invaded by the media and being gaslit and manipulated by the most powerful family in the country. To me, she is a martyr.
“Diana is my icon, just as the next queer person’s could be Britney or Mariah,” Jones elaborates. “She ticked all the boxes to become a female icon: an iconic hairstyle, the turbulent public relationship, and she fit into that ‘good girl gone bad’ trope.” Besides her undeniable glamour, Jones believes it’s Diana’s status as the black sheep of the royal family, partying with Freddie Mercury at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern and giving the finger to the stigma around HIV, that makes her such a stannable icon.
The Crown is yet to explore Diana’s bond with the gays of Britain but the show did garner praise for its sensitive discussion of mental health. Molly O’Reilly, 23, a DJ and artist from north London, believes it was imperative that the show opened up a conversation about Diana’s struggles with bulimia, and the betrayal and abuse she suffered at the hands of the royal family. “It teaches people that mental illness affects people of all statuses in society,” she says. “Eating disorders specifically are far more about taking back some control over your life than they are about vanity, which The Crown explains very well.”
O’Reilly has been thinking a lot about Diana of late, mulling over anecdotes passed on from her mother and the sheer humanity of Corrin’s portrayal. “So many women can relate to her struggle on a human level, regardless of the pressure of being a royal,” says O’Reilly. “She was so beloved yet disliked herself so much. She put on a brave face despite having her privacy invaded by the media and being gaslit and manipulated by the most powerful family in the country. To me, she is a martyr.”
Everyone was very ready for me to pretend she got an Ivy Park PR package, and that she would say ‘cunty’ to RuPaul. Apparently those are all things she did – spiritually.
The modern Diana is part urban legend, part internet sensation. Corrin’s magnetic performance turned Diana into a character with viral currency, to be used as a barometer of taste that reflects contemporary news and events, to be marvelled at in fancams and laughed at in memes. Alongside garnering Corrin her own cult following, the show has given TikToker Jack R. Sheppard (@jackshepbaby), 21, material for some of his most viral videos, spoofing Corrin’s Di as a shameless, modern-day beauty influencer and as an imagined guest panellist on RuPaul’s Drag Race, serving up devastating Camilla Parker Bowles shade.
“I was really shocked that it got as much traction as it did, especially the Diana on RuPaul’s Drag Race one, that’s such a specific gay niche,” says Sheppard. So far, he tells me, the response to his videos has been overwhelmingly positive. “Everyone was very ready for me to pretend she got an Ivy Park PR package, and that she would say ‘cunty’ to RuPaul,” he says. “Apparently those are all things she did – spiritually.”
Sheppard goes on to explain that as a generation removed from Diana’s death, this humour comes from people abstracting her campy traits into a character. Think: her skittish, darting eyes, the coy smirk after delivering a solid one-liner, those downwards inflections of her voice when she drifts from a sentence and that oh-so gap yaah “Oh my gosh” catchphrase, which Sheppard recites for me perfectly.
The humour and gay icon status that Diana has acquired makes her more accessible but Sheppard believes that this is more as a cultural figure who exists in popular media, not as a “member of an immensely wealthy and archaic institution”. For many young people, the increased awareness of the murky legacy of the royals splits public opinion almost in half. On the one hand, she’s class in a glass, sophistication at its utmost, someone whose children would no doubt have made it onto Made In Chelsea if she hadn’t married into the oldest institution in the country. On the other, she’s a Trojan horse sent from the left to eviscerate the ruling class. “I think the term ‘people’s princess’ is pretty hypocritical when discussing someone who was born into the bourgeoisie,” says 21-year-old sociology graduate Ella Swann.
It always baffles me seeing leftist people so passionately love Diana. I can understand the general consensus that she was a decent person but at the end of the day she was an aristocrat who married into royalty.
In a social media landscape that regularly (and rightfully) delivers shade and scorn to the inboxes of the upper echelons, Swann questions the goddess-like glow that surrounds Diana’s image. “It always baffles me seeing leftist people so passionately love Diana. I can understand the general consensus that she was a decent person but at the end of the day she was an aristocrat who married into royalty,” says Swann. “I don’t hate Diana, but I don’t like her.”
Emma Corrin may have been the match that ignited the media’s latest Diana frenzy but two other colossal productions are hot on The Crown’s heels. The first is Netflix’s recent musical offering, ingeniously titled Diana: The Musical. Where previous enactments of Diana’s life have tended to double down on the tragedy of an icon taken before their time, this takes us on a campy spin through the disillusion of Diana’s marriage, nodding to her ever-growing gay fandom and status as a pop culture phenomenon.
Drag queen Jay Allan, 22, a staunch anti-monarchist who also goes by the name Tresor, was surprisingly taken by the “camp as tits” offering. His indifference towards Diana – “Her family comes from old money so I don’t think she’s that revolutionary” – was never going to stop him from enjoying a good musical. “I didn’t really expect much, Netflix musicals are usually pitiful. I just put it on for some background noise while I was working but the songs were catchy so it ended up very gripping!”
Rest in peace to Princess Diana. Rest in peace babycakes. Its a shame you never got to see drag race UK. You would have been a great judge. You would have loved bimini
— pepper coded bucky girl (@meginatree) January 30, 2021
Still, Allan can appreciate the impact that Diana has on his community today. “For Gen Z gays like me, Diana died before we were even born but she still actively contributes to our meme culture, which I think is hilarious,” he says, citing Twitter’s “Our Di would have loved…” era as a personal favourite. A standard means of communication for those of us who grew up on the internet, even the most sordid situations can become a meme. Case in point: Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Taylor Armstrong breaking down over her abusive marriage ending up as a world famous spectacle of her seemingly declaring war with a cat.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Gen Z, learning of Diana via spoofs by the likes of Drag Race’s Katya Zamolodchikova or, indeed, their favourite Netflix show and meme page, have latched on to her as a comedic figure. This perception of Diana may be about to change, however, with Pablo Larraín’s latest project, Spencer. Armed with Film Twitter’s most celebrated actor and ruler of vampire-adjacent literature, Kristen Stewart, the director could be well on his way to awards season domination, at least if the flick’s current Rotten Tomatoes score of 91% is anything to go by.
“I felt very proud when I found out that Kristen would be playing Diana,” says 20-year-old Izzy (aka @edwardcull3n), “but in another vein, nervous, because I knew that she would be playing a figure that is so loved by so many people, and that it would be important that she did Diana justice.”
Perhaps not the most obvious choice of actor to play the ultimate Brit, the fact this is the role of a lifetime is not lost on this Australian film stan. “That kind of prevalence doesn’t just disappear and I think a lot of Gen Z has become more invested in and learned more about Diana over the last few years because of Meghan and Harry’s situation, and even platforms like TikTok, where stories and rumours of the royals trend and circulate pretty regularly,” she says.
jisoo tried to run away with princess diana’s dior bag 😭 pic.twitter.com/8yJEVFZ6qd
— youngro loops (@jsIoops) October 4, 2021
As negativity towards the Royal Family continues to grow and fester, with The Independent reporting earlier this month that the Queen will be funding Prince Andrew’s legal defence in an ongoing sexual assault case, Izzy believes Diana’s colossal gravitational pull will always fascinate people. “She reshaped the way people see the royal family and dared to speak out and stand up for herself and the things she believed in. Shows like The Crown and films like Spencer just go to show that her story and legacy will continue to endure the test of time, and people will continue to be interested in the life of this woman who had such a monumental effect on the world.”
So hold on to your commemorative plates girls, because if you’re somehow acquiring relevance on K-Pop Twitter 24 years after your death, like our Di did a few weeks ago when BLACKPINK’s Jisoo jokingly made off with one of her Dior bags (sans gloves), then I reckon your status as a pop culture icon isn’t going anywhere in a hurry…
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