I was going to make this a twitter thread, but while threads are a thing that works (more or less) on Twitter, making them can be kind of awkward. So I figured I’d blog this and link to it on Twitter.
So, I’ve been seeing some tweets and comments around that imply that someone(s) out there has been complaining that publicly mourning celebrities is somehow improper, or insincere, or just, you know, merely performative. I seem to have muted or blocked anyone in my own feeds likely to say something like this, so I’m not taking issue with any particular comment. I’m just thinking about the idea that “performative” mourning is insincere somehow, or only about getting the mourner social brownie points or whatever.
The way I see it, though, all mourning is performative. Not all grieving, right? The way you feel when you lose someone important to you, that’s private. But all the other things. Going to your relative’s funeral? Performative. Going to the funeral home to tell your friend or neighbor you’re sorry for their loss? One hundred percent performative. Hell, holding a funeral at all is entirely performance.
Funerals aren’t for the dead. They are social activities, and they fulfill particular social functions–ones that are really, really important to us, as demonstrated by the very strong urge to have at least some small scrap of a funeral for someone who dies in circumstances that make whatever one’s standard funerary practices are impossible.
Mourning practices do a number of things–they provide some kind of closure, sure. An official “now that’s done” so people can move forward. But they also affirm (and re-affirm) communities. They affirm the deceased’s membership in one or more communities, and in the process also affirm the continued existence of those communities. Mourners declare their relationship to the deceased, and incidentally their relationships to each other.
Mourning publicly also allows people to offer support to the bereaved–those co-workers or friends who show up at the funeral home to say an awkward “I’m so sorry” do help, I can tell you from personal experience. And I know it’s one hundred percent performative–this person doesn’t know my grandma or my mom or my uncle or whoever, they’re turning up to tell me they know what I’m going through, and they care. And the other folks who come–the friends and business associates and acquaintances of the deceased, who the family may never have met, they are also performing. They come to tell the bereaved that the deceased was important to them, that they honor them, that they’ll miss them.
It’s all performance. Every bit of it. It’s nearly all public performance. There are customs and rituals associated with it, so that when the time comes, you know (mostly) what to do, to activate that support, to let people know that you need that comfort now.
It gets weird, with public figures. These are people that might be very, very important to us, might have formed our childhoods, given us inspiration, been constant companions in one way or another, and yet we’ve never met them, and they never had any idea that we existed. It’s not the same as a close loved one dying. But it’s not nothing. And what do you do, when someone not exactly family dies, but you had some sort of relationship with them? Well, if you were in the same town you’d put on nice clothes and comb your hair and go to the funeral parlor and tell the family how sorry you were, how important the deceased was to you, maybe tell them about some time they really helped you out. And then you move aside for the next person, maybe talk with some folks, and go home. Maybe you send flowers, that will sit there in the funeral home and in the church as a conspicuously visible token of your tie to the deceased, or their family, or a particular member of that family.
We aren’t any of us going to Carrie Fisher’s wake. Her family doesn’t want to slog through thousands of cards or letters, and there’s no mortuary large enough to hold the flowers we might all send. But we can blog or tweet. And yes, it’s performative. Like all funeral customs and public mourning it’s performative. It’s meant to send a message. “I am a member of this community, and this person was important to us. This community recognizes their loss. This community wants the deceased’s family to know how important this person was to us, and how sorry we are to hear they’ve left us.” And maybe her family doesn’t see most of it, but they likely know it’s there. I suspect that, like “I’m sorry” at the funeral home, it helps.
And it’s not just for the family, of course. It’s for that other, maybe intersecting community (friends, co-workers, fans, whatever). No, losing George Michael or David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher probably isn’t even remotely like losing your aunt or your sister or your daughter. But it’s not nothing.
It’s all performative. It’s all for show. Hell, any time you get dressed and walk out the door it’s performative, it’s for show. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily insincere or bad or somehow wrong and shallow. It means you can’t communicate without doing a thing that others will understand–and during a time of stress we have a series of more or less ritual acts to make, more or less formulaic lines to speak, wearing more or less conventional clothes, to get us through, together. It’s all for show.
Some of the people publicly mourning may be insincere, sure, but that’s not really the point, is it? Mostly they’re not. No, the problem isn’t that tweets about Bowie or Michael or Prince or Fisher aren’t sincere, it’s that the critic doesn’t think they have standing to mourn, or thinks those tweets are somehow improper. But, you know, nobody gets to decide that for you, do they.
No. They do not.