Necro-tainment and Pity

annanicoleCrime novelist Carl Hiaasen comments on the media frenzy attending Anna Nicole Smith’s death:

“If you Googled Anna Nicole’s name last week, you got 28.8 million hits — 10 times more than that of Condoleezza Rice, who is only the U.S. secretary of state.

“Debate all you wish about whether the public’s interest is fueling the Anna Nicole overkill, or the overkill is inflating the public’s interest. The fact is, lots of people are hungry for the story — and not because they care one bit about this poor woman, or her child.

It’s necro-tainment, that’s all. The five-car pileup on the interstate. The stunt plane crashing at the air show. The train derailment, caught on tape. …

“How does such a forlorn cliché become elevated to major breaking news? …

“In a nutshell: Former Playboy centerfold turned rich widow turned reality-TV star suddenly dies, leaving an infant of uncertain paternity and a potential fortune up for grabs.

Story-wise, the angles are beauty, sex, money and greed — classic tabloid ingredients and, now, a premium formula for mainstream media.”


The question remains, though: Why are we fascinated by stories about beauty and sex, money and greed, and why is endless news coverage of one death and one funeral so compelling? Why do so many people seem to be so affected by Anna Nicole Smith’s death?

Here are some of my thoughts:

Maybe we attach ourselves to her death, and even experience sadness or grief that feels personal to us, because elements of her story, which we know in some detail (perhaps more than we know about some of our acquaintances), resonate with us in a specific way. That is, most of us have been underestimated, accused of ulterior motives, treated unfairly by life, made bad choices, and had to overcome obstacles to get what we want. We share some of this life experience with her. And yet, the underestimation, accusation, unfairness, poor decision-making, and self-reliance are writ so large in her life that most of us can feel that she is quite different from us. Her looks and potential wealth may add to the sense of difference. So, for most of us, her story both feels familiar enough for us to understand and empathise with, and at the same time different enough and distant enough to set her apart from us as … different.

Maybe she’s just easy to feel sorry for. She made enemies, she endured conflict, she experienced tragedies, she tried to overcome obstacles, and, she died at a relatively young age. It’s not hard to like someone who screws up and/or who often seems to get the short end of the stick, especially when her mistakes and problems don’t harm us in any way.

In fact, thinking about Hiassen’s term necro-tainment and our avid interest in other people’s deaths (especially those that seem tragic to us, or that come about in sudden and catastrophic ways), perhaps this alone explains our tendency to be fascinated by almost any death: we are still alive, and they are dead. They are to be pitied and we have survived yet again. We win. Bwahaha.

In our reaction to the deaths of people we don’t know, there’s a fine line between gloating and grieving, it seems to me, and it’s a fine line defined largely by pity. We pity people who are pathetic. What’s more pathetic than being dead?

The urge to pity can come about only by comparing someone else and their circumstances with ourselves and our circumstances. When we compare, sometimes we feel self-pity, and sometimes we feel pity for the other person and perhaps an urge to help them. Pity is an emotion that follows a judgment of difference. Anna Nicole differs from all of us by being dead, mostly, and before that she was different by degree, different in a way that made her seem pathetic to most people. Even if enviable or admirable in some ways, yet pathetic in an overriding way that made it feel OK and non-threatening to envy or admire her. She seemed a buffoon we could laugh at and not feel we were being cruel to laugh … “Oh, Anna Nicole’s at it again! Silly girl!”

I think it’s our capacity for pity — to compare and judge ourselves against others, and to compare others against others — that motivates our desire for stories of tragic death (or the death of a tragic figure), and also about money and greed, sex and beauty. We like to know where we stand — who are we better than, and who is better than us? and which of the celebrities we identify with most is better? (because our identity is wrapped up in theirs, and so their standing reflects on ours) — and money and looks are two very important standards in our culture for determining human worth.

Funnily, much of this topic reminds me of the little I have heard about the work of ‘French critic and provocateur’ Jean Baudrillard, who died yesterday at age 77 in Paris. The NYT obituary of Baudrillard says that one his “better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive ‘hyperreality,’ where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning.”

I think that our grieving/gloating over the deaths of celebrities (people we don’t know at all but who seem sort of familiar to us) is a way of participating in this false reality. Through TV, magazines, and so on, we have the simulated experience of having “met” Anna Nicole, for instance, and of “getting to know” her and her family. Because we feel we know her, we may “feel” sorry for her in a way that feels personal. But is it?

It’s not that there’s no reality out there — Anna Nicole Smith apparently existed as a real person, and some people really knew her and she knew them —  but rather it’s that we aren’t participants in her reality. She doesn’t know us. A one-way relationship, based on TV images, tabloids news, and such, is not really a relationship. It’s a fantasy. As the NYT reports Baudrillard to have said, Americans have an “almost complete blurring of reality and unreality.”

Second, the eensy bit I’ve read about Baudrillard’s ideas reminds me again, as all musing about celebrity grieving seems to, of James Alison’s excellent article following 9/11 on sham grief and the sacred centre, titled “Contemplation in World of Violence,” in which he talks about our Satanic desire to be sucked “out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre” and thereby find transcendent meaning for our lives, and about the cathartic power of grief that makes us feel morally good. If you haven’t read it, give it a look.


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