Friday, July 24, 2009

The Cult of Celebrity

Last night I watched a documentary on the tragic skiing accident that killed Natasha Richardson. I saw photographs of her grief stricken family visiting the hospital where she died -- her husband, her sons, her mother, her sister -- all in the depths of despair. Here was their beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and they had lost her. Anyone who has experienced that knows it is the lowest form of misery. And the whole world was watching them, shoving cameras in their faces, interviewing them. At the time, Liam Neeson released a statement through his publicist: “Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha. They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.” What an elegant and succinct way to tell the world to "Butt out of their private family matter".

My friend Russell watched the movie "The Queen" the other night, and we were discussing the mass hysteria that surrounded the death of Princess Diana. Millions of people were "grief sticken" -- people who had never met her, and whom Diana had never met.

Princes William and Harry were just young boys, and they were forced to leave the protection of their home and family, and stroll around amongst a bunch of plastic-wrapped flowers, forcing smiles for the public and the media, when they had just lost their mother hours earlier. Diana would have been furious at the intrusion of their privacy at such a time. Their grandparents were doing what all grandparents instinctively do -- wrapping their arms around the boys and giving them love and support in the privacy and sanctity of the family home in Balmoral, Scotland. They should have been left alone to grieve in private.

The same mass hysteria surrounded Michael Jackson when he died, but in fact, how many people had even given him much thought in the past decade? What is it about the cult of celebrity that causes these reactions? I'm always amazed when a public figure dies, and folks react as if this were someone they actually knew. I watched millions of people in London, weeping and wailing and crying out Diana's name after she died. I wonder if -- 12 years later -- those same people are just slightly embarrassed at their behavior. At least Diana's family, and the two young boys in particular, conducted themselves with dignity.


The Bug said...

I was just complaining to a friend today about the Michael hysteria - I truly do NOT understand it. Diana I understood - she seemed to be a more sympathetic figure and I didn't really tire of the coverage. So maybe it's just my bias - I just don't get the MJ phenomenon... Is it real, or created by the media?

greenpanda said...

mmm. It's like I said earlier - the reason I first heard of Michael Jackson was the alleged paedophilia. I have always been a bit perturbed by him, but I do like his music.
But you're right. There have been reports of fans of his who killed themselves because of it. That's just ridiculous.
Its unlikely most of them ever met him in person. good points.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I was also impressed with Liam Neeson's eloquent statement, and I do hope the family was given a modicum of space in which to grieve.

In both Natasha Richardson's and Diana's case, they were beautiful, vital young women whose death was unimaginable and shocking, while Michael Jackson was known to have very deep psychological issues for many years so it should not have surprised anyone that his life ended as it did.

I think that when mass hysteria takes over, people are mourning their own youth as much as the loss of the icon who died, especially when that person was an important presence in ones childhood or adolescence.

JeannetteLS said...

I was on vacation when the funeral for Michael Jackson occurred. The partner of the friend I was visiting, insisted on watching the funeral on the tiny T.V. with it's poor reception on one channel. We could not understand wasting a beautiful day on an event that was sad, but not of personal significance. She snapped at us, "It is part of our culture, and event NO ONE should miss." We were stunned. I did not understand the obsessions with the deaths of icons: Elvis, Marilyn, Lennon, Princess Di, this. The hysteria feels more tragic than the deaths--and minimizes, to me, the accomplishments of the person behind the masks. Troubling, indeed.

Nancy said...

It does make one wonder, that's for sure. Do they think they are some kind of super human or something? They are just people, like you and me, not Gods.

PhilipH said...

I think that some people, like heads of state (e.g. Kennedy) who die suddenly create a genuine shock-wave around the world.

People like Jacko and other slebs in the entertainment industry will only cause such a shock to their true 'fans'.

I remember when King George VI died in 1952. Most of the UK saw him as a sort of father-figure, especially during WW2. I heard the news of his death and I was stunned. I felt truly sad.

Similar feelings hit me when I heard of Princess Di's car smash and death. I felt sad, mainly because she seemed part of the 'family' in many ways. She had a rough deal during her marriage and I felt sorry for her.

I'd never met either King George or Diana but I felt I 'knew' them personally. I shall probably feel shocked when our Queen dies. And I have met her - although I've never actually 'pressed the flesh' as we say.

Film stars, singers, dancers and other entertainers are never more than a news story for one day for me.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

Voyeurism? Like those that have to slow to a crawl to see the gory accident. I don't understand why people want to be associated with tragedy. Like it is a badge of honor to say that you someone who knew someone that died in a building on 911. I don't get it. I can understand offering your sympathy and support to someone you know only casually, but for someone who is a stranger to you (no matter how popular).......

Sarah Berthume said...

I'm kind of glad that MJ's death completely took the spotlight for awhile. It gave Farrah Fawcett a rather un-noticed getaway and allowed her loved ones to mourn in peace. Now, she is a lady to spend time thinking about -- so courageous in her fight and laughing till the last breath. She was such a beautiful person inside and out. I'm glad her death wasn't turned into a media frenzy like her battle with cancer was.

Alissa said...

I think Nancy is on to something. People tend to forget that celebrities are real flesh and blood people, and when they die suddenly, they are shocked into reality and have a hard time getting their head around it.

flowrgirl1 said...

I hardly watch tv right now because of the m. jackson crap. the constant speculation of how he died. why dont they just shut up and wait for the autopsy results! geesh. Diana was an icon and deserved the attention though her family deserved more privacy.

Amelia said...

I dont get the constant hysteria around famous people and the things that happend (or don't happen) to them. They may have more money than the rest of us, but simply no different than us. Come one now. It's crazy!

John said...

You are so right about how most people had not given M.J. much thought in the last decade. His latest cd flopped and he and Al Sharpton went on tv and accused Sony Records of being racist and blamed them for the poor cd sales!

I checked my blog labels and realized I had wrote a few scathing thoughts, when American Idol had Michael Jackson week (which I didn't watch). And I wrote another blog post, when M.J. announced his "this is it tour." That one was so critical, that I felt guilty and have since edited it.

I use "link within" though and I've noticed when the older posts pop up there, they are completely the original post--OOPS!

But I did do a nice tribute upon learning of his death, because I grew up on his music and I was a genuine fan, even saw him in concert. But the last cd just didn't appeal to me, and I never bought it. But the baby dangling in Germany was the first thing that made me think, ok, I am done being his fan! It only went downhill from there. After his death though, I "remembered the time" that I WAS a fan, and realized that he was quite the singer, dancer, entertainer and of course self-proclaimed King of Pop.

With that being said...he still is not buried yet and all this news coverage of his kids, his crazy Dad, the drugs...I am so over it!

A human kind of human said...

Hi Jo, I am so glad that the last word you used in this post was that almost extinct word "DIGNITY". Another word that seems to be going the same way is "RESPECT". No dignity or respect are afforded to other and no dignity or respect are afforded outselves. Celebrities are only people, just like us, so please can we, with dignity and respect show them and theirs some dignity and respect for their personal and private moments and lives. Soapbox again! but this is how I feel.

Pouty Lips said...

Our education ranks even lower if I'm not mistaken.

Brenda said...

I guess that could be the price you have to pay for being a public celebrity, or famous person that the media gets its claws on. I get angry at the media when they intrude during these times when they should have simple common courtesy. Let the family members decide if they ever want public photos or stories reported.

Marguerite said...

It's all part of being famous, for these celebrities, in life or death. The viewers dictate what stories are being followed and broadcast by the news media. It's all about ratings and the money they make on a big story.

Land of shimp said...

When you initially talked about Michael Jackson, the thread talked a little bit about this.

I think we have become a global culture in which shared experience is considered particularly important. Politics, religion, etc. divide us, and subconsciously I think people latch onto these deaths as events. Like the poster above being on vacation with a friend who talked about it as an event.

For U.S. citizens I think it started with Pearl Harbor, and a generation had this commonality, where were they when they heard? What were the circumstances.

I think for Brits having the bejeebers bombed out of London, and other places also united them.

In the states the Baby Boomer generation had the defining "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" Later, again, speaking strictly for U.S. citizens (because I'm sure other countries have their united, big event of their own) we had 9/11. That, of course, was a real tragedy.

I do think we single these things out, and that is has nothing really to do with the person. Michael Jackson is case-in-point, the day before he died he was largely viewed as being sad and creepy. The day after? Clearly it isn't really about him.

We mark out spaces in our lives by events. In the age of mass media, that is even more common.

I can tell you exactly where I was the moment I heard that Princess Diana had died, and let me just say, she did great things for AIDS research, and several other great causes. However, she was an odd, often unhappy, complicated person. Hardly a saint.

Anyway, the reason I remember exactly where I was? I was having my first ever phone conversation with the man I eventually married, and am still married to.

Her death marked out something in my life. The wild, odd grieving that occurs for celebrities barely has a thing to do with them.

I do know I cried when Jim Henson died. Real tears, honestly a bit low for the next couple of days. I had one of those very iffy childhoods, and Sesame Street is one of my best childhood memories. I didn't know Jim Henson, but he contributed something happy to my life.

Maybe that's a bit of the reason I so vividly recall hearing about Diana's death. I remember being 13 when she married, and the world hubbub surrounding that. I remember what my room looked like, etc.

Basically memories about my own life got tied to this individual. I think that's the other answer. It really isn't about the celeb. It's about the person, and the things they marked out in their own memories that ended up involving this person as part of the memory.

It's a bit like grieving our own lost past.

Land of shimp said...

Gah. I didn't realize that would be so lengthy! Sorry!

It's just such a weird trend that is a difficult thing to figure out. I think one of the key determining factors is that it always seems to center around someone who is known in more than one country. International celebrities in particular seem to get this treatment.

Meggie said...

Too true.

disa said...