A few weeks ago, the New Yorker ran a "Comment" by Stephen Schiff that compared television talk shows to the geek shows of the 1920s. What characterized these precursors of Sally Jessy Raphael was the geek, "who distinguished himself by his willingness to commit the most loathsome and humiliating acts onstage--commonly, biting the head off a live chicken.... What had gone out of kilter in him was not a hormone or a chromosome, as in the case of the bearded lady or the midget, but the capacity for shame."
Princess Diana is the latest geek. Her recent "tell-all" television interview is a logical but unfortunate extension of the electronic media's sully-everything appeal.
The interview, when broadcast in Britain, was a ratings smash. Perhaps it even topped Oprah's thoughts on lesbian mothers whose transgender children like to play with cake doughs--or Ricki Lake's slightly more racy exploration of "Hot and Heavy Overweight Women Who Like To Sleep Around." Diana's coy smiles and canned answers seemed to have greater appeal than these other staged circuses, maybe because she is seen so seldom on the talk show circuit. Or maybe it's because the interview was conducted by the venerable and home-grown British Broadcasting Corporation. Or maybe it was because the monarchy, in contrast to Oprah's obscure fare, still holds some relevance in Britons' lives.
If that is the case, Diana and her estranged husband Chuck are squandering valuable political capital on this sordid affair. And her affair. And his affair.
Watching Diana's painful interview (for us and for her), wherein every second word seemed to be 'bulimia', I could almost feel the monarchy's credibility erode like a sugar cube in hot tea. There was Diana, in a stunning black jacket with white blouse, pouring her heart out: conspiracy theories involving Charles's "team" trying to portray her as a loony; stale revelations about trysts with horseback riding instructors and crank calls to millionaires; and those mediocre scripted phrases: "There were three of us in the marriage; it was getting a bit crowded." Oh please. We can almost see your eyes following the teleprompter's cues.
By appearing on television amidst such hoopla--newspapers covered it like it was as anticipated as Windows 95--Diana, following Charles's own television appearances, had toppled the monarchy off its already wobbly knees and onto the ground, into the dirt with the rest of the adulterous, fetishist, omnivorous masses. Nothing is sacred anymore.
The monarchy may have been at one time ex dei gratia, but it is now slumming with the rest of them. Ratings, ratings, ratings: Di's up and Charles is down. This week they may well capture our interest, but in a few months they could just as easily be yesterday's amusement--and even more amusing if they pretend to have any moral authority, as a King and Queen should.
The only player in this game with a level head is Old Faithful, Defender of the Faith Herself: Queen Elizabeth's statements from Buckingham Palace have been properly curt and a decided cut above the thrashing-about that occurs in the vat of mud that is our media pit.
But Elizabeth is from an age when it was properly understood that one does not soeak arrogantly of one's minute problems for public consumption, when one doesn't immediately assume that millions of Britons will find one's forced vomitting to be of interest.
Says Diana: "I sit here with sadness, because a marriage hasn't worked. I sit here with hope because there is a future ahead--a future for my husband, a future for myself and a future for the monarchy."
Yes, Diana, whatever you say. Perhaps a future biting off the heads of live chickens, if things continue in this way.
Patrick S. Chung's column appears on alternate Saturdays.