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Media Narratives of Celebrity Deaths: greek tragedy or journey to sainthood?

Michael Rübsamen is a PhD student in Media and communication studies at Lund University. He writes his thesis on celebrities and value creations. His research interests also stretches into how media represents memory, mourning and death in everyday life.

This interview took place on the 1st of March, 2018.


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“I’m a nerd, in a lot of ways, and when I was younger I was very fascinated by Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s fictional takes on death. When I read Sandman the first time as an 18 year old, it had a deeply profound impact on me. His personification of death as a cute goth girl who is all about life, transformed my personal view on how to perceive death as ‘just an end.’ And, what I liked about Gaiman’s take on death is that in his story, everybody ‘gets a lifetime.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s a short one or a long one; it matters what you do with it. It really raises existential questions about what you did with your life, and how you perceive death altogether. So for me, even as a 17 and 18 year old, death became something which you could not really separate from life. They are deeply interconnected. And it posited death as something to explore in a playful way, so to speak.”

“As a researcher, I can pinpoint when my academic interest in celebrities started — it was in 2007, sometime in February. I was starting my master’s thesis, and we got an assignment to write a paper on a current news item. That was the day that Anna Nicole Smith died. I remember reading the obituaries, and seeing a panel of statements, from people like Clint Eastwood, who was sharing memories of Anna. Kevin Spacey and Kevin Costner too. And, I thought to myself, what the hell is this? What kind of relationship do Clint Eastwood and Kevin Spacey have to Anna Nicole Smith? They are so far apart. When I read the obituary, I summed it up in a thought: here is this poor girl from the country, who met a billionaire, who made her a star, and took her to Hollywood and paid for the implants. And then, he died suddenly, and a controversy over his heritage money ensued. And then, the tragedies with her drug use and her son’s mysterious death arose. And then, when she’s just about to make a comeback, she dies under mysterious circumstances with her hand on the telephone just like her hero Marilyn Monroe. And I thought, this is a greek tragedy, in three perfect acts, more or less. It’s a cinderella story. And death was a central aspect of it.

So, I wrote my master’s thesis on the narratives of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di and Anna Nicole Smith. And I looked at similarities in narrative patterns. So, that was basically how my research interests in celebrities and death began.”

“There is an upcoming research project that my colleague and I plan to do. We plan to explore the similarities between saints and celebrities—because the structure is the same. You collect a gathering of people who like what you do, or what you say, or who you are. And when you die, it’s up to them on how to commemorate your memory, and make sure that people remember you. If your followers are successful, you will become immortalised, so to speak. Who is canonised and made into a saint, and who just barely falls short? The process of becoming a saint is broken into three steps. So, it’s interesting to see who passes the first two stages, but not the third. Why is that? And how does this relate to our relationship to celebrities? What happens to their death and memory thereafter?”

“Currently, in modern society, there is this trend of stylising or personifying your own death, or taking control of it. That is an interesting social phenomenon. Considering that we have tried to take control of all aspects of life in terms of lifestyle, careers, housing, and even what you eat, what you do, how you dress, etcetera. We see people trying to take control of their funerals. And, there is also this parallel idea of ‘dödstadning’ or ‘death cleaning.’ It gives the impression that if you could, you should decide on exactly how you should go. There is this social pressure towards control: that you can be whoever you want to be, that you can do whatever you want to do. You can express whatever you want to express. And we try to shift that pressure also into dying — and the control of our memory afterwards. That is important to research and understand. Is this something which reflects the fact that we have become distanced from death and the act of dying, perhaps?”