March 29, 2012

{Social Changes Led by a Princess}

[This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of my upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride.]

“When the royal family enfolded Diana,” an article in Newsweek stated the week after the Princess’ funeral, “they thought they had got a rather dim girl from the landowning Norfolk aristocracy—not exactly the stuff of revolution. They could not have known that she would be transformed into an international superstar who would make their lives hell.” Even the feminists of the time were fooled by the mouse that roared. Wondering how more conservative could Britain become when this pretty, pale girl from old landed gentry married into the stale confines of royalty, British journalist Beatrix Campbell called her wedding gown “a shroud,” fearing Diana was giving over her life to disappear inside a dusty patriarchal construct. Others saw it differently.

Diana emerged into the world’s consciousness during the second year of Margaret Thatcher’s landmark run as Prime Minister and Britain, entrenched in a recession, was in turmoil: the country’s traditional industries were in crisis, race riots were destroying neighborhoods in the cities. “Into this unrelieved gloom the royal wedding injected a welcome splash of color and glamour,” the Newsweek article continued, summing up how those who would become “the Princess’ people” felt. “For that reason alone, Diana always carried a fund of good will with her. Yet at the time, few appreciated the central significance of the new princess; she was young and unformed, with enormous potential for growth.” And indeed, from that summer in 1981, Diana’s growth into a striking, outspoken woman paralleled Britain’s own progressive abundant growth into the modern era. Diana may have spent her childhood in the country, but she needed the bustle and stimulation of the city and like much of the country’s youth, Diana loved “London’s glitzy rebellious values.” And for better or worse, she brought “an American style of emotionalism,” as feminist writer Naomi Wolf expressed, to the rigid skin of British reserve.

The Labor Party picked up this youthful call to modernize with forty-three year-old Tony Blair’s campaign for prime minister. Since his “agenda echoed Diana’s,” according to Catherine Mayer’s 2007 Time magazine article “How Diana Transformed Britain,” Diana met in secret with him and his election team in support of Blair’s “mandate to build a more inclusive, caring Britain.”  By the time of her death, only months after Blair’s election, she seemed to embody “how new Britons wanted their country to be.” After centuries of practiced reserve and mystery, it took the Royal Family a little longer to realize the extent of how much the country was changing even though they had clues inside their own family which had been moving, as Newsweek reported, “from archaic rule to modern dysfunctionality.” Then the shock of the Princess’ death left them unprepared for the rising new era of more open public self-expression, the unbuttoning of England’s stiff upper lip sensibility. But thanks to a great degree to Prince Charles’ close relationship with his sons and his continuing Diana’s more equalitarian upbringing for the young princes (as well as the Queen and Prince Philip’s devotion to them), the monarchy learned some of the lessons of Diana. “The People’s Princess,” Mayer wrote, summing up Diana’s impact, “had unlocked hearts, reordered values, presided at the triumph of emotional intelligence over cold intellect, of compassion over tradition.”

Diana shook up some of the most sensitive of human relations, not only of the British Establishment, but also in countries where we think equality reins. “‘She embraced the modern, multicultural, multiethnic Britain without reservation,’” Trevor Phillips, a black television executive who later had a position in the New Labor government, told Newsweek at the time of the Princess’ death. “You could be British and black, Asian or gay—and Diana wouldn’t even notice,” the editors of Newsweek acknowledged. She hugged men with AIDS, “touched lepers in Nepal,” caressed the horrific wounds of children in Africa; she dated Sikh and Muslim men, even falling in love with one. “Unlike most Europeans,” Phillips added, “she had ‘no flinch, no anxiety about race…for non-white Britons, she was like a beacon in the darkness.’”

Dickie Arbiter, who had been press secretary to various royals, including Diana, and was in charge of media arrangements for her funeral, “recalls a strange, muted, mournful night after the Princess died,” Catherine Mayer described for Time. “He encountered a group of wheelchair users on their way to lay flowers at Kensington Palace” and overheard them saying: “‘Who’s going to speak for us, now?’” As Arbiter continued to muse about all of the marginalized citizens for whom Diana had given voice, he paused and added: “‘She’d have made a good Queen, you know.’”

Whatever title Diana had or would have had, she got our attention for what really mattered and her heart’s purpose lives on. “The fact that she was—undeniably—on occasion manipulative, deceitful and self-centered,” Mayer emphasized, “should not blind us to the fact that, during her 17 years in the limelight, she had grown as Britain had grown, changed as Britain had changed, and that by the time she died she had something increasingly vital to offer.” ~

[This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of my upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride. More next week.]

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