September 26, 1997


The power of Diana's charisma

Folio Staff

It was an event which cast a dark light on the media, while simultaneously driving up newspaper sales and broadcast ratings.

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has had a profound impact on people around the world. Not many people had ever met the woman. Yet, they grieved openly over her tragic end. Why?

That's the question Dr. Ludmilla Jordanova attempted to answer when she gave the opening address at the Women and Literary History Conference, sponsored by the Orlando Project, held recently at the University of Alberta.

Jordanova is a professor of world art studies and museology at the University of East Anglia, in Essex, England.

While fascinated with the media coverage surrounding the death of the "people's princess," Jordanova saw there was no critical analysis of Diana "as a woman, as a feminine figure, [and] on the gender issues her life and death raised" and she began to wonder why.

And by "critical," she was quick to point out, she did not "mean negative, or hostile, but thoughtful and probing." The result was a talk on the feminine charisma of Diana - historical and cultural perspectives.

Jordanova says the drive to "idolize" the woman "together with the sycophantic tone of virtually all tributes to her" is puzzling.

Diana was not a modern woman, says Jordanova but she was a powerful one.

She had charisma. " an exceptionally powerful force with a gendered and erotic potency that demands to be understood."

Her glamour, her humanitarian works, her experiences of "ordinary suffering," made Diana more beautiful. This "transcendent beauty" is an important factor, says Jordanova, but it is nothing new.

Throughout European history, people have believed in physiognomy - the study of interpretation of character from appearance - and have held widespread beliefs that appearances open up a window to the inner soul. Men aren't the only ones transfixed by such beauty, argues Jordanova.

"Women desire beautiful heroines quite as much, possibly more than men, because their beauty reflects back, as it were, on the identifiers."

Closely connected to the beauty factor is the historically persistent conviction that women are "disproportionately empathetic." And it is this capacity to be so much more empathetic than men, especially where children, the sick and the dying are concerned says Jordanova, that generates physical beauty in women.

Diana had empathy, and she had it in spades. More important, she openly displayed it. It is empathy that connects people to their community, says the British historian.

The suspicious converse of this argument then, argues Jordanova, is that those who do not show their feelings, don't have any. Which is why the British press hounded the Royal family for hiding behind the cold, stone walls of Balmoral Castle after Diana's death. It "encouraged criticism, sometimes openly cruel, of those who could or did not act appropriately," says Jordanova.

Meanwhile, this ability to show her compassion made Diana a valuable commodity, particularly to charities, says Jordanova, who calls her the "goddess-saint."

Emotions, charisma and money are closely linked and even, at times, inter-changeable. It was a role with a heavy price.

"To be an ideal, to be living for and on behalf of others is a terrible burden; it makes impossible, irreconcilable emotional demands - no human being can survive the complex forces that impact upon charismatic women."

Diana was charismatic like no man could be, argues Jordanova, even more so than President John F. Kennedy. That she has been compared to Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Grace Kelly only serves to accentuate her star quality, but her unforgettable contributions to humanitarian causes in the eyes of her admirers place Diana in a different category, says Jordanova.

As for claims Diana's death marks a great, historical turning point, with allusions to the French revolution, Jordanova calls these notions absurd.

"The status quo has not in any way been called into question." Diana herself was not anti-establishment, argues Jordanova. Better to remember her by trying to decipher how emotions overshadow analysis and why women are the safeguards of humanitarian feelings.

"The alternative," says Jordanova, "extreme political naivete and continued idealization of feminine caring and beauty, helps no one."

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