How We React When Celebrities Die

There is a wide array of reactions that accompany the death of a celebrity.  It’s possible to understand a great deal about the impact of the particular celebrity by the nature of the reactions.  The circumstances can cause reactions to be focused in a particular direction – unexpected tragedy causing death is met with shock and an outpouring of grief, death in old age is met with reminiscence and retrospective.  Each situation is unique, but with the modern ability of every individual to express an instant reaction, there are certain “types” of people that are emerging in the social media sphere that can be counted on to appear with any celebrity death.

1) The “irrational expression of profound grief” person.  This individual did not know the celebrity in question, but the reaction they express – typically with a multi-paragraph Facebook post or long series of tribute tweets – is more in line with the loss of the closest of friends.  They typically post repeatedly, moving on to posting every YouTube clip of the deceased they can find when the posts just prove not to be enough.  They are akin to the person wailing at the funeral louder than the spouse of the deceased.  It’s not the reaction is inherently wrong, they just seem ridiculous in the manner they choose to express it.

2) The “I crossed this celebrity’s path once” person.  This person had a brush or interaction with this person and tells the detailed version of the story before expressing their grief.  Their are subsets of this person in the form of the “humble brag to show you why my grief reaction is more valid than yours” and the “I just want to share that my impression of this celebrity was very positive, so your grief is valid” person.

3) The “I knew this celebrity” person.  This person did actually know said celebrity at a level beyond passing acquaintance.  Their expression again includes the subset of “so I’m making this all about me, and send me your condolences at my grief that is so much stronger than yours” and “I want to share my stories and lessen my grief by sharing with others who are grieving.”  This category often includes actual friends of the celebrity, other celebrities whose quotes are sought out by the press and minor celebrities seeking reflective attention.

4) The “what’s the most inappropriate joke I can make?” person.  This person usually waits until the news has spread just far enough for everyone to suddenly be interested, and then they drop the most offensive joke they can think of into the mourning of others.  The attempt at shock humor for attention is usually based in the circumstances of the individual’s death, the reason the person was famous in the first place, or if all else fails by linking them to some other shock/buzz form of humor.  The fast and furious jokes at the death of Paul Walker are perfect examples.  I’m all for no-limits comedy, but as with other delicate subjects for humor, the greater the risk of the joke being perceived as just offensive, the more substantial the underlying point should be.  “Someone died and I know how to make it funny” really doesn’t qualify.

5) The “I’m an expert on this person and will now take this opportunity to let you know why you should have known so much more about this celebrity” person.  This typically happens with the death of someone whose greatest point of celebrity was sometime in the past.  Great artists, singers and actors whose careers peaked before cable television and the internet are the most likely candidates.  This person expresses their grief and fandom by showing the rest of us what we were missing all along.  They often scoff at those who are not familiar with the celebrity’s work.

6) The “I’m a superfan” person.  This person is a sibling of the “expert” person, but their expression is usually about a currently relevant celebrity so it lacks the aspect of teaching you about them.  They know you know the person’s work, but they want to tell you everything they ever loved about the person, often starting with the most known work all the way to the obscure minutia that only the most committed of fans would know.  They show how much better a fan they were than you, and often use it to justify the transition into being an “irrational grief” person.

5) The “thousands of people die every day and this person’s death shouldn’t be more important than theirs” person.  You know the one, they usually list a statistic of how many people die daily, or annually, or by the same method as the celebrity.  They are attempting to prick at social consciousness and point out what they perceive as an inequity or overreaction to a particular death.  They do not believe the reaction and attention is justified.  They appear most often in conjunction with deaths of unexpected tragedy, and are often directly reacting to the collective expression of all of the “irrational expression of profound grief” people.  They are also being a little bit patronizing, as if saying, “you shouldn’t be feeling as strongly as you do about this person you didn’t even know.”

6) The “there is (insert other world problem or tragedy here) happening, and while this death is sad, should all of the news be about it?” person.  This person is really just saying they didn’t care that much about this particular celebrity and they are annoyed with the amount of news coverage and discussion being given to it because of the interest of the grief-based reaction personality types.  They often agree with and relate to the “other people died today” person.  They use the comparison to another national or international issue or tragedy to belittle the grief being expressed by the “experts”, “superfans” and “over-grievers”.

The reality is, celebrity deaths do a strange thing to us collectively in our culture.  The more unexpected, the greater the attention because of the “what could have been” wondering it fires in the imagination.  How much more could they have done and been that we would have loved?  Heath Ledger, Cory Monteith, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Paul Walker received this for different reasons.  The death of elderly celebrities, much less so.  We have a strange relationship with celebrities.  We love them, we respect them, we revile them, we obsess over them each at different times and for different reasons.  We can each fall into different reaction categories depending on our own relationship with the work of the celebrity or perception of them.  We expect much from our celebrities, but we don’t expect them to die any more than we expect the people in our own lives to die.

The loss of a celebrity becomes a communal opportunity to discuss them and their work and our opinions on them.  It also often shows who we are as individuals.  I may think your reaction is ridiculous, but who am I to judge it?  I never understood the extreme reaction some people have to the death of a celebrity they do not personally know until Whitney Houston died.  I did not expect the strength of my own reaction, and then I considered how much she was the soundtrack to my life.  I’m sure it looked silly to others.  But who cares, right?  Regardless of our individual opinions, respecting the right of others to feel the way the feel should not be that difficult because who are they hurting?  Belittling them, mocking them or deriding the subject of their grief does not make them grieve less, it just makes you look like a terrible human being.

Each time we lose someone, in our own lives, in our artistic lives or in the public square of art and celebrity, it’s an opportunity to reflect on and remember the fragile nature of our own humanity.  With the rapid decline in respect for each other occurring online and in social media, when a moment happens that is big enough that we are all aware of it, why can’t we all be human together for a moment and let those moments be just that – a moment of humanity – instead of looking for a reason and a way to mock, laugh at or belittle each other for feeling something.  Because collectively we seem to be feeling less and less these days, leading to a new sense of pride in our ability to be insensitive.

Sure some people are ridiculous, but given all of the different ways we as a society are ridiculous, this isn’t the worst of our offenses and it may just make us be kinder to each other for a moment.  Regardless of the reason, that is always a good thing.

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One Response to How We React When Celebrities Die

  1. Anonymous says:

    With the expression of #4 and #6, whose rudeness deserves to be called out, I took tremendous exception to your boiling true admirers of someone recently departed – whose grief is very real – down to “types.” Patronizing, insulting, and totally invalidating their feelings and sense of loss.

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