How social media turns every celebrity death into a public grieving competition
By Will Leitch
Let’s offer this up as a thought experiment: What would have happened if, on Monday morning, I had posted the following to Twitter?
I suppose there could be some Old Dogs loyalists (“Sit. Stay. Play Dad.”) out there who would have had my back, but I’m betting that I would have been excoriated. Or, more likely, most people would have just assumed that I was kidding. Because on Monday morning, if a single person was having those thoughts, they would have never been foolish enough to say them. It might seem strange now, but there was a time when the average social media patron did not consider Robin Williams the single most transcendent talent of several generations. That time was six days ago.
This is not to be a jeremiad against Williams, a fine actor and by all accounts a good-hearted, if tortured chap. For my money, he’s best in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia:
Americans, as a culture, have always been terrible at mourning. And it turns out we’re worse at doing it in public, in real time. This is always an issue on social media when a celebrity passes away, and the person is transformed from a figure of ridicule (or at least grist for the relentless conversational/monologue mill) to some sort of angel who influenced us all in profound, eternal ways. There is something uniquely bizarre about feeling compelled to say, “RIP Mickey Rooney. An inspiration. #blessed,” just because you can. Particularly when the odds are excellent that’s the first time Mickey Rooney has ever appeared in your feed. Name me one Mickey Rooney movie, @crutnacker. One.
But when it’s someone universal like Williams—someone whom your parents know as coked-up Mork, you know as Mrs. Doubtfire, and your kids know as Teddy Roosevelt—grief turns into a public competition. Whose life was most touched by Robin Williams … go! Robin Williams affected my life in inexpressible ways … but just in case let’s see if 140 characters is enough to do the trick. This is of course fueled by the constant need, partly emotional and partly commercial, for validation by those around us; he who gets the most retweets mourns the most. It was almost amusing to see, in the interest of pageviews, all the different ways sites would try to shoehorn Williams’ death into their particular purviews:
“Robin Williams and Dario Pegoretti: The Comedian and the Bike Builder: A Master Bike Maker Reflects On the Time He Met the Comic Legend.”
“This Is How the Cast of Broadway’s Aladdin Honored Robin Williams.”
“Even Jihadis Love Robin Williams”
“Remembering Robin Williams And His “Unforgettable” Bond With Koko The Gorilla.” (Followed by “Asshole Gorilla Humps Robin Williams’ Corpse for Publicity.”)
Williams’ death made him a commodity in the virtual economy he hadn’t been for a decade. It led to this strange sort of pressure to say something … to feel as if you didn’t make sort of public demonstration of your love for Robin Williams, you just didn’t care about him as much as everyone else. I had one friend ask me what I’d put on Twitter about Williams’ death, as matter of factly as he’d ask me what I’d have for lunch today, or if I knew what time it was. Mourning in private, or not mourning at all, was inadequate. My Williams grief is bigger than your Williams grief.
And all this of course required Williams’ sainthood, not just as a person (“Remembering Robin Williams: A Performer Who Was Kind Even to His Critics”) but as a creative figure. Suddenly, Patch Adams wasn’t a treacly nightmare in which a man takes the “laughter is the best medicine” cliché so literally that he puts a clown nose on rather than administer actual medicine (mocked so thoroughly by Rob Corddry on Children’s Hospital), it became a statement of Williams’ purity of spirit. Williams went from an object of (somewhat unjust) ridicule—something that reportedly plagued him late in his life—to someone who had never made a poor choice, in one fateful swoop. There was no in-between. It seems like there never is.
The strange thing about this is that Williams’ last great movie is specifically about this concept. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, World’s Greatest Dad concerns a high school teacher (played by Williams) who discovers that his son has accidentally killed himself in a failed autoerotic asphyxiation attempt. To spare himself and his son embarrassment, the father, a struggling novelist, writes a dramatic suicide note and releases it to the school. Suddenly, the son—who was in fact a sniggering little shit who everyone, even his friends, actively disliked—is turned into a revered figure that everyone in the school rallies around. (At one point, two girls get in a fistfight about who loved the son more.) The instinct to sanctify the dead, to boast of how they meant more to you than they did to anyone else, to turn grief into this public competition, World’s Greatest Dad foretold this precise scenario, unwittingly, about its own star. This is something you would think might have come up a lot more in the endless discussion of Robin Williams’ life and death. But then again: Hardly anybody saw that movie.