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Celebrity Death & Decorum, or How Social Media Has Made People Angry Over the Wrong Crap

Saturday night my wife was about to go to bed when Courtney, my teenage daughter, said as she scrolled Twitter, “Do you know who Paul Walker is?”

Pamela and I looked at each other. “He’s from those Fast and Furious movies,” Pamela said.

“Yeah, well, he died in ‘a fiery car crash,'” Courtney said.

My wife and I both said, basically, “Oh no! That’s sad!”

That was about the extent of it. After she went to bed, I went on the iPad and was scrolling through my Facebook feed and Twitter feed. The news about Mr. Walker’s death was still pretty fresh but I already saw something unsettling. Someone (I don’t remember who) had posted to Facebook something alone the lines of: “150,000 people died today, but we’re all fixated on one celebrity.”

Over the course of the past two days, I’ve seen similar kinds of posts. A lot of them. On Facebook. On Twitter. I’m sure there are others out there.

Why?

It’s a lot like the essay I wrote about people liking to go out of their way to inform all the fans of a particular TV show, movie series, or game that they don’t watch it, but it’s uglier. Much uglier.

Unlike, say, Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton or Snookie or any other reality TV star, Mr. Walker actually worked his ass off to achieve what fame he received, and it’s not as though he was out partying when his death happened. Yes, it appears he was in a speeding vehicle, but he had just finished a fundraiser for Philippine relief. Oh, and he had a history of helping those who’d been hit hard by disaster.

In other words, Mr. Walker did something that made a lot of people happy, and helped a lot of people, and now he was being mourned.

Now, before I’m accused of being a superfan of his, I’ll state that I’ve never seen the Fast and Furious movies (though Pamela and I were talking about them just that morning) and I honestly had to double check what his name was before I began writing this. I know only as much as I’ve read about or have seen on TV in the last couple of days.

The thing that annoys me is the flippant dismissal over the man’s death. Yes, he was a celebrity. Yes, he was a star of a series of popcorn action flicks. But he was also the father to a 15-year-old daughter. Like I am. He was 40 years old—four years older than I (and my wife’s age). He organized help for those who needed it. And he’d worked for most of his life to achieve what fame he had, and compared to most movie stars, he wasn’t necessarily the biggest name. Consider the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson had more screentime in the recent Fast & Furious trailers and commercials than he did, even though Johnson had only done a couple of them.

That’s not to say that all the other people who died Saturday shouldn’t be mourned because they absolutely should. They all have families and friends and touched lives for the better. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t in one of the most successful franchises of the last decade or so. They were known outside of their local places or by those close to them. Mr. Walker was.

Instead of bitching about the public mourning of fans, and the media’s attraction to the story (which, let’s face it, is a huge piece of irony and is grisly, two things modern news loves), let’s use Mr. Walker’s death as a symbol to all those who died that day. His death becomes the face of those regular people who died that day, no less tragic, no less sad.

In other words, with all the silliness out there in the world, the racism and sexism, the growing socioeconomic chasm, the bigotry and hatred, let’s focus our energy on fixing those things instead of making people who lost someone they cared about in some way, whether it’s because they knew him or it was because they loved his movies, feel bad about their public mourning and the news outlets reporting of it.

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My Thoughts On Fame, or Why They Don’t Deserve Your Rudeness

A month or so ago, someone on Facebook bitched about Jodi Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes. You know the one, it went viral and lots of people said how brave she was for it.¹ Well, the part that got me most was about her privacy, asking–downright demanding–that her privacy, as well as the privacy of other stars, be respected. Someone on my Facebook wall wrote that Foster asked for the lack of privacy by becoming famous and if she didn’t want her privacy stepped on, then she shouldn’t have become famous. I’ve heard this before. Celebrities shouldn’t be angry when their privacy is stepped on because they asked for it by becoming famous.

Bullshit.

Yes, there are fame whores out there. Almost everyone who appears on reality tv for no other reason than that they’re freaks (I’m looking at you, almost everyone on TLC) falls into that category. Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Real Housewives, etc. Sometimes it’s a strategic business move (I’m thinking Bethenny Frankel) but most of the time it’s “look at me” grown-up. Some actors and actresses also fall into this category. For those people, yeah, they give up their privacy in order to be noticed more and more.

I’m talking about the actors, actresses, writers, musicians, directors, artists, and everyone else who can fall into the category of loving a certain craft and wanting to work on the craft as much as possible with as few limitations as possible. I’m talking about the Robert Downey, Jrs, Jodie Fosters, Stephen Kings, Bruce Springsteens, George Lucases, and everyone else in their ilk. They are the people who love their work and want to do the best job possible. Sometimes, that means becoming famous, usually by accident. The fame allows them freedom. Without it, they couldn’t make some of the movies they want to make, to write the books they want to write and not worry whether or not it might lose readers.

I ran into this once in Bangor, Maine. I was vacationing with my then-girlfriend and her godfather in Maine and we went up to Bangor solely to visit a bookstore that specialized in their most famous local writer’s work, my hero Stephen King. So we went and I bought something. Then my girlfriend’s godfather asked if I wanted to go by the King house and I said sure.

“We can stop and take pictures,” he said.

“No thanks,” I said.

When he asked why, I explained that I wasn’t cool impeding on my favorite writer’s privacy. Driving by the house would be bad enough but at least that’s not annoying the residents of the place.

So we drove there. And he stopped.

“If he didn’t want people to take pictures of his house,” the godfather said. “He wouldn’t have become famous to begin with.”

I’ve never felt right about that. Yeah, we took pictures. Yeah, someone was entering the house (it wasn’t Unca Steve). But I’ve never felt right about it.

King did not choose to become famous. He chose to write books to the best of his ability and promote them to the best of his ability. That’s all. He wanted what I want: readers. Someone who would read his writing and be entertained. That was it. He did not ask for fans to go by his home and take pictures, or to bother him at Fenway Park, or stop him in the streets, or….

Another incident:

Back in 2000 or so I was at the local mall when I saw David Duchovny and Tea Leone with their new baby and a woman. I was with my baby, my sister, and her friend. Her friend ran up to me and said, “I just saw a guy that looks just like David Duchovny!”

I said, “That is David Duchovny.”

“Come on,” the friend said. “I’m gonna ask him for his autograph.”

“No, you’re not,” I said. “He and his wife are here with their family. They’re on vacation. Leave them alone.”

She did. It wasn’t until a clerk in one of the stores announced their presence that anyone actually bothered them. The stars left immediately. I was pissed off for them.

So when Jodie Foster articulates that her sexuality, her life, is none of your goddamn business, she’s right. Her job is to act in movies, to make movies, not to live her life in front of the camera. When a writer writes a book you love, that’s what they’re supposed to do, not sign it, not shake your hand, and certainly not accept you taking pictures of their houses.

Most of these people understand that with popularity, some of their privacy is going to go away, and many will gladly shake hands with you, sign autographs, or pose in pictures with you, if you ask nicely. And should they say no, don’t go kvetching about it. They did their job by making the films, writing the books, playing the music, creating the art that you enjoyed. The rest is icing on the cake.

And yes, I will sign my books for you. Because I’m not famous and, at this point in my career, it’s pretty fun to do. But there may come a time when, for whatever reason, I cannot and I will say no. Don’t hate me for that, I may just have to go to the bathroom or have dinner.

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¹ I actually found the speech a confusing mess. She “came out” of a closet that everyone already knew she was out of, she never really addressed anything of importance, and appeared almost out of it.

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