“The rule of three,” is a writing principle that asserts that things that happen in threes derive more satisfaction, or are more effective than other numbers or sets of things. There’s also a popular societal superstition that bad things – bad luck, loss, death etc. – happen in threes.
I can say in my particular experience, this superstition of the rule of three, hasn’t been too far from the truth. With the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and René Angélil, perhaps truth and superstition are sometimes one and the same. But we are rational creatures, aware of the availability heuristic, and so we simply call personal or public events that align with this rule of three in such a manner, “coincidence.”
It is no coincidence however, the manner in which we mourn the deaths of celebrities. “Our” celebrities and public figures are our heroes (or villains); they inspire us, teach us, entertain us, and we find a way to feel human connections with people we know so little about, personally. In thinking about the celebrity deaths this week, lesser so of Angélil, but of Rickman and Bowie in particular, the public adored these creators, not only for who they were (at least in our public construction of who they were), but because of their contributions to society. Contributions that many can agree will continue past their death.
There is indeed a romanticization that occurs when beloved celebrities die, especially as the public comes to terms with their loss. We look back at their societal input, filled with nostalgia and gratitude. But there is something else that occurs in our time of excess information, and perhaps as part of our culture wars. Depending on the famous person, people may (pedantically) demand to know why a certain celebrity is being mourned so much, or perhaps why another isn’t mourned quite as much. Zealously, the public loss and grief are questioned as people bring up negative details of the public figure that were perhaps swept under the rug when they were alive. Just as when they were alive, when they are dead, the celebrity becomes an object, a thing. Not only their legacy, but who they were, is determined, analyzed, and argued about in the court of public opinion.
Perhaps it is only fair, that celebrities be analyzed after death just as they were when they were alive. One can argue that it is the price of fame, and not even the grave should protect you from such scrutiny. For example, Bowie’s sexual relations with an underage girl was brought up in the last week. As is the age gap between Angéli and his surviving widow, Celine Dion. Details of the celebrity that perhaps a fan or an informed citizen didn’t know, come to the surface. Indeed fans and informed citizens are then left to wonder how to place this celebrity in history, and how these pieces of information affect our perceptions of their contributions to the society that purported to know them.
Whether it is good or bad to know all the details of a celebrity’s life is something that can only be rendered a matter of subjective opinion. On the one hand, it is important in a culture of celebrity worship to be given a reality check that this person was not quite the superhuman you thought they were. On the other hand, it brings to question at the very least, the intentions of those who seek this truth. Is it indeed for love of the truth or is to make a point? Perhaps even to vilify?
In our hindsight, in our scrutiny, and in our mourning of those whose public personas affected us, especially when their contributions mattered to us, I do think it is important to see our celebrities as people. People who probably did good and bad, whose lives contributed positively and negatively, and who, when we are honest and well-intentioned in knowing who they really were after they are gone, know that in some ways they were brilliant people. But in other ways, they were probably just as ordinary and human as the rest of us. This fact, I believe, can allow us to recognize that all of us – celebrity or not – deserve to take some things to the grave with us, if not in silence, then somberly. Or as Rickman put it, “I don’t think it’s right that everybody knows everything about me.”