Saturday, September 2, 2017

Diana was our society’s warning to women

Diana waving to the crowd as she arrives at the Cite de la Musique at La Villette in Paris. Photograph by Joel Robine

Diana was our society’s warning to women

A modern tragedy carried a very old message: that women who have the audacity to break their bonds ultimately suffer

remember the day Diana died. I was 19, and had crashed at a friend’s place in town. When I woke up – 20 years ago today – the friend said: “Princess Diana is dead.” I went outside and the streets, tube stations, shops and cafes were empty and silent. In the evening I visited Buckingham Palace and that too was silent. Disbelief, remorse and regret hung in the air.

These emotions were not misplaced or overblown. I think Diana’s death triggered an intelligent, feminism-influenced grief that people of both sexes understood, either overtly or subconsciously. Her tragedy was to be cut down at the apex of a personal awakening that many women experience.
Diana was brought up to be nice, to be kind, to be pretty without being sexual, to be a supportive wife and good mother. Like many women, she entered wedlock in good faith, wore the dress, got the ring, and entered the marital home – only to discover that there was nothing there except betrayal, contempt and duty. The fabled love-bower was a piece of cheap cardboard advertising. Her virtue and devotion counted for nothing: were taken advantage of, not cherished. Her beauty retained no sexual allure for her husband. First she was lonely, then she was angry, then she was bored. Then she struck out for self-definition: to create a role for herself and find some dignity and respect, even some joy, in an unjust world. As soon as she could, she got a divorce. This is what Diana did and it is what many women do.
Diana divested herself of stuffy, English, insular, 19th-century monarchical pomp and became part of a more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, racially diverse 20th-century super-elite. Instead of attending interminable state banquets she attended gallery openings, which are much more fun. She was carving out a career as a humanitarian, prefiguring the current era in which Hollywood actors become UN ambassadors, and she was doing divorced dating, including having non-white boyfriends. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it still is.

Diana was becoming her own woman just as she was killed, and part of the country’s horror derives from witnessing an ancient curse against women come true: if you dare to diverge from being “a good girl”, you will be punished. Diana’s intimation that she was being set up for death may not have been correct in every detail – in the sense of the royal family plotting to have her murdered – but her instincts were right and her sense of foreboding was justified. The emotion displayed at her death and the melancholy ruminations of the following two decades are understandable. They stem from an aggrieved recognition of the earthly manifestation of a nasty folkloric lesson: the patriarchal world will shoot you down as a warning to all other women, just as you are making a bid for freedom.

In fictional narratives the death of a woman is seen as poignant, as perversely pleasurable even as the audience weeps over the woman’s circumstances and fate: think of the plots of the “great” operas and ballets, or such novels as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, all written by men. The reality is tawdry and shameful.
Diana was indeed killed, in an unnatural, brutal and spectacular way: hunted down by men who had been targeting her mercilessly for years. They caused her death, and then they objectified and violated her dignity even further: standing over her and photographing her as she died, to help their own careers. When they were done, they discarded her and found other women to follow. That is misogyny writ large; it’s The Rite of Spring, rendered in tabloid format.
The legend of Diana resonates because it is an exaggerated version of many women’s emotional reality. In her life and death we see the broadest, most pessimistic interpretations of patriarchal power spelled out. First, Diana was the subjugated Victorian woman, maintaining an angelic image while privately isolated, disrespected and betrayed by her husband and in-laws, the royal family who both protected and controlled her.
She escaped, but as a 20th-century media celebrity she was vulnerable to the brutality of the uncontrolled and chaotic wider world, where the abuse comes from strangers and is physical as well as mental: a pack of men watching and tirelessly hounding her in the night.
They used motorbikes and cameras to torture her, but underneath these modern gadgets was a warning as old as time: any woman who has the audacity to break her bonds – to speak her truth, supersede her expected role, or go out in public and try to live her life – deserves anything that is done to her physically and mentally. She will be punished for her arrogance, even to death.
 Bidisha is a broadcaster, critic and journalist for the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky News



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