At the beginning of 2007, news concerning the war in Iraq made up 10 percent of Fox News’ total air time. News and opinions on Anna Nicole Smith’s death occupied almost the exact same amount of time.
How can the passing of a TrimSpa spokeswoman/graverobber wife make as much noise as fallen soldiers? Well, death has frequently been called the great equalizer, and it proves that stars are just like us after all: mortal. In the Fall 2008 edition of The Antioch Review, writer Daniel Harris offers up “Celebrity Deaths,” a brilliantly bitter essay investigating the cult of tabloid-style mourning (excerpt only).
The author theorizes that celebrities are like the monarchs of Europe and ancient Egypt; they have a physical body, subject to pain and disease and bad hair days, and a symbolic body, the one the public sees during premiers and TV interviews. It is rare that the public gets a glimpse of a celebrity’s private self, but when it happens, we latch on tight.
A celebrity dying seem to bring normal people to their knees. The outpouring of love started with Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926 and continues to this day (minus the suicides). But that grief genuine? Not at all, concludes Harris. The flood of sorrow following any famous fatality is part of what he calls “recreational grief,” where loss is turned into an entertaining spectacle every time. “Because Internet mourners grieve for the fun of it, they eulogize stars indiscriminately, the virgin as well as the whore, the saint as well as the sinner, Princess Diana as well as Anna Nicole Smith.”
A star’s death gives the public the opportunity to connect with them on an intimate level, for once and for all. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores to them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them”
And even the act of death is heightened: How many times have we read that a star didn’t just fall ill, they “collapsed”?
Despite all the attention we pay to these events, our celebrity worship (both in life and in death) goes against our better judgment. Somehow famous people “retain their hypnotic sway over their followers even if they set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity.” Diamond-studded phones and “sex addiction,” anyone?
But these demigods don’t exist in a vacuum. We, as spectators and consumers of culture, are complicit in the breakneck lifestyle of celebrities. Our adoration smothers them and our expectations for their talent force them to produce or get shoved out of the spotlight for someone who can.
Harris wraps up his essay by exploring the notion that stars drink and snort themselves to death in order to numb the pain of being famous. But what if, instead of partying to death out of misery, they’re just having fun? What if they’re celebrating instead of self-medicating?
“There is no link in popular culture between creativity, unhappiness, and death. The link is between happiness, death, and the money to purchase the pills, coke, and intravenous drugs necessary for a glorious if inadvertent exit out of the gossip columns and into the obits.”