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Grief in Popular Culture


Through making The Grief Series I have immersed myself in the representation of bereavement in pop culture. Some of these references have been actively sought out as part of my process (The film and music lists) but others have been stumbled across accidentally. It is popular to say that the death of Princess Diana was a tipping point, that crying became almost fashionable at that time, and that the fashion for crying has lasted longer than the trend for mini rucksacks that pervaded the shops in 1997. It is difficult for me to judge as I was fourteen at the time and not overly interested in celebrity or politics…or death. Perhaps things were changing. But I know that the Enquirer printed pictures of Elvis in his coffin in 1977 which sold 6.5 million copies and Queen Victoria started a whole wave of grief chic when her beloved Albert died over a hundred years before paparazzi chased a car in to a tunnel in Paris. Trends may come and go but evidently grief is the little black dress of the journalist’s world. The general public have an appetite for grief. Looking back on Diana’s death it seems to me that people were not crying for Diana but for their dead mothers, fathers, siblings, children or pets. This was the impetus for making part one of the series The Etiquette of Grief and in a review of the show, Andrea Hardaker perceptively writes: I can’t have been the only person to feel it -it literally coiled inside of me – personal grief felt so much more uncomfortable than public grief and yet which would realistically require more support? Grief is a difficult emotion and perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of it is the fact that it is a pain that cannot realistically be shared - even with our closest relatives. It feels lonely, frightening and incredibly powerful. In times of personal grief we can’t just break down in the middle of a street, wailing and crying, waving candles and holding vigils. We don’t throw our arms round strangers and gather together in crowds. Instead we suffer, usually in silence – not because of our strength but because our grief is distinctly too uncomfortable for others to bear.

(For the full article go to http://www.pickledegg.info/2012/01/etiquette-grief-bradfords-theatremill/#more-4983 ) Dead Celebrities have become the conduits for our tears at the deaths of people we do know. The dead celebrity, or the weepy film removes us just enough to feel safe enough to grieve. A magazine or a DVD is tangible and so makes an excellent site for us to project onto. But if I were the grieving relative of a dead celebrity I imagine I’d feel doubly hurt to see the masses commandeering my loss. I would stick to the films as they are designed to move us. You might want to work your way through the film list or play some songs to grieve to and have a good cry, after all, that is what they are there for. Ellie Harrison


Bereavement on film Films about bereavement 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Rabbit hole Shadowlands Truly, Madly, Deeply A single man P.S I love you The Lovely Bones Charlie St. Cloud Three colours blue Volva Ghost

Scenes of Grief 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29.

Step mom Harold and Maude American Beauty Jack and Sarah Don’t look now Brokeback mountain Submarine (fantasy scene) Beaches Twelfth night Enduring love Four Weddings and a funeral Bambi Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet Moulin Rouge Jude Little Children La Vie en rose Damage Lolita The Lion King Sylvia My Girl Leon Dead Poets society The Boy in striped pyjamas The rules of attraction Revolutionary road Time travellers Wife Harry Potter (various)


30. Forrest Gump 31. Shaun of the dead. Bereavement on TV 1. A short Stay in Zurich 2. Twin peaks, Pilot Episode 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Getting On Series Two (various) Six feet under (various) Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ‘The body’ Season 5, episode 16 Fresh Meat, Series 1, episode 6,8 Mad men, Season 3, Episode 4 The Royle family, The Queen Of Sheba House, Season 4 finale. Grey’s Anatomy, Season 2, episode 22

Books/paintings/miscellany 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

The sad book by Michael Rosen (children’s book) A Scattering by Christopher Reed (collection of poems) My father had two coats by Linda Chase (poem) Crying men by Sam Taylor Wood (Photography series) Edward Munch paintings: The Death Bed 1895, Death in the sick chamber 1895, the dead mother and the child 1899/1900 as well as the sick child paintings Dad’s clothes by Andre Penteado (Photography series) The welfare state international’s Dead project http://www.welfarestate.org/pages/dead/dead.html Guy who did tripti The Long and winding road by Michael Pinchbeck (performance) Art and Death by Chris Townsend

Personal Accounts Whilst public grief for celebrities is relatively easy to find in tabloid newspapers, personal accounts of grief about everyday people seem less easy to stumble across. Whilst researching for the Grief Series we noted that these sorts of accounts were typically found in broadsheet newspaper supplements and magazines. These accounts tend to deal with the nuanced complexities of grieving and take in to consideration the wide variety of ways that people deal with grief. In this section we will summarise and highlight some of these more personal accounts as a counterpoint from the more hysterical representations of grieving that celebrity deaths seem to incur. Once we Had a Daughter (Guardian Weekend Magazine 22/4/2006)


In this account a mother tells how she lost her daughter through a suicide relating to the daughter’s struggle with bipolar2 depression, the article details the daughters manic periods and explains that she was a talented photographer. The mid section details the mother’s key memories leading up to her daughter’s suicide, including a trip to visit her at university. The section that concerns the Grief Series the most is towards the end of the article when the mother details ways in which the family grieves. We grieve in different ways, which can be difficult. The whole dynamic of the family is changed when suddenly you are four, not five. I was shocked in the spring whe I askjed Ben where he would like to go in the summer: “Somewhere where nobody has heard of Alice” he replied. It had not dawned on me that he was angry with her. “She’s ruined our family” he said. “It was the most selfish thing she ever did.” They had been so close. I had felt raw hurt, guilt and of course the fruitless but endless “if onlys”, but never anger (p30) The section contrasts with the perceived mass sadness of celebrity deaths, and picks out the complexities and mixed emotions that grieving for a loved one can bring out. It is honest and frank about what could be viewed as more negative reactions to someone’s death, however we must endeavour to take these less romanticised emotions into consideration whilst creating work that explores the theme of grief.

This article is an extract from Making Toast: A Family Story by Roger Rosenblatt. From Guardian Weekend Magazine 11/09/2010 This simple snippet portrays the way in which grief can affect different people in different ways. The rest of the article goes on to explain the different strategies that have been put in to place to enable them and the kids to grieve, as well as interventions in to their daily lives that allow them to get on with life. What strikes me in this account of grief is the reliance on small everyday tasks to assist in the grieving process: I wake up earlier than the other members of our household, usually around 5am, to perform the one duty I have mastered. After writing the Word for the Morning on a yellow post-it on the kitchen table, emptying the dishwasher, setting the table up for the children’s breakfast, I prepare toast. (p24)


Conclusion As a researcher of all things grief, my attitude towards the death of others has changed somewhat and I’m not sure I like it. On hearing the news that a celebrity has died my initial thought is not for their grieving relatives but for my research outcomes. I have been like this for a while. I have bought copies of magazines with dyeing people on the front cover and not thought twice. It wasn’t until Whitney Houston died that really I felt torn about whether to buy the memorial edition of OK Magazine. Sony hiked up their album prices as soon as she died and magazines were trawling the archives searching for pictures for ‘special edition’ tribute issues with a special, additional price tag. I bought it. Perhaps I wanted to be a witness to this awfulness. Keep a record of the insensitivity. Or perhaps I have an appetite for gossip at anyones expense. I don’t know. It is easy for me to sneer at the articles in Metro or the covers of OK! Showing Michael Jackson on a stretcher. I can tell myself that these are the disgusting acts of the media. Thank goodness artists would never exploit grief in that way. And yet I was reading an article bemoaning the way writers make money from writing grief memoirs and the fact that in these books the dead persons personality is totally drowned out by the writers wailing. It is about the writer, not the dead. And of course I see myself doing that. I am charging people ticket money to listen to me talk about my considerable experience of grief. Am I any better than these writers or people who sell stories about Jade Goody to the papers? And yet they always say write what you know and this is what I know. I know that I have experienced grief and felt silenced. I know I have struggled to discuss it with others experiencing grief and I would like this to change. I want to hold myself to account as well as change others.


So if we agree to hold ourselves to higher standards and make more rigorous demands on ourselves, then we can say in our work “We have asked ourselves these questions and we are trying to answer them, and that effort earns us the right to ask you, the audience, to face these issues too.” Art demands action from the midst of living and makes a space where growth can happen. (Bogart A, 2007, p. 4) Although I worry that I have turned into a kind of grief vulture. As well as making The Grief Series , I teach musical theatre to Children and part of the way through their rendition of ‘The Circle of Life’ it occurred to me that vultures are hopeful creatures with a commitment to recycling. In native American culture the Vulture was considered a symbol of spiritual strength showing qualities of endurance in the face of difficulty and cleansing the environment around it. I would like to think that the Grief Series takes experiences that are negative (and out of my control) and transforms them into something with new life that builds communities. Perhaps the difference between the exploitative and the resourceful is merely down to intention rather than outcome. One is to make money from creating something that might resonate enough with people for them to part with their cash and the other is to try and transform something negative into something nourishing. If the motivation for action does not transcend the desire for fame and success, the quality of the results will be inferior. If your aim is intense engagement rather than self aggrandizement, the results will be richer, denser and more energetic. The outcome of an artistic process contains the energy of your commitment to it. (Bogart A, 2007, p. 5-6) We may not like all the works of art that deal with grief, the work might fail but if the intention is good then perhaps it is a valiant failure. With art it is a question of taste. Not all the artworks that arise from bereavement will please everybody. Some works will resonate with some and not others and some will be downright awful. There are the odd couple that seem to be liked more often such as A Scattering by Christopher Reid or A Grief Observed by C.S Lewis or the film My Girl but they are few and far between. But a good intention, even if it ultimately fails is worth more than any cheap cash in. Perhaps it is because of the abuses of grief that seem to permeate our culture, whether it’s a picture of Diana trapped in her car or an inflated Whitney Houston album price, that work that has a genuine passion is so valuable. So we need to keep speaking and acting with the best of intentions. We are living in very particular times that demand a very specific kind of response. No matter the immensity of the obstacles – political, financial or spiritual – the one thing we cannot afford is inaction due to despair. (Bogart A, 2007, p. 2 )


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