Making meaning from celebrity death

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
March 06, 2014 /

Click here to view original /

I seem to have written quite a bit about dead celebrities.

Amy Winehouse, and Amy again. Also Whitney Houston and Margaret Thatcher. Most recently Philip Seymour Hoffman.

For the record, it’s not because I’m a ghoul. Nor for that matter, am I someone who particularly likes that our culture spends so much time thinking/talking/writing about entertainers.

What I do like, however – what, in fact, completely fascinates me – is that when famous people die a cavalcade of fascinating topics get personified.

Fame. Grief. Displays of grief. Social media. Legacy. The fetish for “bad news” media.

Debates about decorum. Niceness storytelling. Slate cleaning.

About when is it too soon to tell a joke, to tell a “truth”, to clean up the flowers, to throw out the cards.

So, it’s no surprise that my neurons lit up on reading about the death of Charlotte Dawson.

“Neurons lit up”? Could she be any more crass?

And here is where my interest lies today.

Helen Razer wrote an interesting tribute to Dawson on the weekend. In it, she both predicted and condemned her friend’s death being used as a catalyst for lamentations about trolling and mental illness and modelling.

I suspect Razer and I disagree here.

Whether or not Dawson’s death prompts dialogue about suicide, skinniness or cyber-stalking I don’t much care.

Far more engaging for me is the idea of her death becoming something. Becoming anything.

Dawson, like Winehouse, like Houston and Hoffman, was a public figure.

And once a person enters public life they become public property.

I don’t mean that we owned Dawson, nor do I think most of us knew her beyond her carefully constructed public image, but she became ours in the way that a film or a statue or a book is ours. Ours in the sense that she had a presence in our lives (alongside other entertainment and cultural products). Ours in the sense that we should be free to draw meaning from her death should we see fit. Alternatively, to post inane comments on online articles asking for a reminder of who she is.

Dawson should be able to serve as a discussion point on the perils of maintaining a presence online.

She should be able to serve as a catalyst for conversations about mental health.

Equally her death should be able to light up as many neurons, prompt as much dialogue and be the butt of as many jokes and stories as we feel the need.

This isn’t because she was a bad person, nor is it because she is worthy of contempt or deserving of any accolades, but simply because she chose to be part of public life, chose to have a presence in our lives, and thus we get do with her memory whatever we wish. We get to decide what significance to attach, whether to mourn, whether to roll our eyes, and what meaning to draw from her death.

For the record, this isn’t an endorsement for the paparazzi to comb through rubbish bins or to photograph famous folks with long-range lenses.

It is, however, a defence of letting the public make their owns meanings.

The news will play a part in this, sure. Commentators will throw in their two cents – ta daa! And in the end, Dawson’s death will mean something vague, something substantial, or absolutely nothing at all, to each of us.

That’s not the price of celebrity. Rather, it is the reality that being famous is a choice. Equally, there is a choice about the extent to which we allow celebrities into our lives and a choice about how we process their deaths.

You and I can watch a film, listen to an album or read an article about a dead celebrity and feel completely differently. And that’s a fantastic thing and certainly not something to fear or attempt to mediate.

© Lauren Rosewarne