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'The Crown's Princess Diana AIDS awareness plot misses an important factor

Princess Diana in the Season 4 finale of The Crown
(Image credit: (Image Credit: Ollie Upton/Netflix))

This post contains spoilers for The Crown.

When covering an eventful decade, how does a writer decide what to include and leave out? Ten episodes of The Crown is barely enough screen time to address the quick to fade fairy tale union of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Beginning in 1979, Peter Morgan’s fourth season is a veritable pick and mix selection of the public and personal. Diana (Emma Corrin) is far from the only highly anticipated arrival, which also sees divisive Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) enter the gilded fray. The fictionalization of figures who had such a big impact — the ripples of which can still be felt — comes with a lot of baggage and expectation. It is unsurprising that this particular season has faced cries of foul play over the lack of signposting to denote its dramatized roots (other than the fact it is being performed by actors reading a script). Regardless, a more shameful omission in the 1980s narrative is far more pressing than a historical fiction disclaimer. The lack of representation of the LGBTQ community and the AIDS epidemic is notable considering the defiant public work Princess Diana did from 1987 until her death. 

When the global HIV/AIDS crisis does come into focus in the season finale, it is brief and lacks LGBTQ context. In reality, Diana had already publicly aligned herself with this cause two years before this Harlem-set scene. As with other changes, creative decisions are made to support other storylines and character arcs. There might be plans to cover the work Diana did as an official patron for the National AIDS Trust in Season 5, but erasing the monumental moment in 1987 when she took the hand of a man diagnosed with the illness is a huge misstep that is detrimental to Diana’s legacy, the LGBTQ community, and the series. 

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana

(Image credit: (Image Credit: Des Willie/Netflix))

 “A breakthrough gesture at the time”

Author Georgina Howell describes the moment Princess Diana took the hand of an AIDS patient in 1987 when she officially opened the UK’s first purpose-built HIV/AIDS unit at London Middlesex Hospital as a “breakthrough gesture.” In Diana: Her Life in Fashion, Howell charts the sartorial influence of the Princess of Wales, including the navy blue Victor Edelstein suit she wore for this occasion. But it was a different garment (or rather lack of) that pulled focus on this occasion. The lack of gloves she wore when greeting staff and patients was a significant act in how the public perceived this disease. She helped change the narrative while tackling the stigma against a vilified community and the deep-rooted homophobia they were subject to — it is notable the man in the photograph did not want his face to be visible.   

Speaking about this moment at the Attitude Legacy Awards in 2017, Prince Harry mentions that even at 25 years old, his mother knew she wanted to shine a light on an epidemic many “wanted to ignore.” Collecting an award on his mother’s behalf Harry emphasized her capacity for knowing the power of her position, “When that April, she shook the hand of a 32-year-old man with HIV, in front of the cameras, she knew exactly what she was doing. She was using her position as Princess of Wales – the most famous woman in the world – to challenge everyone to educate themselves; to find their compassion, and to reach out to those who need help instead of pushing them away.” This speech highlights why omitting this pivotal moment from Diana’s charity work in the 1980s is so frustrating. Furthermore, this was also the year the British government launched the ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ public health campaign — a campaign Thatcher thought would promote “risky” behavior in teens pointing to how little she did on this issue. An episode set in 1987 could have explored this failing from Thatcher juxtaposed against Diana’s public service contribution, but alas. The following year saw the first World AIDS Day, which is still going 32 years later. 

Princess Diana visits a hospital in The Crown season finale

(Image credit: (Image Credit: Netflix/Des Willie))

How ‘The Crown’ portrayed it

In the series finale, the Wales marriage is at its lowest ebb as Charles (Josh O’Connor) accuses his wife of “calculated vulgarity” and using her New York trip to selfishly promote herself. Rather than give the validation she expects, he suggests that anyone can “theatrically hug the wretched and dispossessed.” A scene in which O’Connor probably earns an Emmy nomination for spitting venom, positioning this humanitarian work as a way to twist the knife during an emotional confrontation. It is unfortunate that the narrative couldn't find space for this storyline beyond the bitterness at the headlines generated. 

The solo trip is a success depicting Diana wowing the rich and famous, as well as regular New Yorkers.  During a tour of the Harlem Hospital pediatric AIDS unit the doctor explains it was established in 1987 (much like the Middlesex unit) “to deal with the rising problem of infants suffering with the disease.” Stopping by the bed of a young boy, she is told it is hard to place these children in homes. “Why?” comes the wide-eyed reply from Diana, suggesting she has zero awareness of the stigma when in reality the doctor told the visiting HRH, “Your presence here and in Great Britain has shown that folks with this disease can be hugged, can be cared for.'' The one similarity between fact and fiction is Diana did hug a young boy, although it was not a landmark first.

To reiterate, creative license for the sake of the story is fine and expected, but this ignores the many victims of this disease who were ostracized and targeted with virulent hate. This is less about how naïve or ignorant Diana looks during that hospital scene — also a frustrating choice by Morgan — rather, to further erase the gay community that was hit hardest by this disease in the 1980s is egregious. It is possible charity work will play a bigger role in Season 5 to reflect distance from the loveless marriage and how Diana earned the People’s Princess moniker, but it won’t placate this omission. Discussing the princess on her 30th birthday, Suzy Menkes wrote, “She has understood that the TV gesture - touching an AIDS victim or embracing old people - speaks louder than words.” If only Morgan had realized the value of showing Diana’s AIDS awareness origins.