Feminism and Royalty: A Paradox
On the 6th of September 1997, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, took place in London. Two thousand people attended the ceremony in Westminster Abbey and the British television audience reached 32.78 million, one of the country’s highest viewing figures ever. Two billion people followed the ceremony worldwide, making it one of the most watched events in history. In death, as in life, her persona attracted an incredible amount of public attention.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that phenomenon of Diana has become the subject of scholarly study. “If Diana, Princess of Wales, was indeed the most photographed of women, then she is surely an essential object of examination for the scholars from a number of disciplines. Her immediately obvious relevance is to studies of the British monarchy and the construction of national identities, to studies of feminisms and the representation of women, and to studies of image culture and the ideologies of the media. Representing Diana is a study that takes as its dominant theme the visual culture of the monarchy and its role in constructing a sense of continuity. It is written from an art historical viewpoint and is driven by questions of how femininity is represented in that culture.” (Marianne Butler, review of Representing Diana, Princess of Wales: Cultural Memory and Fairy Tales Revisited by Colleen Denney, in Journal of British Studies, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 2006).
Colleen Denney proposes an interesting study of the historiography of British royal women, and Diana comes to be seen as part of a historical line of important female figureheads such as Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra. The writer explores the means and reasons behind the forging of Diana’s image into specific roles of wife of a future sovereign, as well as mother of a future king, charity worker, fashion icon, and a specimen of outstanding feminine beauty. Denney points out the various “techniques of parody and pastiche as they were employed by the royal family, its artists, and the press in order to conserve Diana within the established patriarchal structure. Denney contends that this operation, based on gender distinctions, is carried out for the means of maintaining tradition, a phenomenon that answers a cultural need for continuity and stability.” (Marianne Butler).
Going back over a century in time, an equally poignant public event brought the attention of the doting public to another royal beauty. On March 7, 1863, thousands of people lined the streets of London to welcome the 18-year-old Princess Alexandra of Denmark who had sailed into the capital days before her marriage to Bertie, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Everyone, it seemed, wanted to catch a glimpse of the woman who was regarded as the most beautiful princess in the world. “Tiers of seats on the eastern and southern sides of St Paul’s held 10,000 spectators, many of them waving Danish flags, while below the seats the proprietors of the Freemason’s Tavern ran an extensive buffet, with unlimited champagne,” records historian Stanley Weintraub. To mark the Princess’s arrival Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, penned a special work, A Welcome To Alexandra. The young Danish princess was a shot in the arm for a monarchy which was losing popularity. Similarly to Diana, the innocent Alexandra was brought in to save the philandering Bertie, who sadly continued his errant life during his marriage. She was also used as a means of restoring public trust and loyalty in the monarchy by improving its outer image. It seems that everyone who met Alix , as Alexandra was known, liked her. Margot Asquith, wife of the politician Herbert Asquith, remarked on the Princess’s “total absence of egotism and the warmth of her manner, prompted not by consideration but by sincerity; her gaiety of heart and refinement, rarely to be seen in royal people”. She also had great concern for those less fortunate than herself. In his book Edward And Alexandra, Richard Hough describes the interest she took in the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. “The poor fellow was horrible to look on, but (she) came down to talk to him and to cheer him up, and for years afterwards, until he died, she used to send him Christmas cards, with messages written on them by herself, to show how he was still in her mind,” wrote Lord Knutsford. (Neil Clark, ‘The first Queen of Hearts’, The Express, Published: Wed, March 6, 2013).
“Colleen Denney states that Diana, at the end of her life, can be used as a model of post-feminism as it is aligned with third-wave feminism. Throughout the analyses of the princesses, both Alexandra and Diana are read in terms of feminist theories of empowerment, with the suggestion that their agency as well as their objectification can be located within representations of them. In the examination of post-Charles Diana, which constitutes the final two chapters of Denney’s book, the author continues this argument to show Diana’s resistance to the patriarchal restrictions placed on her by her image makers and to argue that she had begun to reconstruct the fairy-tale image of her life.” (Marianne Butler). The paradox of reading feminist qualities into much loved female royal figures such as Diana and Alexandra comes when we reconsider the fact that they were used, at least initially, as propaganda tools for reshaping the image of increasingly unpopular monarchies. Their image was visually used and perused in ways which are decidedly anti-feminist. Their humanity, however, was a much stronger means of conquering the hearts of the public and that had nothing to do with the monarchy. In this sense, Diana and Alexandra made it all on their own, thus they could act as feminist role models.