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The Princess Interrogates How Complicit We Are as Consumers of Public Figures’ Private Lives

Early in Ed Perkins’ tempestuous documentary The Princess, a meticulously selected audio clip of one media figure acknowledges that no other future queen consort has endured the type of attention to which the late Princess Diana was subject. It’s a well-known truth: Princess Diana forever changed how the monarchy and its subjects interact. In the wake of the global fascination with young Diana, the media pounced on the opportunity to feed a growing frenzy — and the feedback loop it created hasn’t been closed since.

Through the use of archival footage dating back to Lady Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles, and curated audio clips featuring voices from the media and members of the general public, The Princess asks its audience to interrogate this long-held parasocial relationship with the royal family — particularly the woman who disrupted the institution as soon as she married into it. The Princess poses questions to us: Between public interest and tabloid media, which machine is fueling which? Who are the monsters, and who is feeding them?

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Diana, Princess of Wales Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

We know from audio clips, biographies, and even fictionalized iterations of her life that Diana herself was tormented by two separate systems during her time as a royal: that of The Firm (the insiders’ term for the royal family and its machinations), and that of the tabloid media that stalked her every move. In hearing accounts of the ways in which tabloids tortured her, from interviews with “expert sources” or “insiders” offering conjecture on the private lives of royals to the ever-present paparazzi lying in wait, it’s easy to point the finger at the media as the impetus for the new, invasive way people have come to expect to engage with the royal family. But tabloid media wasn’t pushing these stories and photos out into a vacuum — every step the media took to go deeper on the royal family was met with rabid attention from the public.

Take away the public’s consumption of these photos and stories, and you take away the oxygen to this firestorm of coverage. Indeed, The Princess makes the point several times over that the public’s own relationship to Princess Diana — particularly their sense of ownership of her as a public figure — made them complicit in her excruciating relationship with tabloids. “The buck stops with the readers,” another voiceover aptly observes. As seen in our fascination with celebrity culture, it’s natural for us to find amusement and entertainment from the private lives of public figures, but something about Diana’s particular charisma and ability to transcend the boundaries between royal and commoner pushed the public interest in royals over an invisible line.

To the public, Diana represented something brand-new, something they couldn’t have dreamed into existence: a tangible piece of an institution that was separated from the public for centuries. People were, and still to this day are, invested in Diana as this mythical being whose time with us was cut far too short, and the tragic end to her story only added to that.

In the film’s final moments, we’re once again asked to consider who the real villain is: the tabloids, or the public that buys them? First, we see a shot of one man calling out the media to a cameraman’s lens, earning applause from onlookers. Then, it cuts away to other members of the public buying copies of Daily Mail and The Sun. Finally, and most sinister of all, we see images (like the one shown below) of the tributes laid out after Diana’s death, and a copy of the Daily Mail with Diana’s face and the dates of her birth and death plastered in either corner. Even Diana’s death itself, the result of a paparazzi chase through Paris, came about through the media pursuing her in the name of public interest. After her death, the media keeps right on covering her without a moment of self-reflection or doubt — and the scale of the tributes from the public in that moment suggest they were no less eager to consume what they could after her death too.

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Flowers outside Kensington Palace following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales Photograph by Courtesy of HBO.

Perkins’ documentary isn’t perfect. It uses heavy-handed imagery (like hunting dogs pulling apart a rabbit) and swelling music to heighten the drama to the point of hyperbole. But it hits on a key point fueling the royal media frenzy that lives on to this day: Tabloid coverage and public interest are inexorably intertwined, and as long as the public interest in the private lives of royals stays at this level, we have little hope of tabloids backing off.

In the wake of Diana’s death, millions mourned and wept, and whatever attachment and protectiveness they felt for Prince William and Prince Harry only intensified. Today, Meghan Markle left the royal family in part due to that same intense scrutiny, cruel tabloid treatment, and paparazzi-riddled life Diana experienced, and while Kate Middleton may be sticking by The Firm, there’s no denying her tabloid treatment has been difficult too. That type of fascination began with Diana, and lives on in the public’s desire to know even more about Harry, William, Meghan, and Kate by whatever means necessary. While a film like The Princess raises the awareness of how complicit these parties are in consuming the privates lives of public figures, it doesn’t give us a finite answer on whether or not that cycle will break. Now that The Princess has held up its mirror, it’s a wonder whether or not our own reflection is clearer.

Before you go, click here to revisit more movies about Princess Diana.

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