As the Kristen Stewart-starring Spencer drops, Diana has become even more of a cult figure among today’s teens, who use satire to mock older generations’ earnest obsession with her
You’d be forgiven for scrolling through a Facebook group, glimpsing a woman with short blonde hair accompanied by the caption, ‘The People’s Princess in her iconic revenge dress’, and thinking it was a tribute to Princess Diana. In fact, the picture is of Shirley Carter from EastEnders, and the post is by a young person – not your typical Baby Boomer Facebook user – and represents an incredibly popular, yet divisive joke format: the Ar Di meme. But why have Gen Z turned Princess Diana – who died before most of them were even born – into a cult hero?
The Ar Di meme format is simple: it takes something seemingly unrelated and brings it back to Diana. Some take a celebrity with a passing resemblance to Diana and pretend that it’s her, with commenters in on the joke. Tying a revered figure such as Diana to Claire Balding, Trisha Paytas, or the grandma from Benidorm is guaranteed to get laughs. Others post questions pondering how Diana may have reacted to modern events or products.
One of the main Ar Di Facebook groups, ‘Princess Diana – Keep Her Memory Alive (NO TROLLS ALLOWED)’ – designed as a mock version of a memorial Facebook page – helped popularise the Ar Di meme format and positioned Princess Diana as a cult hero for a new generation. But are those who make posts laughing at Princess Diana, or do they see the memes as satire at the expense of the people who hold her in high regard?
A meme creator on the page, 20-year-old student Zack from Hampshire, says the group is “a parody of lesser-educated royalists who typically consist of middle aged, white, racist, homophobic conservatives, so I find it funny to make a mockery of them”. Most posts are written in character, including spelling and grammatical errors.
The Ar Di meme is a way of poking fun at previous generations, especially those who hold the royal family as sacrosanct while being insensitive to other issues. On the surface, the memes aren’t strictly disrespectful, but the subtext of them and their relation to the people mocked for posting similar things in earnest is a way of hitting back at previous generations and outdated concepts of reverence.
The martyr figure for one generation has become a source of comedy for another. Some Gen Z know of Diana through the media and family members, so already have a skewed, often lionised view of her. For example, Newcastle-based student Meg, 19, reveals that her “nana’s friend has a whole royal collection and has been on This Morning for it – she has a whole plate collection”. While never experiencing her when she was alive, Gen Z’s early exposure to Diana as a saint-like character means she is seen almost as a caricature now, and therefore acceptable content for memes.
Others know of Diana via her portrayal in The Crown, podcasts including You’re Wrong About, documentaries on Netflix like The Story of Diana, or in passing from images shared on Instagram, such as Diana in her revenge dress and other fashion moments – as this Reel by Grazia shows. Likely to further remould how Diana is viewed is the Princess Di biopic, Spencer – starring Kristen Stewart and directed by Pablo Larraín – which hit cinemas on November 5. This serious portrayal (already poised for Oscar success and with glowing reviews at the Venice Film Festival) could highlight the more tragic elements of Diana’s life and reintroduce her to Gen Z – unlike Netflix’s October 2021 Diana: The Musical, which almost legitimised the fact that comedy could be derived from the princess’ life.
As most media portrayals of Diana are somewhat saintlike, joking about her is provocative because it challenges acceptable taste lines. The Ar Di memes take a topic that has previously been off-limits and destabilise it. This is also a parody of older generations who freely make jokes that ‘punch down’, while being offended at jokes they find distasteful themselves. The best way to attack a generation who think young people are too sensitive is to lampoon one of their most treasured figures. Recent graduate, 21-year-old Kim from Cardiff, who joined the group after seeing a post of drag queen Baga Chipz as Ar Di adds: “The rise of the Ar Di meme has very little to do with the actual woman, and is more a subversion of the stories that our generation has grown up with.”
“The rise of the Ar Di meme has very little to do with the actual woman, and is more a subversion of the stories that our generation has grown up with” – Kim
The Ar Di meme, therefore, is a symbol of a generation pushing back at previous generations’ values. The memes don’t mock Diana – they mock these reverent values. Kim explains: “It’s simply playing with established expectations and subverting it. I would say that’s Gen Z in a nutshell; we question established things and subvert them”.
This subversion comes from a generation who have emerged into a broken country (think: 10 years of austerity, government corruption, failure to tackle the climate crisis, and now Brexit). How can Gen Z act solemnly towards something that previous generations cared about when their future prospects have been jeopardised? The agreement to respect your elders’ beliefs has been shattered, so Gen Z are striking out using humour in older people’s primary domain: Facebook. While the memes are tame, the only reason people feel taboo for laughing is because of how Diana has been canonised in our culture.
Hampshire bar worker Elliott, 24, agrees. “It also pokes fun at Boomers, older Diana fans, and the generations that use the internet in a completely different way, who lived through her death, and loved her obsessively,” he tells Dazed. “I think it shows a real contrast between how the different age groups behave in British culture.”
Many of the posts refer in sincerity to Diana’s ‘revenge dress’ and the fashion moment it created. For instance, one post was shared to admire the iconic dress, in a rare moment of authenticity among the memes. The serious posts tend to focus on Diana’s sartorial choices, such as her sunglasses or exercise outfit, proving that younger generations genuinely admire her fashion choices – even seeing this as her appeal. Arguably, Diana – or Ar Di – is a more fitting hero figure to Gen Z than her typical fans; older generations are less likely to admire her fashion and progressive humanitarian work as they are her role in the royal family. Doing good and looking good are important to Gen Z, and Diana is an obvious historical figure to admire for that.
The earnestness with which people in older generations treat Diana opens her up to become the target of comedy from those of a younger demographic, who utilise humour more as they navigate life. The reverence towards Diana means it’s almost anathema to joke about her in any way. Growing up with this sentiment in the media, and even in families, means that younger generations have now over-corrected to make her the subject of memes. This is ironic given how young people are accused of ‘not being able to joke about anything anymore’.
In an interview about the unveiling of the Diana statue at Kensington Palace, Prince Harry suggested that Diana would “be proud” of the young people of today. Well, Ar Di, it seems the feeling is mutual.