“We’ve all seen her…as a princess, as a loving and dedicated mother and as one of the great, great, great icons of giving,” declared Kiefer Sutherland, one of the many bright shiny celebrities who gathered at a concert in July to commemorate Diana–or, more accurately, to canonize her–on the tenth anniversary of her death. Yet in the pantheon of female icons, Diana was more Marilyn Monroe than Mother Teresa, a woman best known not for her “giving” but for what Joyce Carol Oates described in her 1997 obituary as “her often desperate search for love.”
Looking back, the people’s princess appears a strange anachronism, perhaps the last of an extinct breed of tragic Cinderellas whose romantic failures and heartbreak were essential ingredients of their mystique. In the ten years since Diana’s death, female celebrities have indeed come a long way, baby. Whatever the failings of the brat pack who dominate the tabloid headlines today, they represent a new generation of stars–including the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Tara Reid–who no longer feel the need to hide their appetite for pleasure, status and attention behind a giggle or a teary smile.
“I think every decade has an iconic blonde–like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana–and right now, I’m that icon,” Paris Hilton told the Sunday Times of London last year, at the height of her notoriety as the tabloids’ favorite party girl. Her remark drew jeers of derision, but as Matt Haber observed on Radar Online, Paris wasn’t entirely wrong about her importance as a cultural signifier of her time: “Journalists reach for her name first when seeking an easy phrase signifying unearned fame, inherited wealth, propensity for sexual indiscretion or a penchant for cheap publicity.”
While Diana and Marilyn shared a number of qualities with today’s female celebs–notably a lack of sexual discretion and an appetite for public attention–Paris is, for better or worse, a new variety of feminine icon, defined not by victimhood and suffering but by self-sufficiency and self-gratification. In many ways, the “skank posse” represents the pop incarnation of a certain brand of Gen-X feminism that places sexual gratification and independence at the top of the agenda. It’s the kind of “party girl” power that was daring and cool back in the ’90s but now represents the new “normal”–as made painfully evident by the shallow young Hilton wannabes who populate MTV’s reality shows.
In a Guardian article written nearly a year after Diana’s car crash, Joan Smith bemoaned our fascination with tragic love goddesses who are willing to bare every detail of their calamitous personal lives to earn our sympathy and regard. “Our appetite for stories of female misery, it seems, can never be sated,” Smith wrote. “What we want to know about rich, beautiful, successful women is that they are, in spite of all their advantages, lonely and miserable.” Or, more precisely, that their success and fame are a poor substitute for the love of a good man.
Likewise, Sarah Churchwell wrote in The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe of the mythology inspired by the ultimate blond victim: “Unmarried, childless, a professional success, she will still be branded a personal failure. The prospect of the most desirable woman in the world becoming a spinster is finally what will kill her. She will die when the men have left the tale. She will die because she was a woman alone on a Saturday night–a fate worse than death.”