This Virtual Life: On Media, Mourning and Robin Williams
There have been many tributes to Robin Williams employing quotes from Aladdin, Patch Adams, Dead Poets’ Society, and even Flubber. I am painfully reminded of a quote from the undeniably relevant What Dreams May Come when Williams’ character Chris looks to his wife Annie and says “Annie, I’m here. I still exist.”
Robin Williams will live on through his body of work. However, instead of celebrating his artistic immortality, articles are appearing every twenty minutes with taglines promising new gruesome details of his passing. For every attempt at a tribute to his life and work, there are two more articles advertising as-yet unseen details of his death. His family asked for privacy at this time, and instead was met by aerial cameras circling their home. Media reports of death are reduced to discourteously graphic headlines, and I ask myself: is this is how we proclaim to mourn an icon?
Websites and media outlets seem to naturally capitalize on the wave of nostalgia accompanying his passing, from Rush Limbaugh’s latest sensationalist rant to rampant and needlessly explicit click bait headlines (like this one from the New York Times). Rapidly constructed tributes are not meant to shed light upon a brutal reality and may feel farcical, shallow, and endless. Viral articles circulate calling him “selfish.” More than anything else, these responses are disappointingly vulgar.
Instead of honoring Williams or objectively reporting on his life and passing, media outlets have condemned his virtual tombstone to be marked with headlines and reports that disrespect his memory and family and may even catalyze suicide contagion. This is highly reminiscent of media coverage of Cory Monteith’s passing, CNN’s insistence on 24/7 coverage of Anna Nicole Smith, and of the investigation surrounding Michael Jackson’s death. Media outlets, professing to provide the world with developing news about a much-beloved icon, have instead relegated Williams’ passing to a grisly carnival sideshow.
Williams was not a martyr. He was a struggling human elevated to divinity and his death is so very shocking because his presence was ubiquitous. As such, people can be welcome to happily post their memories, tributes, film clips, GIFs, whatever they feel they must in order to cope with an ending that would have, at any time, been classified as “too soon.” Expressing grief appropriately is a grey area to navigate, and doubly so when the person you have lost is someone you don’t actually know but still mattered to you. Most of us don’t know anything about Robin Williams. We know what he chose to share with the world in his brutally honest stand-up routines, his interviews and sound bytes about his illness, his Wikipedia page, and his brilliant and varied performances on stage and screen. People zero in on their favorite performances (often very relevant to their own life circumstances) and showcase his formative impact on their personalities or creative sensibilities. Some have chosen to marathon his films and use this as an opportunity to re-visit cherished memories. In a way, that honors him and hopefully allows for some catharsis for many in the anxious atmosphere inevitably accompanying the loss of something or someone always known and treasured.
However, not everyone grieves in the same way. At the risk of diminishing my employment prospects at places that judge you for having feelings, I’ll share my truth – I have battled depression since age 14 and have subsequently chosen to avoid my own Facebook and Twitter feeds for the last few days. Seeing the photo from Aladdin as a “summation” of society’s collective grief stirs the relentlessly nauseating pain in the pit of my stomach I combat daily. The photo is captioned “Genie, you’re free.” My self-hatred skyrockets as I am flooded with the worst possible sentiment: jealousy. Jealousy that someone who understood my struggle, my brother, was liberated from the pressures of having to stay alive, the prison of his own body, and the shackles of being earthbound. This is wrong. Williams’ ending is not the resolution I seek, and my jealousy is momentary. It will pass. Until the image appears two minutes later and I must again fight down the urge to simultaneously shriek and vomit.
Perhaps it is my own weakness, but regardless of how many people share mental health resources, moving stories of their personal experiences, or simple expressions of their genuine sympathy, that one image stands out, strikingly, burning a hole right through the center of my pressure-filled eye sockets deeply into the core of my brain. I want to avoid it, and I can’t, and at times I felt like cursing every single person who shared it as though they had betrayed me, Robin Williams, and thousands of other people out there, personally.
I’m angry at every media outlet that posts a headline with the details of his death, because it was his life that mattered. I’m angry with people who defile his name and his choices, and I’m scared because every time I see those headlines, the monster inside of me laughs and attempts to intimidate me with visions of a fictional future, a grotesque amalgam of my own worst nightmares. That’s how this coverage made me feel, though I know better. I am lucky enough to be supported by a great doctor and loved by the greatest family and friends. I have a wonderful life, decent skills, and a sense of humor about my circumstances. I’m lucky.
But what if you’re not lucky? If you just have these gut feelings and no support system to help banish them, and you usually rely on social media to feel connected to the world? A deluge of headlines telling you one of your heroes has departed this plane inundates you. What if it makes you think, “if he couldn’t handle it, how will I?”
First of all, if you’re feeling this way, call 1-800-273-8255 in the US and 1-800-448-3000 in Canada or talk to someone; fuck it, you can even e-mail me or much more helpfully, chat online with the great folks at Lifeline Crisis Chat. The point is that thoughtful journalism can save people from these triggers since the option to disconnect or go offline really doesn’t exist anymore. My truly greatest fear is that the media’s tactless, thoughtless, and juvenile coverage of something beyond our definition of “complexity” can trigger disaster.
We have come upon an opportunity to thoughtfully re-format our priorities in media coverage of a heartbreaking event and our ensuing responses on social media. I felt that I could avoid these painful headlines or instead try to pen something convincing others to share how these articles, graphic headlines, or unknowing and innocuous picture sharing can crush one’s resolve to keep functioning in seconds. To make it clear that the consequences of every single word someone posts on the shared Internet are real and that you cannot escape them, only choose to ignore them. In doing so, we can ideally establish higher standards for reporting around death. The debate on how the media should report suicide is taking place in full force over at the BBC, and by sharing our experiences, rejecting unethical and substandard journalism, and demonstrating an increased demand in quality reporting, we may actually catalyze change.
The Internet’s grieving has narrowed into a thematic triad of sorts: the first flood of genuine and heartfelt tributes, the second a seeming competition of displaying the profundity of one’s grief, and the third of bullying, wicked, ever-present Trollympics.
Media outlets then begin covering the nature of the reactions to the news of Williams’ death, their own initial coverage, and to controversial initial commentators, plunging us further into repetitive, shallow, and graphic content in the guise of critical self-examination. They industriously churn out these clickbait pieces because we choose to click on them, and their impact on society and how people see and treat one another is becoming more and more palpable.
You can needlessly compare and contrast how different late-night show hosts reacted to the news as their grief is publicly broadcast and replayed on YouTube. You can scan “Robin Williams’ Life in 15 Definitive Pictures” without ever knowing what happened behind them. People may say your grief is stupid and selfish because worse things are happening in Syria and Iraq, when you don’t know anything about either place personally but revered Williams in your own way. The worst example is Williams’ daughter leaving social media entirely after sustaining massive Internet abuse ; can you imagine if your father had just died and a thousand people showed up on your front lawn screaming disgusting epithets at you? Technology’s impact on desensitization to human interaction is controversial at best, but what other explanation is there for what happened to Zelda Williams? Does the need for manners and deportment disappear because Internet?
This excellent PopChassid piece posits that Robin Williams didn’t kill himself; that his illness was the aggressor. I find myself in agreement, yet the media world spews out headlines focusing entirely on his choice because it seems more appealing a read. Why must we do this? Why must we condemn ourselves to never-ending cycles of manic groupthink, irrefutably proving time and time again that the worst of us will always top the media charts?
My relatively uninformed opinion is that the language we use on social media inevitably reflects the language media outlets use to speak to us while playing to our natural instinct to rubberneck. Car accidents, serial killer exposés, To Catch a Predator – our achievements in awfulness are magically transformed into entertainment. Is this because we simply cannot handle the truth and choose to mask it, fictionalize it? To editorialize reality and separate ourselves from it through a screen?
Society’s innate fascination with morbidity is inherently at odds with the act of respectfully expressing interest or grief over the subject of our attention. Minutiae are sensationalized constantly, probably in an effort to make sense of someone so successful and beloved in a situation that cannot be externally understood. We must now continue forward in an era where a vaulted individual’s passing is no less private than their greatest work and where collective mourning brings consequences for those struggling to breathe daily.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we re-examine the language and images through which we discuss and portray mental health issues and suicide prevention; most importantly, how we speak, teach, and understand the very notion of death. We can try to move from fear-based reactionary rhetoric to respectful, holistic, and thoughtful contributions to the online space forever dedicated to Williams and the other beloved figures that will inevitably follow, and in doing so, maybe improve our own approaches to these important aspects of our everyday lives.