Does The Death of a Celebrity Matter?

First, I will come clean. I am officially an emotional softie. I cried when Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Just as I cried when Amy Winehouse died.

And just as Amy’s death brought a huge and, sadly, inevitable backlash so it seems that Hoffman’s is doing likewise. Ranging from “why do we publicly mourn a celebrity when thousands die from overdoses every day?” to “addiction is a selfish thing” the backlash is as predictable as it is inappropriate and yet, for all that inappropriateness (which has a lot to do with timing), these are issues that demand an answer. In particular, the disproportionate way we treat the deaths of some and not others is a question we can’t sidestep in a world where marginalised majorities are increasingly demonised. And in a society that’s seen the damaging effects of “Paralympic syndrome” (in which those who happen on the one hand to be disabled and on the other to be supremely talented have those two attributes conflated so that those who possess the former without the latter are somehow seen as lacking or lazy), it is increasingly important to question the myth of the figure touched simultaneously by genius and torment as though those two traits went hand in hand rather than being simply two of the myriad strong pool of potential personality contents with which nature chooses to paint us.

There is nothing glamorous about addiction. Death by overdose is squalid, sordid, and truly, truly sad. Likewise there is nothing for those of us who are not by nature addicts, or whose addiction runs to something more socially acceptable, to be proud of for the fact that we have avoided such a fate. The judgementalism that acompanies the death of any addict (or any suicide, come to that) has as little a place in reasoned debate as the glamourisation that is its inevitable inverse correlate.

Back to the question of the celebrity death. Can it be right to mourn so openly and disproportionately the death of one person? Isn’t that an affront to those whose deaths on our margins go unaccounted every day? Well, that depends on several things. First of those is why it is appropriate to mark a death at all. Is it wrong to use the passing of someone who touched one’s life deeply as a moment to reflect on how they did so, to celebrate the way they did so and examine oneself and the complex series of narratives that makes up one’s identity? I don’t think so. Such reflection is, in and of itself, a good thing when done sporadically as it stops us placing ourselves too firmly at the centre of our own narrative.

Is it wrong to appropriate the grief of those who were touched in more direct and daily ways by a person’s death? That’s far more complicated and the extent to which it is solace and the extent to which it is intrusion for their loved ones will depend on many factors.

Is it wrong to use the death of a celebrity to single them out for the manner of their death? Yes. And no. Yes, because that is the beginnig of the path that leads to the creation of the tortured genius myth and its insidious correlate of the everyday junkie as wannabe or wastrel. Yes, because whenever we single out one person we silence a thousadn besides. When we make a single narrative representative of many we silence those many just as surely as the well-meaning “ally” who speaks on behalf of women or people of colour or those with disability and in doing so steals their words and, worse still, lets society consider itself to have done its necessary duty in their regard. So to take the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain or Billie Holiday, or your brother, or your sister, or your best friend’s lover, and make it representative of other deaths is a violence to those deaths.

And the last figures in that list every bit as much so as the first, a point that is often lost. What differentiates the person who starts a campaign in honour of a loved one from those who publicly mourn the passing of a celebrity who touched their lives? Simply that they started a campaign on behalf of others. The genuine grief of any one person for any one other person is unique, inexplicable, beyond judgement, and inevitably silences all other voices behind the deafening scream of the person they loved. That is the nature of the inward fold that grief creates, and the pressure of that inward fold creates a simultaneous and involuntary outpouring that is equally unique, inexplicable, and beyond judgement.

Judgement steps in, becomes appropriate, opens the way for logic, for discourse, the moment that involuntary outpouring ends and its voluntary counterpart takes over (and with it the corresponding inward motion that makes of our grief something calculated, thought through, eventually even staged).  And that is as true for those whose grief is for someone who lived and died on the margins of society’s orbit as it is for those who grieve for celebrities. Those whose voices cry out on behalf of the marginalised among us, whose grief becomes steadfastness becomes the desire to change becomes the determination to *speak on behalf of* can be as much guilty of silencing every other voice but that of their loved one, or worse still, every voice but their own, in the worst cases a voice whose cadence is calculated, as are those who use the death of a celebrity who touched their lives to catalyse their grief into action. The question, once the involuntary turns voluntary, is always the same – whose voice is being heard? Our own? That of a departed individual? Or those whose lives would otherwise go unnoted and unnoticed, given as a result of the outward fold of a particular grief, the most powerful thing any human being can be given – a voice of their own?

So no, I don’t have a problem with celebrating Hoffman’s life, and how it touched my own and those of others. I don’t have a problem with people’s reflexive outpourings of grief. Where problematicity begins is with what happens next. But, just as every death, be it of the singular celebrity or the marginalised millions, is equally worthy of marking, so there is an equal responsibility on those touched by all of them once the time of that marking has passed. Inasmuch, of course, as many more were touched by Hoffman’s life than will be touched by most lives, or deaths, so the responsibility to do something other than slowly forget in a nostalgic haze presses upon many more shoulders.

I want to end by linking to someone whose grief has made a difference in many lives. Katelan Foisy’s beautiful book Blood and Pudding is a wonderful tribute to the lives of two dear friends she lost to addiction. In the wake of its publication, she has done a lot of work in relation to harm reduction. You could do worse than read about what the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center does here.

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10 thoughts on “Does The Death of a Celebrity Matter?

  1. Funnily enough I just wrote something about death, anyway’s…Whitehouse and Seymour’s death maybe resonates more because they added something unique to culture and therefore through the mediums of song and film become these kind of immortal beings that can be seen and heard at will. Their work is their legacy and their addictions remind us that celebrities are actually normal ,fragile creatures like the rest of us, maybe that’s the only way we can access this thing we call celebrity and understand it.

    • Do you have a link to your piece?
      “their addictions remind us that celebrities are actually normal ,fragile creatures like the rest of us,” – I think that’s very important to remember

  2. I feel sad when a celebrity goes the way of Hoffman or Winehouse because I think we, as a society who are so prone to put people up on pedestals in order to try and pull them down, are in many ways to blame. Artists give us a piece of themselves every time they sing or play or paint or act or write and we demand so much in exchange for this gift. We expect perfection 24/7, more, more, more and oh do let us pry into every sacred space you possess. Tortured to create art is a myth but tortured when you share is all too true. Thanks for this great post, Dan. You made think and think again.

  3. Excellent post. And I tend to think that celebrity and artist deaths resonate with people for a reason. Often these individuals have made us feel something – joy, sadness, heartbreak, amusement. They do this through their art or their personalities presented in the media. While we may not know them personally, I would say that the ones we truly admire and enjoy have certainly left a bit of themselves on our souls. It would almost feel strange NOT to mourn that, regardless of how the person died. Hoffman and Winehouse, for example give faces to the terrible disease of addiction, and though many people are affected by it we often aren’t able to see those people. So it feels equally tragic but far less personal.

    • “give faces to the terrible disease of addiction” – I think that’s right, and if that then leads us into thinking more deeply and listening to other people’s stories, that has to be something good that comes out of a tragedy

  4. I agree about the “giving faces” part. Sometimes, when it’s some anonymous person or a group of anonymous people, it’s very hard to view their troubles in anything but a kind of academic, objective way. It’s true that some objectivity can also help us to formulate solutions without becoming incapacitated by personal emotion. But at the same time, the only place we can start, with anything, is from inside our own heads, before we work outward to the world.

    So I think that it “helps” (awful word to use in the circumstances) us when it’s a celebrity or someone who has influenced us even without their knowing it. The flash of understanding and human relating gets in through that crack in the impersonal and distant objectivity. We think of well-known people as individuals in ways we can’t think of people we’ve never heard of, and that somehow lets us extrapolate to, “all those other people may be just like him/her.”

    That is, of course, only if we don’t keep the emotion turned in on ourselves, concentrating ONLY on “how it makes ME feel.” I worry about the gigantic mounds of flowers and tributes sometimes, because I think they may just be about the mourners (dragging out and dramatizing their own mourning) and very little, if in any way, about even the departed one’s family or any cause related to the person’s death. If the mourning never turns outwards, then I think it can be unhealthy.

    • Absolutely agree about the public aspect – there are times when public mourning is necessary and helpful, but I’m always wary of people who do their good deeds where they can be seen – as you say, it can all too easily become about them and not the object of those deeds

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