In Diana and Beyond, Raka Shome, a cultural studies scholar, analyses media images of Princess Diana and other privileged white women in the Global North, and demonstrates how they have become linked to issues of nation and national identity. Her main contention is that representations of white femininity often “produce new, or rearticulate old, formations of racism and classism”. She examines the relation between white femininity, particularly that represented by Diana, and the nation, in the context of Labour’s New Britain. Shome believes Diana and Blair’s government found “symbolic strength in each other”. Exploring the intersection of fashion and white femininity, she claims that a false image of a multicultural, Asian-friendly Britain emerged when Diana and Cherie Blair were photographed wearing saris during specific moments aimed at promoting cultural cohesion.

When Diana is positioned as a maternal figure in photographs, Shome argues, she is made to glow, allowing her to be presented as “the best mother the world has ever seen, the model we should all follow”. When she is photographed with the undernourished children of the Global South, “the camera angles and lighting are often organised to inspire awe and stature towards her body while the bodies of the native children are visually diminished”.

Shome also examines the representation of white female celebrities who, after adopting children from underprivileged parts of the world, are lauded as “global mothers”, as bringing light to the “dark continent”. Shome argues that “this obscures the real reasons children are abandoned or deprived in the Global South”.

Images of white femininity are often used to “contain and pathologize the Muslim man and render him a threat to the nation”, as exemplified by the hype surrounding Diana’s love affair with Dodi Fayed. Shome suggests that media representations of the Fayeds served to reinforce age-old motifs: “the trope of the play-boy sheikh, the theme of perverse Muslim male sexuality, and the madness of Muslim men”.

She claims the 1990s were not a particularly propitious time for Muslims. However, I disagree that the Rushdie affair, and the response to what was clearly a free expression issue, “expressed a fundamental fear and loathing that the British society already had towards Muslims”. Furthermore, Shome incorrectly labels Victoria Beckham as upper-class. Class is a loaded term in Britain. Beckham is privileged by money and her celebrity status, not by birth.

Otherwise, this is a valuable study of white femininity and how it impacts on geopolitical and global currents.

Originally published by the TLS