I WAS trying to separate two squabbling children and get them out the door to catch a bus when I first heard a newscaster announce that the actress Natasha Richardson had sustained a serious fall on a Canadian ski slope.
I froze immediately: “An actress having a serious fall on a ski slope. That now makes news bulletins?”
In the following days, it was a constant feed of information: her initial nonchalance after the fall; her then worsening medical condition; the sudden turn for the worse and then the rumours she was brain dead. It dominated newspaper, TV and radio before a statement was released on Thursday morning that her life-support machine had been turned off.
I, like many others, knew Ms Richardson predominately as the wife of actor, Liam Neeson. I also knew her as the latest generation of the Redgrave acting dynasty and an apparently acclaimed theatre actress. I had never seen her on stage.
Yet, somehow in the last days, I have been unwittingly pulled into her family and friends’ grief. I’ve shook my head at pictures of a wretched looking Vanessa Redgrave entering the hospital and registered the shock etched upon her husband’s face. When I saw pictures of her two young sons, aged 12 and 13, I found myself pondering what a maelstrom of emotions they must be enduring. Via Twitter, I’ve heard Demi Moore’s and Martha Stewart’s shock at her passing. In many ways, I participated in their mourning.
Every media outlet, this paper included, has been trying to shine a light on another part of Natasha Richardson’s private life — a privacy that Richardson defended fiercely, eschewing any of the celebrity that the Jade Goodys and Victoria Beckhams of this world crave. What does this say about us as a society and where will it end when a magazine can publish a tribute to a reality TV star who is still in her dying bed?
Dr James O’Higgins- Norman lectures in sociology at Dublin City University and is concerned at how celebrity culture is feeding upon lacunae in our lives.
The world is now awash with rampant “emotionalism”, according to O’Higgins-Norman . As such, we project our need to express joy, sadness and grief on celebrities and their world.
“Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson were a particular style of actor. They weren’t hugely caught up in celebrity culture and that attitude is something that we feel we can connect with. Unfortunately, we are constantly looking for such connections with celebrities and not with our own family and friends,” he says.
Television, radio, the internet, iPods and mobile phones are as much part of our day now as breakfast and dinner. “We have so much information and stimulation around us and we lead our lives at such a pace that it doesn’t always facilitate our emotional development... Celebrity culture has tapped into this lack of fulfilment,” he says.
Central to reclaiming our emotions, he says, is the education system and the need to give substantially more hours each week to social, personal and health education (SPHE).
“Teenagers, and boys in single sex schools especially, need to be given the opportunity to reflect on their emotions and learn how to talk about their feelings,” he says pointing to trends of school massacres and teen suicides. “Instead of learning these tools, people are instead learning from media how to cry at a movie, how to live a celebrity’s life and death or have a relationship online but they can’t talk to a friend about why they feel sad. Increased SPHE would give this generation the foundations for good mental health.”
Essential to Liam Neeson, his sons’ and the wider family’s mourning will be the support of trusted family and friends, not the support of the public. This is what we all need and we need to break the celebrity infatuation.
“I don’t think we can judge Jade Goody though and her attitude to her death... Jade belongs to a very practical generation that nearly attach to media and technology the same feeling as was traditionally felt for extended family.
“But, this won’t be enough. She too needs trusted family and friends. What worries me is that we have a generation who don’t know their neighbour’s name but know all the details about the likes of Jade Goody’s life. That is not good for us”.
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