Princess Diana in 1985
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There I was, in my local bookstore, jockeying for position at the magazine racks with a dozen or so sharp-suited Hill staffers. Looking down, I noticed Ms. magazine’s 25th anniversary issue. A giant “25 years” was splashed across the cover in hot-pink type, and the magazine’s front flap boasted a long list of illustrious contributing writers, from Alice Walker to Bella Abzug to Gloria Steinem. I reached over to retrieve a copy, planning to spend the evening reveling in just how far my gender has come in the past few decades.

That’s when I saw them: Yasmine Bleeth’s breasts—larger than life, semi-clad in a black-lace teddy, and peering at me from the cover of Details. Snuggled up alongside the “Baywatch” beauty were two other prime-time mammas, equally voluptuous, equally unclad. In fact, upon closer examination I discovered that the photo was part of a three-page foldout featuring eight shapely TV actresses, nestled together in groups of twos and threes, hair tousled, lips parted, all sporting a variety of black panties, garters, bras, slips, and so on. The cover line: “The Girls that Make You Lose Remote Control.”

Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure we’d come very far at all. The confusion isn’t mine alone. Despite—or, more accurately, as a result of—feminist strides, women now face an endless series of important “life decisions.” Today, we must figure out how to balance not only the roles of sex goddess and domestic goddess, but also of Supreme Court Justice or Wall Street banker. And as our options increase, so does the confusion. Do we want to be Cokie Roberts or Julia Roberts? Elizabeth Dole or Elizabeth Hurley? To any self-respecting ’90s woman, the choice seems obvious—but it’s not. Even with our high-powered careers and corner offices, we can still be tempted by what writer Marjorie Williams has dubbed “the seductions of dependence,” the allure of being placed on a pedestal and taken care of by Prince Charming. And even as we decry being treated like sex objects and valued for our looks, girdles are making a comeback and beneath a surprising number of those Ann Taylor suits lurks a Wonderbra.

Perhaps for this reason, women more than men seem to search for glimpses of ourselves in public figures—movie stars, athletes, even those sad and sorry creatures on the afternoon talk shows. We strain to see how the central conflicts and questions in our lives are being played out in the lives of the famous and the infamous. Thus, Anita Hill becomes the champion of every woman who has felt powerless to alter a bad work situation, while Oprah’s eternal battle of the bulge reassures us that even the rich and glamorous have their demons.

As the end of 1997 fast approaches, two females stand out as the year’s undisputed headliners in the public—and particularly the feminine—imagination: JonBenet Ramsey and Diana, Princess of Wales. Save for both figures having achieved icon status, the two seemingly had little in common in life, and even less in death: a 6-year-old beauty queen found murdered in her parents’ basement, the most famous woman in the world killed in a car chase through the streets of Paris. Yet both females represented an embrace of traditional definitions of femininity. Both had pursued, and to some extent achieved, the Once-upon-a-time fantasy of becoming a beautiful fairy princess; both were celebrated for and heavily defined by their physical beauty and charm. And both, despite JonBenet’s youth, embodied the dual nature of Woman as The Virgin and The Whore, that nebulous combination of innocence and sexuality that has long titillated Man. (Note that inside the aforementioned Details was another photo spread of the eight women, this time garbed all in white lingerie. Don’t think the symbolism was lost on the editors.) To some extent, JonBenet and Diana stood for everything that feminism has been fighting against for the last 30 years. They served as a reminder that such unfashionably “unliberated” values still hold sway in the lives of countless girls and women.

Daddy’s Little Princess

Even had she not been murdered, JonBenet Ramsey might still have become a household name. She was, after all, in training to be a star. Born into a family of beautiful, charming Southern belles (her mother had made it all the way to the Miss America contest), JonBenet was, by age six, a veteran on the kiddie pageant circuit. The precocious tot’s combination of looks and charm had already won her the crown of Little Miss Colorado, along with a host of lesser-known titles. Like other mini beauty queens before her, JonBenet might have ridden the pageant wave to a career in child modeling or acting.

But JonBenet’s “might haves” ended in the predawn hours of December 26, 1996. Not long after parents Patsy and John Ramsey phoned police to report both their daughter missing and their discovery of a note demanding $118,000 for her safe return, JonBenet’s crumpled body was found in a hidden corner of the basement in her family’s Boulder, Co., home. The grisly details of the murder were guaranteed to make the national news: The child’s tiny skull was fractured; she had duct tape across her mouth and a homemade garrote around her throat; and, most shockingly, her body bore signs of possible sexual assault. Soon everyone from Geraldo to The New York Times was looking into “the JonBenet story.” As the media tsunami gained speed, critics carped that the crime would not have received such attention had the little victim been poor or black. True. But what really made JonBenet an object of irresistible, morbid fascination for the American public were those photographs.

As with most high-profile murders, photos of the victim in happier days soon began appearing in the papers and on television. In JonBenet’s case, however, the pictures came not from the family album but from the deceased’s pageant portfolio, professional glossies showing the petite six-year-old dolled up to look twice her age. The heavy make-up, the teased mane of blond hair (no, it was not naturally that color), the too adult clothes and too flirtatious looks provoked a visceral reaction in the viewing public. Parents and non-parents alike were both repelled and obsessed by the frozen, coy smiles of the baby beauty. The possible sexual aspect of JonBenet’s death melded with the sexualized photos from her life, making us all a bit queasy. With images of the heavily mascaraed child lodged in the public mind, rumblings that the parents might have been involved in the murder became decidedly more plausible. Regardless of whether the Ramseys did or did not strangle their own daughter, there was something creepy going on in that household.

As the ripples spread, JonBenet’s story thrust the entire world of child beauty pageants into the public consciousness. The public promptly declared itself sickened, shocked, and outraged. News articles made repeated reference to the “strange” and “bizarre” world of JonBenet, as if the littlest Ramsey had been part of some dark underground community. (The phrase “kiddie porn” surfaced more than once.)

Far from a fringe community, however, the U.S. pageant circuit attracts hundreds of thousands of preteen participants each year. (Now seems the appropriate time to disclose that, at age seven, I myself donned a frilly frock and patent leather shoes to take part in the Little Miss Dothan (Ala) contest. I lost.) But whatever peripheral attributes the various pageants measure, a girl’s physical beauty remains of central importance. In a society of fluid gender roles, pageants stand as the purest remaining forum for judging traditional femininity: Good old-fashioned qualities such as charm, poise, and beauty are what count.

You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to understand the downside of encouraging females—of any age—to view nice teeth and glossy hair as indicative of a person’s worth. Most ’90s women are uncomfortable that such rituals still take place. But despite the disdain with which so much of our society views these contests, they are in fact gaining popularity. Over the last decade, the number of national pageants alone (those with contestants from multiple states) has grown from around 150 to more than 270, according to the pageant industry association, EPIC International. It seems that, although we may talk a good talk about social progress, we still want our little girls honored as “the fairest of them all.” (A metaphor for this ambivalence can be seen in the recent behavior of the long-running Miss America contest. A mere two years ago, the pageant gave a half-hearted nod to feminism by having viewers vote on whether or not to keep the event’s swimsuit competition. Not only did the “Ayes” overwhelmingly have it, but this year organizers decided it was in the show’s best interest to allow bikinis as well as one-piece suits. Ratings jumped 11 percent over last year’s show, and contestants who chose to bare the extra flesh did proportionally better than those who kept it covered.)

Upon hearing of Princess JonBenet’s grisly end, many women breathed a sigh of resignation (if not relief), thinking that of course this is what happens when little girls are turned into Barbie dolls and taught to prance about in front of strangers. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “These tawdry delights have tawdry ends.” But the story isn’t really over. Little JonBenet was buried wearing a pageant costume and one of her rhinestone tiaras, but the dream of being a storybook princess lives on. In fact, notes EPIC President Mike Maki, in the wake of the murder, the number of calls his organization typically receives from aspiring contestants and parents seeking pageant information actually doubled. And whatever message JonBenet supposedly sent about the objectification of women, this year an estimated 3 million American femmes fatales will put on their prettiest dresses and winningest smiles and glide across a pageant stage to be judged on their style, their grace, and the curve of their hips.

The People’s Princess

Unlike the United States, Britain has a titled aristocracy, and little girls of the right breeding can grow up to be real princesses. Lady Diana Spencer did not have to win a slew of beauty pageants to acquire her title; she merely had to catch the eye of the crown prince of England. (Or, to be more precise, the eye of the prince’s mum.) The basic qualifications for the honor, however, were much the same: charm, poise, grace, beauty. And ultimately, Diana’s fairy tale ended no less tragically than JonBenet’s.

Saturday August 31,1997, will most likely go down as this generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination: Where were you when you heard the news? The subsequent media coverage of Princess Diana’s death was unprecedented. I read most of the major print stories: the accounts in The Washington Post and The New York Times; the initial, commemorative, and follow-up issues of Time and Newsweek; even the self-conscious tribute by The New Yorker, with its high-brow essays and oh-so-clever headlines such as, “What Women Talk About When They Talk About Princess Diana!’ In the end, no one could—and most likely no one ever will—explain the Diana phenomenon. The pieces of the puzzle are laid out for all to examine: She was beautiful, glamorous, rich, royalty, a Celebrity. But the parts don’t quite add up to the estimated 2 billion television viewers who bore witness to her funeral or the 10,000 tons of flowers placed at the gates of the royal palaces by puffy-eyed mourners.

Perhaps equally unprecedented was the striking difference in men’s and women’s reactions to the news—and subsequent news coverage—of the death of a public figure. Across the U.S., women programmed their VCRs to capture the funeral proceedings; the truly devoted set their alarm clocks to be present for live coverage of the dawn event. (As one female colleague put it, “I was there for the wedding, and I’ll be there for the funeral”) Men, for the most part, seemed content to read the accounts in the morning papers or channel surf in search of a replay of Earl Spencer’s vitriolic eulogy. Domestic squabbles broke out all over Washington—and most likely all over the nation— about the “appropriateness” of the media circus surrounding Diana’s death, and of her fame in general. After all, noted our husbands, father, brothers, boyfriends, she didn’t really achieve anything in her 36 years, other than wed the man who, at the time and for god only knows what reason, was considered the most eligible bachelor in the world. The vulgar display over her death (“They keep interrupting the U.S. Open for updates on it!” squawked an indignant male friend) was simply proof of how the Cult of Celebrity had ruined society’s values, glorifying those who don’t truly deserve our respect and admiration.

Even from women who consider themselves above celebrity gawking, this display of male obtuseness prompted a flood of rebuttals, featuring laundry lists of Diana’s good deeds: her work with AIDS patients and sick children, her campaign against land mines, her willingness to reach out to those in pain or in need. But although the Princess of Wales used her star power to a better end than most, it’s true she was no Mother Teresa. Even as Diana sought to help others, she also sought the spotlight. Only a month before her death, Newsweek reported on Diana’s visit with the Fayed family in St. Tropez, where, “behaving like a woman scorned,” the princess was trying to “upstage” Charles and Camilla, “frolicking for photographers in a bathing suit that showed off … a breathtaking cleavage.” Though a concerned visitor to the sick and the poor in places such as Bosnia, India, and Angola, Diana was a permanent resident of Celebrityland—perhaps its central figure in recent years. (Just how absurdly shallow this world can be was illuminated in a Diana tribute penned by New Yorker editor Tina Brown. “When the news came of her death, my first thoughts were … of the wrongness of any royal princess, even a divorced one, contriving to be in that place at that time,” wrote Brown. “In the late summer, the Paris of the rich and the titled simply closes down. … Paris in August? Dinner at the Ritz weeks before la rentree? The fact that she was there at all was discordant, a poignant symbol of a season of panic and flight.” How sad. This grisly tragedy could have been averted, it seems, if Diana and Dodi had only remembered themselves and summered in Tuscany.)

Still, people’s good works are always overstated in the wake of their demise (Have we already forgotten the flood of tears and tributes that characterized Nixon’s memorial service?), and the debate over Diana’s accomplishments overlooks a basic distinction: The displays of grief over her death were not so much about respect as about love. Rational or not, Diana was a public figure whom millions of women loved, both because of the dream that she had originally represented and later because of the disappointing realities they had seen her survive.

In the wake of JonBenet’s murder, the number of calls the pageant industry association received from aspiring contestants and parents doubled.

Starting out, Diana was the fairy tale come to life— Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White all rolled into one. The myth of the fairy princess still exerts a bizarre hold on the female psyche, and little girls aren’t the only ones who still secretly believe that some day their prince will come. What is the female fascination with beauty queens, romance novels, and queen-for-a-day bridal fantasies if not a manifestation of some dark desire to be swept off our feet by a handsome prince? And feminist piety aside, for women struggling to brush away what remains of the glass ceiling or for single moms struggling just to make ends meet, guilty longings for life on a pedestal become understandable, if not particularly admirable. As the future queen of England, Diana was expected only to be pretty, gracious, and fertile. (The royal couple, whatever its failures, did expeditiously produce the requisite heir and a spare.)

Of course, the dark side of the fairy tale soon appeared on screen. The prince turned back into a frog, hopping into the sack with other frogettes and offering little emotional support to a young wife trying to learn the ropes of royalty. Languishing in a loveless marriage, burdened by rigid protocol and constant public scrutiny, Diana fell ill, grew severely depressed, even attempted suicide. Moreover, the innocent young woman who had come to her marriage bed a virgin—a non-negotiable requirement for princesses—soon followed her husband’s lead and began taking outside lovers, much to the delight of the press.

Rather than abandon the princess for destroying the fairy tale for them, however, women became even more attracted to her. Every heartbreak that befell Diana only made the female public feel more connected with her. When her bulimia made the headlines (at a time when eating disorders were big news in the United States) it only proved that the princess suffered our same insecurities. Her desperate search for herself through New Age gurus, psychotherapists, and astrologers reassured us that even the world’s most glamorous woman wasn’t comfortable with who she was. When her marriage began to crumble, that clinched it: Diana was “one of us.” Not even the tabloid sex scandals and tell-all books could sully her image; she was proclaimed “an icon of sexy saintliness” in a 1993 piece in The New Republic.

Whatever our sympathy for the suffering princess, many women were secretly relieved that the storybook castle turned out to be the cage we had suspected all along. And as Diana emerged from her divorce, the public watched—albeit with varying degrees of interest—to see her again transformed, this time not from lady to princess but from princess into independent woman. Here at last was a new chapter to the fairy tale—one with which modern women were more comfortable. The princess had grown up, found the courage to break out of her gilded cage, and was, as People magazine gushed upon naming Diana one of the 25 most intriguing people of 1996, “ready, it seems, for Act Two.”

Sadly, act two never really got started, and Diana never quite made it to her independence day. Escaping the cage, she remained trapped in the fishbowl of her fame. And having dismissed her own security force, Diana quickly found herself dependent on her new beau’s bodyguards, chauffeurs, and personal planes for any degree of privacy. As Time noted, “On the night of hear death, Diana was entirely in the safekeeping of the Fayeds.” A tragically misplaced trust, as it turns out. Whether, in her relationship with Dodi, Diana would have achieved real independence or simply given her self over to the safekeeping of another flawed prince is now a moot point. For the millions of women who followed the princess’s every move, and for the millions more who only snuck the occasional peek at her progress, the fairy tale has ended.

Storming the Castle

So where does “the fair sex” go from here? Should we throw out our eyeliner and pledge to commit our lives to the destruction of every existing copy of Cinderella? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful or charming or sexy or glamorous. But our gender has labored too long for the right to also be seen as something more. When we slip into the role of—or simply allow ourselves to be treated as—pretty objects or coquettish children or dependent damsels, we undermine the “relationship of equals” that we claim to desire. In any relationship, of course, there will be times when one partner must lean more heavily on the other. (In families with young children, for instance, one parent may stay home during the tots’ formative years, and thus be financially dependent on his—or more often her — spouse.) But the idea that one gender needs or deserves to be “taken care of” more than another is unhealthy. Granted, not all princesses fall off the pedestal so tragically, and being protected from life’s unpleasantness has its appeal. But the cost of being up there is your equality and your independence.

What is particularly sad about JonBenet’s and Diana’s stories—aside from their premature endings—isn’t that the two heroines chose an “unenlightened” path; it’s that neither seemed to understand that she had a choice to make. JonBenet was turned into a fashion plate before she could even dress herself. Diana was born to a world of traditions and social etiquette that was only too happy to send her off to the castle tower, and that never really prepared her for life on her own. Whatever personal lessons women take from their stories, JonBenet and Diana should make us appreciate all of the confusing, frustrating choices we encounter in our lives.

But even as the most liberated among us pat ourselves on the back over the path not taken, we need to acknowledge and address the mixed signals society is still sending our gender. We obsess over the subliminal effects of rap music and video games on our young men, but no one in Congress is agitating for labels warning against the unhealthy values Kate Moss and Cosmo may be teaching our young women. It is the responsibility of women who, for the most part, have escaped the lure of the castle to balance the lessons girls learn from the fairy tales and romance novels and beauty pageants and fashion magazines. Political involvement is, of course, vital to women’s independence and equality. But another key to the equation may be as simple as making sure that for every dress we buy our little girls, we also give them a great pair of sneakers; Santa should be encouraged to peddle fewer Pretty Pretty Princess games and more doctor’s kits; Sleeping Beauty should be shelved in favor of Robin Hood or Heidi; and every time someone tells our little girls how beautiful they are, we should take care to praise them for also being smart or talented or funny or independent or brave. The goal shouldn’t be to stop girls and women from dreaming of becoming princesses—we just need to change the job description.

Michelle Cottle

Follow Michelle on Twitter @mcottle. Michelle Cottle is a member of the New York Times editorial board and the Washington Monthly's Board of Directors. She was an editor for the Monthly from 1996 to 1998.