Princess Diana, Brownies and our inner critic
The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (July 3rd 2022)
The image of ideal femininity we grew up with is not fit for current purpose!
This week I went to a starry screening of The Princess, a new documentary about Diana, Princess of Wales. It is hard to believe but this August it will be 25 years since the People’s Princess was killed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris in a drunken car crash. It was a defining moment; my parent’s generation talk about where they were when President Kennedy was shot. For us Queenagers it is probably 9/11 or where were you when Diana died. For me, that’s easy. I was 26 and the Features Editor of The Telegraph. I spent most of the frantic week that followed desperately trying to read the public mood, commissioning articles from her friends – including Lady Annabel Goldsmith – and trying to understand the huge outpouring of grief from ordinary people.
It did feel a bit like the world had gone mad (as the late Christopher Hitchens remarks in the film while being interviewed surrounded by disapproving mourners piling bouquets outside Kensington Palace). Several members of the public overhear and remonstrate with Hitchens, explaining why she meant so much to them – he gives them characteristically short shrift. Seeing the footage of the throngs of people lining the motorway and throwing flowers at the hearse carrying her coffin as it made its way back to her family home in Northampton made me cry. The reaction to her death really was extraordinary; people really loved her, really felt they knew her, saw their own lives and struggles reflected in her. She had been held up as an icon of femininity to the whole country. It is easy to forget what a massive deal her death was (and how it goes on causing trouble for the monarchy…. I bet Charles isn’t pleased they included the recording of the tape where he said he wanted to be Camilla’s tampax!)
The new documentary uses only archive footage to tell Diana’s story (like the wonderful film Senna). After the depictions of her inner turmoil in The Crown and the dreadful movie Spencer, it is somehow more shocking to see the real shots of the real woman; particularly as what we see is so overlaid by what we now know was happening behind those closed palace doors.
What struck me first is that she was so unbelievably young when this all began. I have a daughter who is 19 – the age Diana was when she married Prince Charles as the virgin bride. Nineteen is a child – Diana was a lamb to the slaughter and she looks it. The film of Diana just before the announcement of her royal engagement, in a Sloaney jumper, driving herself in an old Austin Metro to her job in a nursery, besieged by photographers and journalists, is emblematic of the battle to the death that was to play out over the next 17 years. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the seeds of destruction are already there. But so too is her fatal girlish charm, the beauty of her eyes, her flirty way as she glances under her lashes at the hacks and the paparazzi. Also her quick wit and empathy.
One of the moments that really stays with me from the film is a press conference where she looks straight at the camera, clutching Charles’s arm and says: “I just want to be a good wife and mother”. This was in the late 1980s, I was at university, or about to go – we had a female prime minister – but it was still totally mainstream for women to base their identity on their role as carers, supports to men and their offspring. Diana was held up as the ne plus ultra of a female archetype – everything we were told we wanted to be. She was all over the news, splashed across magazines — a generation of women imagined arriving at their weddings in enormous over the top meringues, riding in a glass coach just like Diana (and that other retro princess sidekick, Cinderella).
That seems shockingly old-fashioned to me now. I would never talk in that way about a woman’s role to my own daughters.
But those old attitudes about what a woman should be were drummed into our generation. Last weekend I was down in Brighton staying with a pal for the Saturday night before our Noon walk. She brought out a copy of an old Brownie Guidebook. (I never did Brownies or Girl Guides, my mother didn’t believe in it but most of my contemporaries did.) I was horrified as I leafed through the Brownie Guidebook pages: It is all about women being good hostesses, doing their best, ironing shirts and making meals as selflessly and quietly as possible. It is patriarchal propaganda – women as silent helpmeets, being trained never to expect praise or to think of themselves but just to shut up and get on with serving others. There are badges in how to bake scones, make salads (they are big on salads and exercises, Brownies need to be attractive and definitely not fat), be a good hostess and generally look after everyone else and put your own needs last. This isn’t from the 1950s; it was published towards the end of the 1970s, when Queenagers like us were growing up. I bet Diana was a Brownie.
Talking about the Brownies, both last weekend and in a similar convo with another Queenager around a campfire (she still had her Brownie blanket with the badges on and I was teasing her about them), plus Diana saying her life’s desire was to be a good wife and mum, was a light bulb moment for me. It allowed me to join some important dots.
I spend some of my time coaching senior women, mentoring, doing media training to help them refine their stories, to define their personal brand. I am struck over and over again by the lack of confidence I see. The imposter syndrome. The huge sense of lack which lies just below the surface in all sorts of successful women.
I’m beginning to understand where it came from. If a generation of women are trained to not put themselves forwards, to serve, humbly and do their best quietly – no wonder it is out of their comfort zone to speak up or put themselves forwards. No wonder so many Queenagers feel pulled in all directions. That early conditioning, the need to have a badge to prove you could do something and that whole ethos of there being a ‘right’ way to do things and women being judged for doing it wrong is so destructive. Destructive both to notions of agency, and self – and it totally fires up the inner critic (Noon Advisory board member Julia Bueno has written a brilliant book called Everyone’s A Critic about this, highly recommended). That scolding inner voice is something which too many women of our age have in abundance; it holds us back. We need to learn to be kinder and gentler to ourselves. (We do lots of work on this at our Noon retreats – come!)
We don’t need to be perfect all the time. We don’t need to hit ridiculous external standards. We just need to do what WE want and feel – at least some of the time! I’m beginning to understand why that can be so hard for some of the women I work with. For instance, I suggested to one client who had been made redundant and was really struggling that she do all the things she liked to make herself feel better. She looked at me quizzically. “All I’ve done is work and do the kids and look after my elderly mum for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what I like anymore.” I gave her a hug and told her to try. She’s not the only one: Some Queenagers seem to have totally forgotten what THEY want, like, feel. Another woman told me last week that she felt like she was “sleepwalking through my life, that I haven’t chosen any of it”. She said it was so long since she did anything for herself – rather than for her kids, boss or partner – that she’d practically forgotten what she used to like and desire and want.
This won’t do. Part of the joy of being a Queenager is getting back a bit of time for ourselves. Our research at Noon shows this is hugely important to women at this stage of life. That the predominant sense of this time is it being ‘about me’; that we’ve worked and looked after everyone else for a couple of decades in many cases, and that at some time our needs have to come centre stage again.
For me, one of the really tragic bits of the Diana documentary was that sense of her blossoming cut short. It is hard to believe she was only 36 when she died; just as she was coming into her prime, confident, bestriding the world stage, using her celebrity to draw attention to people with AIDS and the scourge of landmines, lauded by the White House and Henry Kissinger as a great humanitarian.
In some ways she was the first influencer – famous for being famous, but using that notoriety for good, to shine a light on causes that matter. Not to mention her fashion choices; as an influencer in that sphere, she is unsurpassed, her style is still inspiring Gen Z. My daughter came down the other day in a dress just like the one Diana danced in with John Travolta and Mom Jeans (those high waisted, pale denim 1990s horrors are all the rage).
So I came out of the Diana film sad and stirred but also rooted in how far we have all come. Just remember the gender revolution is only a part of the way through. We are told a constant lie that we have gender equality, that everything is fixed; I was first told that when I went to university. It was rubbish. They might have (on sufferance) let women into my Oxford college in 1989, but there weren’t any female tutors, or pictures of women on the wall. It was an entirely male zone, where women had been grudgingly admitted. Yet we were told we had equality. We didn’t.
When I write for The Telegraph now I am regularly accused of misandry, of discrimination against men, of pushing them out of the picture, which always staggers me since women still make up less than 25% of leaders and men still run 90 of the 100 FTSE 100 companies. Women are nowhere near parity. Laws don’t make it so: We have the Equal Pay Act and women are still paid less than men for the same job. Just because there are laws against rape doesn’t mean rapists are prosecuted (less than 1% of rapes end in a conviction). And as we are seeing with Roe v Wade, even the legal protections women have won with such struggle can be revoked, wound back at any time. We cannot take any of this progress for granted.
As a wise old feminist once said to me: If we are not going forward, we are going backwards. Misogyny doesn’t disappear, it mutates.
It’s great to celebrate the life of Princess Diana (and to recognise the terrible trauma her death caused her sons, my god, they should never have let the tiny Harry walk behind her coffin, no wonder he has issues..) But let’s also try and put some of the attitudes she personified in her early life safely in the past where they belong. Women are not helpmeets. We shouldn’t just shut up and put up. And older women should be valued too. Just imagine what an amazing Queenager Diana would have made, having thrown off the shackles of all that royal rubbish and hopefully all her conditioning too. So here’s to all of our shiny new chapters in midlife. We go through tough pinchpoints but we can come out the other side forged in fire, happier, tougher – more open to joy.
Have a lovely weekend!
Ps thanks to my friend Nicola Green for the Diana image, which she made for the film production of The Princess – if you fancy buying one her website is https://www.nicolagreen.com/online-viewing-room and the movie is in cinemas from this weekend and on Sky
By Eleanor Mills