I never met Carrie Fisher, but I was very upset when she died. Through her openness about her bipolar disorder and addiction and her refusal to stay quiet about pervasive sexism she saw in her industry, I do feel like I knew her. I feel like I can understand her personality on a much deeper level than those of most strangers.
In a similar way, I was also upset by Leonard Cohen’s death. Cohen’s music was intensely personal and beautiful, touching on sex, love, politics, isolation, God, and sometimes all of those at once. Through his music, I also feel like I knew him particularly.
The year 2016 was a year full of celebrity deaths: we lost Cohen, Fisher, Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds, George Michael, Prince, Muhammed Ali, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Christina Grimmie, Anton Yelchin, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, just to name a few. The world has certainly enjoyed the art, influence, and representation provided by these figures, and so it is understandable that there has been such immense public response to their deaths. Yet why do we mourn so much for people we have never met?
Consider, for instance, that the world observes what celebrities do, and the mass exposure associated with their actions means that they have a pronounced effect on the world. We feel we know celebrities through their works of art or their activism, and therefore we consider ourselves connected to them.
This is the same reason why some of us get upset when celebrities get divorced. I was somewhat saddened to hear of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie divorcing, even though I will likely never meet either of them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this inferred closeness — in fact, our feeling of understanding celebrities and subsequently mourning them as if we knew them can be a very powerful tool. After Fisher’s death, many people took to the Internet to discuss how her openness about her own mental health not only gave them strength, but helped them connect with others who were similarly impacted by the star. Just as a cultural phenomenon like the Star Wars series gives people enjoyment, a cultural icon like Fisher provides individuals with a shared consciousness, in this case with the productive result of giving people an occasion to talk about mental illness.
Celebrities can also be role models to people who normally do not get to see positive portrayals of themselves in pop culture and the media. Although Ali was certainly a boxing legend, he also embodied the importance of representation, and was widely appreciated as a champion for racial equality and peace.
At the same time, we ought to take precautions when handling this blurry divide between public and private life. When people confuse ‘knowing’ a celebrity through their work and publicity with knowing them on a personal level, they may be motivated to subsequently invade celebrities’ privacy, not to mention the privacy of their families.
Further, however warmly you might feel toward a celebrity and their work, you must also be prepared to accept your own lack of knowledge about their personal lives — particularly when they may do something wrong.
If a celebrity is accused of domestic violence or sexual assault or is caught using a racial slur, it would be inappropriate to continue to praise them or deny the accusations on the basis of their apparent media personality or artistic contributions to the world at large.
This extends to the problem of excusing celebrities’ past wrongdoings after they pass away.
It is fine to be entranced by celebrities, so long as we understand that they are both people deserving of privacy and respect, and people who are fallible. Perhaps most of us can never truly know celebrities on an intimate level, yet little stops us from collectively mourning the legacies they leave behind.
Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English.