On 14 September 1997, the Sunday Mirror announced: “After decades when the people of this country seemed to be losing their national identity, we have found one…It is about Diana and what she meant to our country…It is the new British spirit.” Commentators spoke of a modern revolution, a renaissance, a better, more compassionate Britain; and most famously Tony Blair proclaimed Diana to be the “People’s Princess” who would “remain in our hearts and memories – for ever”. Here, Raka Shome, a media and communications scholar, uses “Diana’s iconicity” to explore formations of whiteness in the late 20th and early 21st century. Her reasoning is that global media representations of Diana have been crucial to the construction of “a larger neoliberal logic of national belonging”.
For Shome, the big question in 1997 was why “a media narrative of a white heterosexual upper-class British woman was able to secure so many effective attachments of love and desire from people – white and not white, western and non-western”. Academic analysis has ignored the whiteness of the Diana phenomenon, she argues, and this is symptomatic of the continued exclusion of non-white women from global mythologising and narratives of universal adoration and love. It is an ongoing political process, she believes, because representations of Diana and other privileged white women are devices through which the ruling establishment performs the politics of a caring, compassionate Western cosmopolitanism. Cue Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow and Madonna. Moreover, says Shome, this “national script of white femininity” diminishes the space for the bodies of “non-white, lesbian, non-western women”, kept invisible by the “racialized, gendered, sexualized, classed and transnational circuits of power”. Some fascinating chapters explore these themes, many rooted in empire, and the book concludes with a critique of the “spiritual fix” that elite white women offer up.
So am I now going to throw myself naked in front of the nearest Land Rover, wearing only copies of the Daily Mail while taking an ironic selfie? The answer is no. The ideological image of Diana that Shome presents is too selective. Diana was also understood as a rebel and anti-establishment, and iconic because of her embrace of Aids victims and closeness to gay men. Women all over the world saw a young woman trapped into marriage with an older, less attractive man who was unfaithful. She was perceived as sexually daring, continually having affairs with unsuitable white men, not just Muslim surgeons and playboys.
The younger generation of non-white women in Britain and the global South, or at least the ones I know, have moved on from the Noughties. Social media has fuelled a global fascination with women such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian (whose butt, enhanced or not, “broke the internet”) and the Lebanese lawyer Amal Clooney, next to whom the once-gorgeous George now looks less like a sex symbol and more like a tired old man. But a book on white femininity, power and the media that doesn’t contain the word “misogyny” in its index? What would Emmeline Pankhurst say?
Joanna Lewis is assistant professor in the department of international history, London School of Economics. She writes on the history of empire in Africa, masculinity and emotion.
Diana and Beyond: White Femininity, National Identity and Contemporary Media Culture
By Raka Shome
University of Illinois Press, 272pp, £66.00 and £20.99
ISBN 9780252038730, 080302 and 096686 (e-book)
Published 27 October 2015