An Ultimate Warrior and an Ultimate Mother: The Gendered Response to Celebrity Deaths

Public reaction to the recent spate of celebrity deaths has been interesting to watch. Social media has led to an increase in the amount of “virtual mourners” who are able to flood the web with displays of grief, the sincerity of which has been ‘questioned’. As a researcher of media fandom, I am particularly interested in how fans use the internet to grieve when the object of their fandom dies. This interest has led me to start researching fan response to the death of wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and young son before committing suicide in 2007. One particular concern was how fans deal with the process of remembrance when they find it difficult to separate the actions of the man from his celebrity persona.

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It was with this in mind that I started to examine response to the death of wrestler the Ultimate Warrior (James Hellwig, who legally changed his name to Warrior in 1993), where commentators have similarly attempted to separate the man from the performer. However, it was when looking at response to Warrior’s death that I was struck by the comparisons to be made with the response to the death of Peaches Geldof. The two cases have produced an interesting set of memorialisation narratives to compare particularly with regard to questions of gender. The way people have responded to their respective “private” and “performed” lives along gendered lines signals a continuation of the way celebrity culture contributes to the existence of gender norms.

Memorialisation of Geldof and Warrior has been heavily influenced by their recent media output. These “last appearances” have been used to shape the narratives of their remembrance: For Geldof it was an Instagram photo of her and deceased mother Paula Yates accompanied by the simple description ‘Me and my mum’.For Warrior, it was an appearance on Monday 7th April’s WWE Raw broadcast which saw him deliver an eerily prescient speech which spoke of one’s legend not being stopped by death.

Geldof’s photo has helped promote remembrance which combines her “private” and “performed” personas. Where previously her “bratty” celebrity was attributed to her privileged upbringing, now the most dominant media narrative is to think of Geldof as the “doting mum”. Audiences have similarly focused on her domestic identity; a quick look at the current most popular Tumblr posts shows a number of different photos of Geldof on her wedding day and with her children. Although her regular column for Mother and Baby did help to highlight her image as a celebrity mum, significantly it is this identity which has been stressed, rather than her position as a celebrity journalist who happens to have children.

As a result, Geldof’s posthumous celebrity is inextricably tied to her personal identity as a wife and mother. Speculation that her death is possibly linked to an eating disorder further emphasises the importance of how aspects of her “private” life, in particular gendered ways, inform the mediation of her celebrity. Such concerns of “ordinariness” – previously used to criticise her “fame for being famous” – are now used to ratify Geldof’s behaviour as she reverted to a more culturally acceptable state of motherhood, constructing a tidy memorialisation narrative for us to consume in the process.

In contrast, Warrior’s speech has been used to specifically highlight the difference between James “Warrior” Hellwig and the Ultimate Warrior wrestling character. Warrior himself made the distinction on Monday night, symbolically donning a mask to let ‘[The Ultimate Warrior] do the talking.’ Fans’ sharing of this speech and its message – through tribute art and sharing memories of Ultimate Warrior’s legacy – allowed the markers to be laid for the memorialisation narrative to follow. Tributes have specifically highlighted the prime of Warrior’s career – a bombastic muscled athlete and childhood nostalgia figure – rather than the retired father-of-two.

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In fact, little media attention has been paid at all to Warrior’s surviving wife and children – his identity as a father and husband is apparently as “private” a topic as his political views, the tone of which are seemingly inappropriate to include during a period of mourning. Mention of Geldof’s husband and children is essential to current media discourse, yet for Warrior such a topic is off-limits and irrelevant to a celebration of the “ultimate” icon of masculinity.

Although one could cynically think of these “last appearances” as part of a celebrity’s performance, that they’ve been interpreted along gendered lines underlines the selectivity in how memorialisation narratives are constructed. Celebrity deaths do seem to have an emotional pull for audiences, yet even at times of tragedy it is important to understand how particular stories are being crafted and maintained.

Tom Phillips is a Senior Research Associate at the University of East Anglia and co-chair of the Fan Studies Network. You can follow him on Twitter @TheTomPhillips.


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