On Celebrity Worship and Poorly Worded Facebook posts.

I am not in the habit of commenting on social media about celebrity deaths.

It has become a cliché that whenever a celebrity dies, people run to their platform of choice and—at best—share an image of said celebrity with an “R.I.P.” Or, at worst, they double-down on the clichés by adding even more clichés to express their “profound sadness,” their “condolences to the family,” and—of course, we can’t forget to include—their “thoughts and prayers.” They shovel on even more clichés to describe how much the celebrity affected their lives, as if they lost a personal friend when—in reality—their relationship to the celebrity was limited to that of every other “fan” around the world who never actually met them and knew them only as two-dimensional images on screens that they held in their hands or displayed in their homes or gazed at with others at their local cineplex.

Right now, while I’m thinking about it, I’m going to just own the fact that even my complaints about the use of these clichés ad nauseam is also a cliché.

I don’t doubt that celebrities do in fact have a profound influence on the public and culture at large. That’s what makes them “celebrities”—people that are celebrated. Nor do I doubt that there are in fact individuals out there that do indeed look to particular famous people and are inspired by them. I just don’t think that the majority of those posting such sentiments on social media are as invested in the legacy of those celebrities as they are in their own legacies on social media. Perhaps hoping—and this may be on a barely conscious level—that someday in the far future, a descendant of theirs or even just a random person will scroll through their timelines and see that when someone famous died, they felt sad about it.

On the rare occasions that I acknowledge the passing of someone famous on social media, I don’t usually say anything, for a couple of reasons: What can I say that hasn’t already been said (see my rant about clichés above) and I don’t want to look like one of those people that put on airs and act as though their best friend died. As if it’s a competition to see whose life was more impacted by the celebrity they’ve never met.

Yet, I’m an active participant in social media and I’m not immune to wanting to be part of something that might be trending. However, I figure that if I’m going to hop on board, I should at least put some effort into what I share.

I tried to think of the last time I actually felt affected by the death of a celebrity and the first name that came to mind was Bill Paxton. One of my favorite performances by him was his character “Bill Henrickson” in HBO’s Big Love.

Spoiler warning! Paxton’s character dies in the end of the series and I remembered this beautiful shot where his widows are holding each other, mourning his departure, but you can see someone in the background, out of focus, sitting at the head of the dining room table. The audience is left to infer that “Bill”—or at least his spirit—is still there with his family.

I thought that image had the potential to be a unique and subtle tribute to Paxton—assuming no one had beat me to it. I tried to find a screen grab of that scene online but couldn’t. Thankfully, I’m an HBO subscriber so I was able to cue up the scene and make one to share.

It got one “Like”… from my sister. I can’t remember if this was before Facebook supported hashtags or just before I figured out how to use them.

Another death that I felt very affected by was that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I really loved his work and I genuinely felt saddened when he died, not just because there wouldn’t be anymore performances of his to enjoy but because of how he died. Having lost family and friends to addiction, it struck a nerve in me as it did with a lot of people. I didn’t post anything about Hoffman’s passing on social media because I was honestly just too sad to even think about it.

That same month, Harold Ramis died. I liked his work as a writer, actor and director but I didn’t intend to post anything about his passing either, until I saw a beautiful tribute in my news feed and decided to share that.

There have been a lot of other celebrity deaths since those and my contribution to the social media trends surrounding them have been few and far between. What it comes down to for me regarding celebrities in general is that most celebrities, in my opinion, aren’t really worth celebrating.

Growing up without the internet, celebrities were usually actors, musicians and athletes. You could also throw in some writers and artists, television “personalities” and even a few politicians. If you weren’t sure if someone was really a celebrity, you could certainly count of Robin Leach to point them out to you.

I remember being really excited about seeing celebrities when I was a kid in the early ‘80s, and that was mostly just seeing them on TV. Probably the biggest cult of personality at that time surrounded Michael Jackson and I was just as caught up in the anticipation surrounding cultural events like “Thriller” as everybody else. Watching Leaving Neverland as an adult, seeing grown men around my age reflecting on their adoration of Michael Jackson at the same time and learning how it was allegedly used against them, I felt as though I had dodged a bullet… and I had never met Michael Jackson! But I remember that celebrity obsession. For the most part, I outgrew it—but I think that most people don’t.

Today, it seems like anybody can be a celebrity for just about any reason—even by accident—and if they don’t find a way to monetize that status, somebody else will… who actually benefits is anybody’s guess. People are famous because an odd selfie or a peculiar yearbook photo has become a meme. YouTubers, gamers, cosplayers, Instagram “models,” and “Influencers.”

There’s nothing really new about people being famous because they inherited a well-known last name but it does seem as though it’s a lot easier for someone to capitalize not just on their names but their association with those names. Jenner, Kardashian, and Laughlin are just a few off the top of my head. As one who moonlights in the entertainment industry, I suppose I kinda get how that can happen. What frustrates me though are the ever-present cults of celebrity worship.

I’m not saying that all fans—short for “fanatics,” remember—embrace their fandom to the level of say, Maritza’s deification of Beyoncé in Orange is the New Black (she literally prays to Beyonce) but it isn’t that far removed.

I am not in the habit of placing anyone on a pedestal. When I think of the people that I truly admire and respect—whether I know them personally or not—I don’t forget that they are just as fallible as I am. That—regardless of how well known or respected or adored they are by others—our fallibility will always be the great equalizer.

So, whenever I see all the digital theatrics that inevitably come from the untimely departure of a celebrity, it just makes my eyes roll.

It was the unexpected death a celebrated professional athlete that prompted this article to be written. As soon as I started seeing all of the tributes in my newsfeed, the most prominent thing that stood out in my memory about this person—simply because I have no real interest in sports of any kind—was the fact that he was once accused of sexual assault. His status in his particular industry made the allegations newsworthy and brought him a lot of attention that wouldn’t be easily forgotten.

I couldn’t help but think, “If I know nothing about this person’s professional accomplishments but I do remember that accusation, there’s no way that these people professing their admiration for him don’t know about it as well.”

I didn’t recall all of the details surrounding the allegations beyond the fact that the deceased was once accused.

Without giving the matter much thought—or even attempting to look into the history of what happened—I allowed my disdain for celebrity worship to inform a cynical post on Facebook:

I honestly did not expect it to be noticed… but it was. It made some people very angry and they let me know about it. I offered a few limited responses to what was being said because—at the time—I was thinking more about celebrity-worship in general than what I had absentmindedly written about this particular celebrity.

Arguments erupted over everything from definitions of consent to the issue of abortion. The presumption of innocence and the need to believe women. As well as a few Jeffrey Epstein jokes. The deceased was defended, excused and eulogized as much as his accuser was dismissed, victim-shamed and vilified. He was referred to as a “great man” and as “a rapist” but also “…a wonderful family man who made a mistake for which his wife forgave him.” The accuser was called a “schizophrenic” and a slut-shamed “groupie.” For every point made about the deceased culpability, someone else would bring up their philanthropy. Two different commenters also claimed to know the victim personally.

At least a couple of people “unfriended” me. Another person did direct a forceful “fuck you” in my direction but—as of this writing—chose to remain my Facebook friend anyway. I can respect that.

Among my limited responses, I tried to defend myself by saying, “I said that I am neither mourning nor celebration and that’s the truth. I was also very deliberate in my choice to use the words ‘accused rapist’—fully acknowledging that no legal judgment was ever made.”

I was curious to see where the discussion would go by the next day but in the interim, I wrote down some additional thoughts but didn’t post them in the comments or anywhere else until now:

  • I’m kinda surprised by some of the reactions this post is getting… I can’t help but wonder if the people who are so passionately coming to this person’s defense would feel the same way if he was not also a rich and famous celebrity athlete.
  • That’s the problem with a culture that relies so heavily on fame and fortune to measure the value of a human being.
  • Even using “charitable contributions” as an indicator can be problematic. What’s often labeled as “philanthropy” is actually more often informed by one’s accountant than one’s conscience. Doing more to relieve the “philanthropist’s” tax “burden” than to relieve the burdens of those who are truly in need of charity.
  • If the recognition and the money were removed from the equation, would all the outpouring of grief and social media histrionics still be there—coming mostly from people who never knew or met this person? How else would everyone know how “great” this person was were it not for all the attention, multimillion-dollar contracts, and endorsement deals… and all the great PR that can be purchased with such resources.
  • I’m not saying that he simply bought his reputation or the good will of the public or the forgiveness—or indifference—of his fans or his wife… but he certainly wouldn’t have been the first to do so.
  • We live in a world where one can buy anything with money and he‘s one of the few people who had enough of it to buy whatever he wanted or thought he needed.
  • In all honesty, I empathize more with the deceased’s flawed humanity than the larger-than-life, focus-group-tested narrative of the “great” man that a lot of people seem to be accepting about him.
  • I can more easily relate to a man who made stupid and even potentially criminal mistakes—because we are all capable of such things—than I ever could to some rich asshole who can just throw money at his problems to make them go away.

Of course, at the time, I failed to see that what I had written in my initial post was indeed insensitive, uninformed, and completely failed to communicate what was at the forefront of my mind vis-à-vis our cultural obsession with “celebrities.” My attempts within the comments to articulate that more clearly were ignored because they just didn’t resonate with what I had actually written. Nor did the thoughts I wrote down afterward.

This doesn’t mean that my thoughts and opinions on celebrity-worship aren’t valid, they were just overshadowed by my poorly considered, insensitively worded, and blatantly prejudicial statement.

I’ll own that.

Joe Puente

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