Affairs of the state on confessional television
The contribution of the confessional television interview can be seen as an important corrective for women caught up in sex scandals. It is a place where they can exercise some control over the presentation of the story as it circulates in the public sphere. Certainly, this appears to have been the case in recent scandals where the television interview as ‘media event’ has assumed a significant role. The interview can potentially draw attention away from the body of the woman and its sexualized meanings, the scandalized woman as whore, by giving primacy to the woman’ s voice, and her point of view in the scandal narrative. The use of ‘survivor narratives’ is reminiscent of the confessional talk show in which women’s ability to recover from adverse life events is used as a feminist signifier of women’s strength in community, regaining their sense of self-esteem in the process (Wilson 2003). Initiated and controlled by the woman and her PR advisors, a heavily scripted and rehearsed event counteracts the ‘victim’ stereotype, even if it leaves her open to accusations of being manipulative. But women can only intervene with the hope, rather than a guarantee, that their version of events will prevail. The interview enters into a discursive struggle with competing versions and interpretative commentary. In assessing their wider significance, at best this exposure can subject the sexual politics of a still predominantly patriarchal political establishment to public critique. At worst it simply reconfirms women’s capacity for suffering in a therapeutic context where recovery is an entirely personal matter of overcoming adversity.
The different strands in this debate can be traced in the responses to Diana’s confessional interview on the British current affairs programme Panorama (BBC 1995). It was seen by 23.2 million people in the UK alone, and broadcast in 112 countries around the world (Thompson 1997). The response was diverse, with commentators filling the studios and front pages of the newspapers with interpretations of its significance. For example, the Guardian, a ‘quality’ daily newspaper in the UK, filled six pages with commentary on the following day. At its most hostile, this commentary included various establishment figures (such as Prince Charles’s close friend Nicholas Soames) attempting to smear her with the imputation of madness, of being an unreliable witness owing to her emotional and psychological instability.
The extent of Diana’s courting of media publicity was used in the case against her, and accentuated the suspicion that she was using this interview to influence public opinion as ammunition in her marital battle with her husband. She was condemned for being manipulative as a consequence of her obviously rehearsed answers and carefully vetted questions, asked by an interviewer whose deferential and gentle manner helped to create an atmosphere of hallowed reverence. ‘It had a Sunday evening feel’, as one commentator said, with the Princess’s sober demeanour echoed by the formal surroundings and dim lighting. She was accused of using her feminine appeal to manipulate the situation to her advantage, presenting herself as a victim rather than being an authentic case. The television critic Mark Lawson described it as ‘Southern European widow’ (the dark suit, the heavy eye-liner, the subdued demeanour, the bowed head). It was a persona calculated to elicit respectful sympathy for her suffering, while allowing for the full play of melodramatic emotions that the deployment of a
Figure 2 Princess Diana being interviewed by Martin Bashir on Panorama (broadcast on BBC1, 1995)
well-known visual stereotype allows. Its theatricality lent it to sceptical mockery and subsequent parody (most notably on Channel 4 by the political satirist Rory Bremner).
Several well-known feminist commentators interpreted the interview as the culmination in a biographical narrative of emancipation from the forces of class and patriarchal oppression, enabled by the therapeutic intervention of Diana’s feminist counsellor, Suzy Orbach, to cure her bulimia. The journalist Beatrix Campbell ‘claimed it to be one of the most important social documents of its time’ (Hinds and Stacey 2001: 162). Elaine Showalter called Diana ‘a feminist heroine of epic stature’ (Holt 1998: 188). It is in the verbal narrative, rather than her visual image, that perhaps the strongest claim to feminist meaning resides. It was a story of a traumatized identity through which new claims for emancipation were articulated. But several writers have subsequently questioned this assessment and seen it instead as a symptom of the decline of rational political feminism in which the display of feelings and the cult of celebrity have become a substitute for political analysis. ‘Mixing the language of traditional romance with the cliches of psychotherapy and popular feminism. . . it replicated the intimacy and therapeutic promise of women’s talk shows’, argues Linda Holt (1998: 193). She considers the interview:
an archetypally feminine act – disclosure of romantic hurt and pain, presented with doe eyes, flirtatious eyes and downtrodden demeanour. . . Notably absent from her Panorama interview was any political questioning of the ideologies and social structures underlying her role and treatment as a woman… By laying claim to feeling, nurturing, loving, she appealed to the age-old association of femininity with emotion.
(Holt 1998: 193, 194-5)
It thereby contributed, in her view, to the trend in which the personal has become a substitute for the political.
Rather than seeing these differing feminist interpretations as alternatives to choose from, Hilary Hinds and Jackie Stacey (2001: 163) take up a recurring theme in postfeminist theory to argue that the interview offered ‘a fantasy reconciliation of feminism and femininity hitherto unimaginable to the British media’.
The interview condenses a critique of the objectification of women by the media, a challenge to the gendered inequalities of the institution of marriage, a plea against male infidelity and duplicity, a thorough refusal of the myths that suggest that being a wife and mother is necessarily satisfying for today’s woman, and that the family is a safe place for her to be. Diana combines head tilting and wide eyed gestures of traditional middle-class feminine innocence with a more knowing deployment of pauses and half smiles to indicate the extent of the violations to which she was subjected, and to underscore her restraint from detailing them further in this public forum.
(Hinds and Stacey 2001: 162-3)
The feminist meanings this embodied were perceived at the time as potentially threatening to the institutions of patriarchy as epitomized in the hierarchical traditions of the royal family. More recent sexual scandals in the royal household during 2003, fuelled by secret tape recordings made by Diana and kept after her death by her butler Paul Burrell, contributed further to this potential.
Raka Shome (2001) also points out the significance of racial identity in the transgressive meanings this television event produced, thereby disturbing the boundaries of ‘Englishness’. Diana chose to make her critique to a hitherto little-known British-Asian television journalist, Martin Bashir, whom she chose as her interviewer. Given her ideological role as the epitome of white femininity, this intensified the scandal.
[White femininity] is an ideological construction through which meanings about white women and their place in the social order are naturalized. As symbols of motherhood, as markers of feminine beauty (a marker denied to other women), as translators (and hence preservers) of bloodlines, as signifiers of national domesticity, as sites for the reproduction of heterosexuality, as causes in the name of which narratives of national defence and protection are launched, as symbols of national unity, and as sites through which ‘otherness’ – racial, sexual, classed, gendered and nationalized – is negotiated, white femininity constitutes the locus through which borders of race, gender, sexuality and nationality are guarded and secured.
(Shome 2001: 323)
Moreover, Shome (2001) argues, her later romantic association with the Egyptian Dodi El Fayad, and the Pakistani doctor Hasnat Kahn, provoked racist fears of miscegenation at the heart of the establishment, thus confirming the ‘transgressive’ nature of her desires. Nevertheless, after her death, the ceremonial role of television at her funeral and in commemorating her memory worked to restore her to her ‘rightful’ place in the iconography of the nation. Hoping her death would bring ‘closure’ to the scandal proved optimistic, however, as continuing revelations underline.
In her glamourized image, Diana represented the epitome of feminine allure, overlaid by our knowledge of her emotional suffering expressed hysterically through its enactment on her body through self-harm and bulimia, and by her persecution at the hands of the press photographers. The Panorama interview signifies her attempt to take back control of her image in the public sphere, as the culmination of a struggle to regain control of her body in the private context of her therapy (Coles 1998: 165). Stretched across the traditional and the modern woman, a princess in a fairy tale and a media celebrity, Diana’s image was forged by the modern media of photography and television. But as Gamson (2001) has pointed out, in contradiction to the kind of ‘power feminism’ advocated by Naomi Wolf (1993), the process of selfcommodification has contradictory effects. The degree to which women have control over this ‘self-fashioning’ is illusory in a context where men still overwhelmingly own and produce the media in which they are circulated. Reading practices also draw on old-style, sexist interpretations whatever the intentions of the performer: ‘her femininity was not a masquerade she was in control of’ (Holt 1998: 196), a fact that the manner of her subsequent death underlines.