A Case Study in Media Representations of Female Conflict
For a long time, I was somehow able to avoid the in-depth media discourse on the late Princess Diana and the ways in which she was failed by the royal family. That was until I received a Facebook invitation from a friend of mine to join the “PRINCESS DIANA KEEP HER MEMORY ALIVE (NO TROLLS ALLOWED)” group dedicated to posting various memes to do with the entire Diana-Charles-Camilla scandal (as a side note I do thoroughly recommend giving this page a look purely to see the occasional comments of people completely missing the sarcasm of the title). Having been thrown right into the deep end of the affair (excuse the pun) I’ve always been mildly concerned with the direction in which people vent their anger.
Do note that I am not trying to make any kind of commentary on who is to be blamed or who is worse in this specific scenario: I have little interest in becoming a royal affairs commentator. Rather, I think that this scene serves as a prime example of the way in which the media constructs or forces certain conflict narratives. The superb simplification of this highly complex and highly personal event into simply “Camilla was evil and Diana was mistreated” is almost laughable. Yet this narrative persists almost thirty years later. This divorce was high-profile, included affairs, and involved someone of huge political significance so it’s no wonder that it has proved a decades-lasting media frenzy.
Crucially though, I think it can be used as a prime example of the way in which conflict necessarily plays out in media discourse and the way that that filters into public consciousness. We still view Camilla Parker-Bowles in terms of Diana and her ever-lasting presence even after her death. Despite her influence as a long-term friend and now member of the royal family and a longtime confidant of a to-be king, Camilla is little more than the woman who forced out Diana. I think that the way Princess Diana utilised the media and captured public attention during the later years of her life set the tone for the next generation. Indeed the Meghan and Harry debacle often causes references back to the “ghost of Diana” watching history repeat itself.
Yet Camilla did little more than what happens to many people across the country: have an affair and be the trigger in a divorce. The key difference here is the capacity of the media to construct and force caricatures of individuals into public consciousness. Indeed, Camilla’s voice had scarcely been heard in public before her marriage to Charles and it was only in reading for this article that I have ever come across any words that have been attributed to her. None of us have really any idea of the reality of Camilla Parker-Bowles so perhaps it is unsurprising that we as a society have latched onto the character that has been constructed for us.
Moreover, it is easy for us to just believe what we are told and it is entertaining to exchange dramatic tidbits about people with no personal consequences at stake. To run back to our dramatic youths where we gossiped to our friends about who said what about who and who had just broken up with who is a tempting prospect. This is the root of why tabloid media has always had such a grip on our consciousness: there is something primal about the desire to keep up with big dramas.
Furthermore, this particular drama offers one of media’s favourite narratives: two women vying for the same thing. Whether it is Nicki Minaj versus any other female rapper or the classic Angelina Jolie versus Jennifer Aniston fights, there is always a need to pit successful or influential women against each other. It is impossible for two women to coexist without necessarily being in some form of conflict. Camilla Parker-Bowles and Princess Diana offer a perfect example of the way in which women must necessarily be the face of this drama. Whilst Charles is at the centre and arguably has the most agency in the entire affair, the media centres on comparisons of Camilla and Diana’s various attributes. Who looks better in a black dress, who is more philanthropic, who would have been a better queen. It was inevitable that this is how the drama must have played out in the media for it to have been most captivating.
Forgive me, but I’m going to give some of my favourite etymology: the word “gossip” originated as a term attributed to close female friends of a new mother. It became associated with idle talk and chatter in the late medieval period in order to delegitimise increasingly educated and influential conversations had by women. To this day it still holds an innately feminine quality: young girls cannot have legitimate conflict, it is all just gossip. The reason I bring this to the fore is to emphasise the ways in which female conflict is considered in the broader zeitgeist. To construct the idea that female friendships are predicated on gossip and, more often than not, bringing other women down is not only utterly false but further delegitimises reasonable conflict that women engage with.
Whilst seemingly trivial now, the discourse surrounding Princess Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles is indicative of the ways in which we rationalise women. It’s time we begin to use critical thinking skills when we think about the reductionist simplifications of conflict in the media––even when we think about tabloid discussions. It is these digestible fights that are slipping into our consciousness.
Illustration: Olivia Little