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The Diana/Whore Complex | The Nation

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The Diana/Whore Complex

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In her biography of Monroe, Churchwell takes to task the relentless mythomania of her admirers and critics, who are equally invested in nurturing the legend of a hapless beautiful woman consumed by her desire for celebrity and love. What they carefully ignore, she argues, is Marilyn's own role in using the media and men to catapult what was at best an unexceptional acting career into the heights of enduring stardom. Behind the image was a complicated, intelligent, damaged woman, no doubt, but hardly desperate, fragile or even particularly love-struck.

About the Author

Lakshmi Chaudhry
Lakshmi Chaudhry, a senior editor at Firstpost.com and a Nation contributing writer, is the author, with Robert...

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Although Diana's connection to Marilyn Monroe would not be cemented in the public mind until her death--when Elton John did the needful by rewriting "Candle in the Wind"--the people's princess proved herself to be a worthy heir to Marilyn's legacy from the moment she stepped into the public spotlight. In her book The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown reveals a determined 19-year-old who employed her considerable skills of self-invention and public relations to seduce the British press and pave her ascension to Buckingham Palace. Tabloid photographer Ken Lennox told Brown of those early days, "The shy Di is a myth. That came about because she would put her head down and her hair would fall over her face and she would glance up every now and then to see where we were."

When her fairy-tale wedding turned into a domestic nightmare--what with Charles unhelpfully refusing to play his assigned role--Diana simply discarded one mythic narrative in favor of another, this time in order to secure her postdivorce future outside the palace. The "true story" that she leaked to Andrew Morton in 1992 in a pre-emptive strike against her husband and in-laws contained all the ingredients for her posthumous canonization as the new Marilyn. The details seemed shocking and yet carefully selected to renarrate her life to fit her new role as tragic Cinderella: Her tawdry sexual escapades skillfully recast as romantic tragedies, appetite for publicity as a desperate cry for recognition and real bouts of bulimia and invented suicide attempts as signs of deep emotional pain.

The Joyce Carol Oates obituary, penned for Time magazine, is stirring testimony to Diana's PR success. Shrill in her indignation at the endless indignities heaped on her hapless heroine by "the Establishment," "human jackals known as paparazzi," the philandering husband and the parade of caddish lovers, Oates concludes with a paean to Diana's "significance for women that approaches the mystical. In Diana, the fairy-tale princess who was cruelly awakened to the world of hurt, betrayal and humiliation, women of all ages found a mirror image of themselves, however magnified and glamorized." In one fell swoop, this feminist author who should surely have known better reduced not only Diana but also her many female fans to the worst kind of feminine stereotype: frail, dependent and easily abused.

In a June 17 column, Naomi Wolf complained about a culture that "seems increasingly obsessed with showcasing images of glamorous young women who are falling apart," citing the spectacle of Britney Spears's meltdown, Paris Hilton's arrest and Lindsay Lohan's various stints in rehab. The more women advance in the real world, Wolf argues, the more "the broken, out-of-control ingenue--who clearly can't manage without lots of help--is reassuring. And, I'd say, seductive." In other words, Paris may be no Marilyn or Diana, but she serves exactly the same purpose: to assure us of feminine vulnerability.

It would be a convincing argument, except these young women present themselves as neither broken nor fragile. Where Diana made much of her indifferent mother, Lindsay plays down her far more dysfunctional family life, which includes an ex-convict dad. Like Paris, these young women position themselves as overindulged princesses rather than scarred little waifs. Peddling emotional pain is just not their thing.

"[Paris is] too rich, skinny, blond, nude, slutty, drunk, spoiled and famous. She ignores the law and openly flouts our social mores, as if they don't apply to her," writes Cintra Wilson in Salon. Hilton, Lohan and their peers represent a radically new generation of celebrities who receive attention--or more precisely notoriety--because they violate rather than perform traditional modes of femininity, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

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