Anne T. Donahue: Have We Learned Nothing About Celebrity Since Princess Diana's Death?

Twenty years later, we're still largely clueless when it comes to respecting boundaries around celebrity. Case in point? How the media is handling Aaron Carter's very public unravelling

Separate photos of Princess Diana and Aaron Carter

(Photographs: Getty)

As you probably already know, August 31 marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. And it’s certainly not like the media’s going to let you forget: over the last few weeks, we’ve seen TV specials that zero in on the demise of her marriage to Prince Charles and documentaries centered on the role she played as a mother. In fact, more in death than in life, Diana’s arc is being dissected and plodded over, with a special focus on her final years and the circumstances leading up to the tragic car crash in Paris. Which is rich, when you remember that in the days, weeks, and years following her passing, many of us pointed a finger at how the media factored into her life and death.

“Princess Di is dead, and who should we see about that?” George Clooney (who had never met her) said in the aftermath of the accident. “The driver of the car? The paparazzi? Or the magazines and papers who purchased these pictures and make bounty hunters out of photographers? If you weren’t hiding behind the profession of journalism, you would be an accomplice to a crime and go to jail.”

And while harsh, Clooney was echoing popular sentiment. On the morning after 36-year-old Diana died, her brother, Earl Charles Spencer, infamously pointed his finger at the paparazzi and reminded reporters that he “always believed the press would kill her in the end,” which forced anyone who’d paid for photos of Diana, read stories about Diana and/or perpetuated gossip about Diana to confront the part they played in her demise. So as a result, and naively, some of us (hi) expected celebrity culture to change. We grew into adulthood with the shadow of Diana’s death reminding us of how invasive photographers could be. And yet we watched them zero in on Britney Spears during her mental health crisis in 2007, invade Justin Bieber’s space to the point of physical confrontation, and hurl blame at Kim Kardashian following her robbery last year.

Only louder, and in real time. Where Diana’s legacy lay largely in print, social media and the instantaneousness of the digital age has led to rapid consumption of celebrity news, bad and good. And while there seems to be progress in the way we talk about women’s bodies or understand the complexities of mental health, there’s still miles to go before we can claim we’ve learned anything about respecting boundaries around celebrity. Especially in the way the media is covering Aaron Carter’s public unravelling.

Earlier this month, the singer took to social media to share that he was bisexual, which was news that followed his arrest for DUI and preceded a breakup with girlfriend Madison Parker. Then this week, he appeared on an Australian radio program, where he broke down (on camera) while admitting he’s not ready to date anybody right now.

Which, like, fair. To drive under the influence was Aaron’s choice, much like it was for him to elaborate on his sexuality or to share the details of his former relationship. But the breathless coverage of “the Aaron Carter drama” implies that we’ve learned nothing in the wake of Diana’s death. Clearly Carter is battling, clearly he is reconciling who he is with who he wants to be, and clearly—as evidenced by his DUI—he has the capacity to self-destruct. And yet the coverage continues.

Which was the pattern we also saw in the media’s relationship with Diana. As Diana herself told Andrew Morton in Her True Story In Her Own Words, the Princess was embraced by the press until she wasn’t. Based on minute-by-minute coverage of what they deemed to be Diana’s “bad behaviour”—similar to what is now being done to Aaron—the tabloids started making assumptions about her clothing and the money they believed she spent on it. The media assigned a narrative to Diana’s choice to leave a family stay at Balmoral earlier than planned (she had a psychiatric appointment; they assumed she was going shopping), and derided her “childish” behaviour with Fergie at Ascot (Charles consistently urged his wife to be more like the Duchess, but the press condemned her for it). They also chronicled her weight (she was bulimic) and dissected her marriage (which was failing), and made it impossible to live outside the perimeters they created. And because Diana didn’t have social media or the ability to reach out in the same direct way celebrities do now—which can, not always but sometimes, help in these situations—she suffered because of it.

The thing is, while the way public figures can communicate has changed (see: Carter taking to Instagram to open up about his sexuality), the way we assign them specific narratives hasn’t. While Aaron is breaking down on the radio and comparing it to therapy—which indicates he’s processing something pretty big—we focus less on why it’s happening (a mental health struggle, quite possibly) as opposed to what’s happening. As far as we’ve come in discussions on mental health or privacy or even proper context, we still tend to zoom in on what’s sensational or what we think will sell or earn clicks without assigning it proper meaning. Which is nonsense, when you remember that you can still cover the news while sticking to facts. It’s possible to report that Aaron opened up about his personal life on the radio without embedding a video of the former teen heartthrob sobbing. Just like it would’ve been possible to report on the Princess without hunting her down and thirsting for extras.

After all, it’s been 20 years since Diana died in a completely avoidable tragedy. If that hasn’t forced us to do better, what will?

More from Anne:
Anne T. Donahue on the Misunderstood Suburbs
Anne T. Donahue Is Here for the Sweet Valley High Movie
Anne T. Donahue on What We’re Really Saying When We Say Jonah Hill Looks Good