“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.”
The plot line of this fairy tale is always the same: Deprived childhood creates lifelong craving for love, which she seeks in the arms of various unsuitable men and, failing that, in public adulation, which cannot, however, save her from a tragic, usually lonely and always untimely death. Cinderella gets to be princess but never finds Prince Charming, and that’s why we love her. The more she bares her scars–her rejected, needy, self-loathing self–the closer we press her to our hearts.
Describing a grab bag of Monroe memorabilia, a Christie’s auctioneer summed up the secret of their allure: “All these things reflect Marilyn’s vulnerability. Vulnerability was part of Marilyn Monroe’s irresistible appeal.” Just as irresistible is the suffering of the woman who would emerge two decades later as the rightful heir to Marilyn’s mantle of thorns. Diana “used her big blue eyes to their fullest advantage, melting the hearts of men and women through an expression of complete vulnerability. Diana’s eyes, like those of Marilyn Monroe, contained an appeal directed not to any individual but to the world at large. Please don’t hurt me, they seemed to say,” gushed Ian Buruma in his 1999 write-up for Time, which featured both women in its list of the twenty greatest heroes and icons of the twentieth century.
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.
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.
Unlike the media narratives about previous female celebrities, stories about today’s stars center less on their dating travails than on their partying ways. Almost all of these women seem less interested in Mr. Right than Mr. Right Now. “They certainly aren’t sitting at home, crying into their beer, saying, ‘If I only had the right man,'” points out Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out. “They seem to take for granted what women before them have worked for, which is to lead lives independent of men.”
There is, however, a price to pay for their transgressions. “I find of particular interest the amount of hatred people have, especially male commentators, for Paris Hilton,” says Karen Hollinger, author of The Actress: Hollywood Acting and the Female Star. “She isn’t portrayed as looking for love–and finding or not finding it–but as beautiful and rather wild. On the other hand, Diana fit so well into the model of the beautiful woman searching and suffering for love that men were falling all over themselves to celebrate this ‘candle in the wind.'”
Paris is no more of a “media whore” than were Diana or Marilyn, but unlike them, her narcissism is brazen and unapologetic rather than eager to please, and therefore despicable. What hasn’t changed is the age-old double standard that shapes tabloid press coverage of female stars. “There doesn’t seem to be the same obsession with catching male celebrities in these disreputable acts–which would be perfectly easy to do–as there is with these young women,” says Charles Ponce de Leon, author of Self-Exposure: Human-Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America, 1890-1940. “The spotlight is harsh and unforgiving on these women because they seem to be wantonly violating conventional norms.”
The public’s appetite for feminine suffering once fed by tales of heartbreak is now sated by a stint in rehab or behind bars. What was once a self-satisfied desire to protect is now an urgent need to punish. As Wilson observes, “We are engaging in our new favorite dysfunctional love-hate relationship: Public stoning of the celebrity hooker.”
Take, for example, Britney Spears. People were on her side after she kicked her deadbeat husband to the curb, but she felt the wrath of her fans at her nightclub shenanigans, which were deemed inappropriate for a new mother. We may be OK with our stars being single, but they’re still not free of their womanly duty to “behave.”
The news isn’t all bad, however. We may not care much for the “skank posse,” but the demise of the love-obsessed tragic Cinderella is good reason to celebrate. Today’s dominant feminine imperative is not to suffer but to prevail over emotional adversity. Female stars emerge from their divorces looking radiant and liberated, à la Nicole Kidman, whose career soared after being publicly dumped by her husband. Even Diana’s story is being revised to suit a twenty-first-century sensibility. The book jacket of Andrew Morton’s revised iteration of Diana’s life in 2004 touts her “courageous evolution from life as a downtrodden wife and reluctant royal fashion plate to a self-confident and independent modern woman.”
A primary reason for our newfound tolerance is also a significant shift in demographics. Dedicating your life to the so-called “desperate search for love” increasingly seems absurd in a culture where relationships often don’t last forever and in which–as DePaulo points out–Americans, on average, will spend more years of their adult lives single than married, partly because they’re marrying later and living longer as widows. No wonder a recent Pew survey found that 79 percent of Americans believe a woman can lead a complete and happy life if she remains single. (The figure for men was actually lower, at 67 percent.)
Our vision of a happy life for a single female star, however, still requires a continual stream of love affairs, temporary though they may be, and the various Hollywood accoutrements–low body fat, plastic surgery, fabulous wardrobe–that establish her “hotness.” In other words, the women we admire are like Diana, sans the self-pity and desperation. It is progress–of a sort.