• What Celebrity Deaths Reveal About Our Relationship To Celebrity Culture

    by  • December 29, 2016 • Other • 1 Comment


    The news has been dominated in recent days, and throughout 2016, with reports of the deaths of beloved and iconic celebrities: Alan Thicke, Florence Henderson, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, to name a few (and we are certainly grateful for their contributions, especially to creating family-friendly fare). But even if you missed the news reporting, it is impossible to avoid the outpouring of reactions on social media feeds.

    How could so many people – who have never met any of these celebrities in person, who have no connection beyond watching them on television or in the movies — feel so personal a sense of loss at their passing? And why should their deaths resonate more deeply with us than the loss of Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down,” or celebrated playwright Edward Albee? Or taking it a step further, why should they matter more than the deaths of scientific or medical pioneers whose innovations improve the quality of life for millions around the globe; or of soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live in peace and comfort? 

    Television, and to a lesser extent, movies, create an illusion of intimacy. In a sense, these TV and movie stars aren’t untouchable, distant stars. They are people we’ve grown up with, laughed with, cried with, rooted for… We’ve shared their heartbreak on screen, we’ve rejoiced at their victories.

    Of course, none of it is real, but the feelings they provoke certainly are.

    Our physiological response to what we see on screen has been shown to be identical to the physiological response we experience in reaction to real world events. Exposure to violent imagery is linked to increased heart rate, faster respiration and higher blood pressure. In other words, our brains don’t differentiate between fact and fiction. We identify closely with characters. The tears we shed are real. The dopamine or adrenaline responses to what’s happening on screen, are also real.

    The false sense of intimacy is exacerbated by our celebrity-obsessed media culture that dissects and discloses every detail of their off-screen lives, too. We know all about Carrie Fisher’s struggles with mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse; about her sometimes-rocky relationship with her mother. In a very real sense, we sometimes know more about – or at least think we know more about – the lives of celebrities than we do about the lives of our closest friends, colleagues, or even family members. 

    This isn’t intended as an indictment of our relationship with celebrity culture. It is what it is, and to some extent, it has always been thus: despondent fans of Rudolph Valentino reportedly committed suicide when the silent screen star died in 1926, and riots erupted as fans tried to get in to the funeral.

    But this should all serve to remind us that while it is “just entertainment,” entertainment can be deceptively intertwined with our real lives. These celebrity deaths reveal that people connect, on a very deep level, with the entertainment they consume.

    Entertainment does influence our behavior and our lives, and it is dangerous to ignore that reality. And to the extent that media is influential in our lives, there is a commensurate duty on film makers and TV producers to take care with the media messages they create. After all, people, and perhaps more fittingly, generations of children, are watching.



    Ms. Henson is a noted expert on entertainment industry trends and the how the impact of entertainment affects children and the American popular culture at large. She also directs the organization’s Advertiser Accountability Campaign, which encourages companies to sponsor family-friendly entertainment. She previously supervised the research and program content analysis operations of the PT and produced a number of groundbreaking PTC studies that document the levels of graphic sex, violence and profanity on television. Some of those reports include: The Ratings Sham I & II, Dying to Entertain, Faith in a Box, The Sour Family Hour, The Blue Tube, and TV Bloodbath. She began her career with the PTC in 1997 as an entertainment analyst, documenting instances of inappropriate content on television. Ms. Henson has appeared on a variety of television shows including Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor, Your World with Neil Cavuto, The Big Story, CNN Headline News’ ShowBiz Tonight, CNBC’s On the Money, MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, and CBN’s Newswatch. She is a frequent guest on radio talk shows across the country and has been quoted extensively in news sources such asEntertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, New York Daily News, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Variety, Associated Press, Reuters, and Bloomberg. Ms. Henson is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she received a BA in Government. She resides in Falls Church, Va., with her husband and their son.

    One Response to What Celebrity Deaths Reveal About Our Relationship To Celebrity Culture

    1. Jon
      December 31, 2016 at 5:24 pm

      Well for some people these celebrities are inspirations. I know there are a few that will really make me upset since they have inspired me to want to make movies. It has nothing to do with entertainment influenceing people. When you watch someone or read their work for years, you do think of them as someone you knew personal even if you never meant them.

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