The Semiotic Princess

by Jonathan Wallace

The late Princess Diana was of more interest as a sign than as a human being, and she was not really of very much interest even as a sign.

In semiotics, a sign is the marriage of a signifier and a significance. In other words, a sign is a thing, like a flag or a postcard, connected to a meaning. Semiotics is the deconstruction of signs into their components. When we apply a semiotic analysis to Princess Diana, however, we make an interesting discovery: as a sign, the late Princess does not represent the connection between a signifier and a significance; she is, instead, the marriage of a signifier and another sign.

A good way to put this in plain English is (to borrow a well-known saying) that the Princess was "famous for being famous." Some people become public figures because of things they do or believe, or because of the innate qualities of personality. Thus, you can analyze Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher as signs; but when you look at their significance, you find it rooted in some real qualities of personality, such as English steadfastness, pigheadedness, etc. Diana, by contrast, appears to have been raised in the first place to be a sign, rather than becoming one because of some pre-existing qualities she had.

She was a woman of little education and much vanity, who was probably told from earliest childhood that she was very special and would marry nobility or royalty. In order to be suitable to play this role, of course, she had to meet an extremely minimal set of requirements: she had to be reasonably good looking and to come from the right blood. She did not have to be intelligent, compassionate or possess any other qualities.

The ultimate proof of talent is whether the same genetic human being could have become a public figure if born under other circumstances. Diana, born in Lubbock, Texas, would have been the wife of a local rancher; born in Cincinnati, she would have married a doctor. In both cases, she might have been shallow and vain, but she wouldn't have been famous, as she seemed to lack the intelligence, drive or even the beauty that sometimes catapults the possessor into prominence. In the meeting between Diana and her public, the public brought almost everything necessary for the concoction of her reputation and Diana brought very little.

A test of the humanity of a role (or rather, of the significance of the person playing it) is whether the same function could be as ably discharged by an object, such as a piece of the true cross, the Shroud of Turin, or a parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence. Diana's role in life, like that of the British royal family itself, was to be revered; a role which could as easily have been played by a mannequin as by the Princess. The Queen herself does fine whenever she merely appears and waves, in silence, but is revealed to be extremely awkward whenever humanity is required (for example, when the public expected her to show grief for Diana). Gertrude Stein's phrase about Oakland could be applied to the roles of being Queen or Princess: "There is no there there."

Diana was certainly a human being who made choices; I am revealing my own strong biases in saying that I would have respected her more if she had declined the role, chosen a career, etc. Objectification is frequently accepted, even sought, by the object, especially when it involves everyone making a fuss over you all day long. Not to make too much of a morality play out of it, but I connect Diana's objectification to her death: it was the boyfriend's car, the chauffeur was the director of security for his family's hotel, and when you live in the glare of the lights so much, in a heady mix of adulation and alcohol, it is probably quite easy to forget simple rules like common sense, speed limits and the like. Diana's sacrifice (because she was a sacrificial object) began much earlier in life, perhaps at birth, the moment the intersection of an inadequate woman with an impossible role became inevitable.

When we criticize a play or a movie, we look separately at the quality of the performances and of the script. Sometimes we perceive that a great script was ruined by poor performances, and at other times we think that strong actors were undone by a bad script. While there are actresses who because of their range, could do a better job of the role of Queen or Princess than Elizabeth or Diana (Helen Mirren and Kristin Scott Thomas come to mind), these roles themselves do not make sense. In earlier centuries, the Queen might be an object or a consort, but she might also act as an advisor or be a power center in herself, as when she represented the sealing of an alliance between two families or two nations. The Princess of Wales, as the Queen in waiting, might also play any of these roles. But in the years beginning with the English Revolution of 1688, the British have cut their royal family down to size without quite eliminating it. The monarch used to rule the country; now the holder of the throne plays a purely ceremonial role. No respectable actor would want to play a part with the meat cut out of it; the royal family is nothing more than a sign with the significance surgically removed. Since the royal role in Britain apparently no longer requires a human to play it, one wonders why they don't cast an object, such as the Magna Carta, in the role instead. It would be much less trouble. (The argument has been made that the Constitution is what we have instead of royalty in this country.)

So Diana's job, of being Princess of Wales, was a job description that didn't make sense, and the woman herself didn't have the native ability to do the job if it had. In the end, she failed dramatically in almost every way, and the public loved her the more for it, because people love the glorious failure of a sign. She was their sacrificial sign, like the wicker man burned in ancient English ritual, and she crumpled bearing with her their love and hostility. She crumpled cathartically, like a soap opera character, so that her public would not have to. "I would not feel so all alone," Bob Dylan once sang, "everyone must get stoned." This might have made a more truthful epitaph for Diana than Elton John's rewritten Candle in the Wind.

Some movies are drawn from life, while others are drawn from earlier movies which are themselves derivative. The latter kind may make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, but when the shallow and vain people of Hollywood gather to honor themselves, the movies they choose in their Oscar ceremony tend to be the former kind. Even people who aren't introspective tend to prefer art which mirrors life, rather than the reflection of a reflection. Diana's life, like that of any member of the royal family, could only have been art if it was to be anything at all, because all prospects of action were foreclosed to her. But because her only significance was that she was a sign, because Diana herself was not rooted in any life that we recognize, Diana failed, both as a woman, and as a sign.