Grieving controversial celebrities

I’m about to get controversial, and I’m a little scared to have this conversation to be completely honest.

I recently posted about how it’s completely normal to grieve the death of a celebrity. But what if that celebrity led a morally questionable (or downright corrupt) life away from the spotlight? 😱

Can we separate the art from the artist?

Should we?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe that’s a question we all have to answer for ourselves.

I DO know that death has a way of overshadowing the person’s actions while they were alive (and this applies to everyone, not just celebrities). Death tends to polarize our views and we end up villainizing them or elevating them to the status level of a saint.

Villian or saint, I believe we CAN show up with empathy. Both for those who are grieving and those who are outraged that we’re celebrating the life of someone whose actions caused them pain when they were alive.

A great example of navigating these murky waters is the exchange between Cara Delevigne and Jameela Jamil in the wake of Karl Lagerfeld’s death.  

Cara was grieving the death of her friend.

Jameela wanted to acknowledge that he was a racist, homophobic misogynist whose actions and opinions hurt a lot of people.

While Jameela never let Lagerfeld off the hook for what she called “decades of abusive rhetoric towards minorities” there were apologies on both sides. Neither resorted to personal attacks and in the end, they “agreed to disagree”.  [read more here]

Another example is the way Obama spoke about Michael Jackson after his death. He acknowledged that while Michael was a “brilliant performer” he also had a “tragic and sad personal life”.

Whether a celebrity was controversial or not, a study from CU Boulder found that grief-policing on social media was rampant. After studying thousands of comments in the wake of the deaths of Alan Rickman, Prince, and David Bowie they found people were not at all shy about telling others how or why they should be grieving (this doesn’t help anyone).

While algorithms are partly to blame for promoting these toxic comments we can’t ignore the fact that so many people are willing to leave compassion at the door in an effort to be heard. 

Frank Sinatra, Ike Turner, and Marvin Gaye were all celebrities whose abusive behaviour was mostly forgotten/overlooked in death. Thanks to the #metoo era we now live in we’re not as willing to ignore abusive behaviour (this is definitely a good thing). And maybe we’re just starting to figure out how to call out the bad behaviour while also recognizing their artistic contributions.

So what can we do?

Show up with empathy. Always. Especially when others forget. And empathy doesn’t mean we need to dismiss bad behaviour or sweep criminal actions under the rug. It just means we need to show up with a sensitivity to all points of view.

Can we separate the art from the artist?

Should we?

Maybe it’s better to acknowledge the hurt they caused while also respecting those who might be grieving.

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