On Popular Culture and Mourning

I finally watched the last episode of “Beautiful People”–twice, in fact.  Knowing that I will never see another new episode of the show has left me far more depressed than it should; it is, after all, just a television show.  Yet, the end of the show still hurts because the fictionalized Simon Doonan, his family, and his best friend Kylie became a part of my life, even if only for the briefest periods of time.  The end of the show has had an effect of me that I can only describe as something akin to experiencing the death of a loved one–at least in sentiment if not in scope.  The story ended, and I am left with grief and a painful process of decathexis.  Were I mourning a person, this process would be considered natural.  That the mourning if for a television show makes the grief far less acceptable but nevertheless still understandable.

I do not remember mourning television series when I was young.  As a child I watched far too much television, particularly cartoons.  Every Saturday morning I would wake up early–something I could never do on school days–turn the channel to NBC, and plant myself in front of the television.  It never seemed to matter that after a certain point there were no new episodes; the old ones were good enough.  Cartoons, especially cartoons in the 1980’s, told self-contained stories in each episode: the never ending battle between good and evil.  No one grew up or moved on.  As a result, there was no chance to develop an attachment as one gets from watching characters grow and change over time, as though they were real.  Besides, cartoons in the 1980’s were mere vehicles to market toys.  I had the toys, and even when the cartoon ended, I could continue the story on my own the way I thought it should go.

I also was growing up, and what I loved in elementary school, I rejected in middle school.  In my early adolescence I found fantasy novels, which were far more satisfying than cartoons, but also more tragic.  They ended.  The first time I can remember experiencing an acute sense of mourning for a story was after I finished Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, a beautiful bildungsroman series steeped in Welsh mythological imagery.  Whenever I finished the series, I reread it from the beginning.  However, it was never the same as the first time.  Each subsequent read was only a revisit, never a re-experience.  I already knew the whole story; it had already ended.

****

The first person I saw die was my grandmother.

I was four years old the year my grandfather turned 60, and my grandmother organized a surprise party for him.  I can still remember the party, although not well.  There was a commotion behind me, and I turned around to see my grandmother lying dead on the dance floor.  Some older cousins rushed me out of the room, but I already saw everything.  My next memory of the night is a room, I suppose it was an ER waiting room, and learning that my grandmother had died.  I remember crying, not mine but my family’s.

I have no memory of my reaction to my grandmother’s death, although years later I found out that I had an emotional meltdown.  I locked myself in my room and refused to come out, desperately believing that one of my cartoon heroes could bring my grandmother back.  All that I can recall is a terrifying nightmare that I had shortly after my grandmother died.  Although I must have cried, I remember crying for my grandmother only once.  About three years after she died, I was talking about my her with a friend of my mother’s.  I started crying uncontrollably.  Immediately afterwards, I was deeply ashamed, all the more so when my mother saw.  That was the last time I cried because of a death.

I will never see my grandmother again.  All I have left are trinkets, old photographs, and hazy memories.

****

My grandmother was lucky in a way.  This is not a flippant statement; I say it knowing she never knew most of her grandchildren, and never say any of them grow up.  I alone among her grandchildren have memories of her, and mine are few.  It is a cruel fate.

But she was also lucky because she never was dying; she just died.  Instantly.  Although her survivors suffered and continue to suffer from the lingering effect, she had no pain.  Almost every other member of my grandmother’s family who died–her parents, her brother, and her husband–died after a prolonged period of painful and degenerative illness.  Her sister is now similarly suffering.

There is no such thing as a good death or bad death.  The death of a loved one is a crushing blow.  Survivors never heal;  they just make peace.  There are however, easy deaths and difficult ones.  My grandfather died after a long and painful battle with terminal cancer.  I last saw him the day before he died.  His mind was so addled by illness and morphine that he tried to harm himself.  Terminal cancer is a horrible way to die and horrible to witness. Although my grandfather spent more time with his family than my grandmother did, her death was luckier.  My grandfather’s suffering cast a heavy shadow over his final years.  Nevertheless, he too was luckier than some.  He died at home surrounded by the people who loved him.  Not many have that luxury.

****

I do not know how to mourn properly.  Probably no one else does either.  There is a cultural ideal of mourning–cry at the funeral, grieve for a few months, move on with life–but this is a fantasy perpetuated by media.  And the closer the loss, the harder it is to recover.  Some never do.  Yet society at large does not recognize that.  American culture in particular, despite its alleged emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual, does not recognize different methods of grief.  Instead only women may cry but men must not. We are told that if a loss takes too long to mourn then there is something wrong with the mourner, and it must be treated with medicine, with psychotherapy, or both.  We live by those words of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season.”  Nothing, least of all death and mortality, can ever be contained in a solitary season.  The emotional life ebbs and flows without regard for societal propriety.

My own tears always come at inappropriate times.  I did not shed a tear when my grandfather, a man to whom I was extremely close, finally died.  I delivered his eulogy in a clear unshaken voice.  I gave the eulogy for my other grandmother a fear years later and never once cried after she died.  Yet my tears flow freely when I watch Pixar movies or hear a melancholy song sung by Karen Carpenter.  My emotional catharsis is a process that must be aided by external factors, otherwise I am physically incapable of expressing grief.

In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief that terminally ill patients experience–stages which also apply to survivors.  On Death and Dying is a beautifully written book, far more beautiful than it should be.  When I was in graduate school, a favorite professor of mine read aloud to my class the last few pages of On Death and Dying–the book’s post-script, “the silence that goes beyond words.”  “Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.”  By the time my professor read those words, I was already fighting hard not to dissolve into tears.  After class I went to the local library to borrow a copy of the book.  When I again read those last few pages I cried, unable to stop.

My grandfather had died a year and half prior.

****

The first movie I ever cried at was the Bette Midler vehicle Beaches.  I was still young, maybe 11 or 12.  Beaches is a manipulative film, designed to make audiences cry.  My mother, who avoids all popular entertainment, watched the movie with tear-filled eyes.  I saw only the end of the movie, but it was enough to cause in me gulping sobs, much as I tried to hide it with nervous laughter.  For years after that, nothing moved me to tears.  I had the occasional tearful outburst, but it was always the result of impotent rage not sadness.

Early into the first semester of my senior year of college, my literature professor assigned Tevye the Dairyman, the short story collection by the Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem that became the basis of the inexplicably-beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Each story is a monologue that Tevye shares with the author (“Mr. Shalom Aleichem”) about his life; usually these stories center around Tevye’s daughters.  Most of them are tragic, but Tevye’s sardonic humor changes potential bleakness into transcendence.

In the story “Hodel”, Tevye’s second eldest daughter’s fell in love with and married a Marxist who is subsequently sent to Siberia.  In the story, as in the musical, Hodel leaves her family–probably forever–to be with him.  In the musical, Hodel sings a dramatic song to her father expressing grief over leaving.  In the story she bades her father farewell, “Good-bye, Papa, only God knows when we’ll see each other again.”  And stoic Tevye, as he leaves behind his story, cries to his listener.  I cried too.  On a train.  In public.  Tevye reverts back to his dark and protective humor as the story ends, “Let us talk of more cheerful things: what’s the latest news about the cholera in Odessa?”  But since that time, I have not been able to refrain from tearing up at the little things–sad or sentimental.

Since Tevye I have read two other books that, upon finishing, I like crying: Don Quixote and Pedro and Me.  The latter book brought up emotion connected to my own sexuality and its meaning, to AIDS, and to remembering the death of someone I admired.  Don Quixote was something different.  Because I spent so long reading the book and put so much energy into it, when I finished I felt so empty.  The characters of Don Quixote’s world had for a time become a part of my inner life, and suddenly they vanished.  I felt empty because they were missing and would never return.

****

In college, when I was at my lowest, I listened to the soundtrack of Beautiful Thing over and over again.  Although I enjoy the music of Cass Elliot and The Mamas & The Papas, the real reason why I listened to the soundtrack repeatedly was because it was my way of recreating the movie.  Although the movie had a satisfying end, real life does not end with two young boys dancing to the strains of “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” in the middle of a council housing courtyard.  Listening to the soundtrack was a way of assuring myself that they would be okay, because in the real world Jamie and Ste would probably face a tremendous amount of pain and hurt.

Satisfying endings are rarer for television shows than movies or books.  In most cases shows are cancelled too soon and the series does not have time to properly wrap up.  In other cases, the show has been on for too long, and ending it is an act of mercy.  A series finale is a way of rewarding the audience with closure.  Loss and closure are fundamentally tied together.

When a relationship ends, it is not uncommon for one party, usually the wronged one, to want closure.  In this context closure really means the easing of pain rather than the resolving of unresolved issues.  Life is messy, and closure does not come easily regardless of the intended meaning; real people feel real emotions that are exceptionally complicated.  When two people have any kind of meaningful relationship–romantic, familial, etc.–they internalize aspects of one another.  Those internalized aspects grow and change as the relationship does.  When the relationship ends the internalized aspects fade away and leave behind a gap.  Closure is a futile attempt to fill the gap  or at least ease the pain that its opening causes.  That is why true closure is very rare; it is an attempt to speed up a process that inherently resolves only through time.  Death is particularly closure-proof.  Even if we say everything that we possibly would want to say to our loved ones, even if we resolve all unresolved issues, closure is impossible.  Closure is an artificial process to hasten healing.  Death leaves behind an emptiness that only time heals, and never entirely.

Scripted entertainment, unlike life, provides an opportunity for meaningful closure because it is the ultimate artificiality.  Writers play God; they control the outcomes and can end the story as they choose.  This resolution may not necessarily be happy, but it should be satisfying.  An absence of closure betrays the audience.  Television, unlike books or movies, do not necessarily provide closure because the writers do not control the endings.  The success of a series is subject to the whims of audiences and networks.  Sometimes writers do try to control the ending even when the series is not continued; the end of the season is written so be a potential end to the series, a tactic used for years by Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Television shows are unique among media–unlike books, they are visual thereby leaving nothing to the imagination.  Unlike other visual media (movies, plays, operas, etc.), television shows are not self-contained; they can span weeks, months, years, even decades–longer than most relationships.  The inevitable familiarity allows we the viewers to know the characters almost as well as we know our loved ones.  When a show goes on for a long time, we prepare ourselves for the eventual loss, just as we prepare for the loss of a loved one with a terminal illness.  When a show is cancelled prematurely, it is as shocking as a sudden death.

It is odd to talk about the relationship to, and even love for, television characters; after all the feelings one has toward television characters cannot compare to the love between two living beings.  Yet the relationship to a fictional character is not a completely one-sided either.  The character may not love us back, but their lives do inspire emotions in us, often by reaching out to feelings that are inside of us.  Is it possible to remain neutral and uncaring when we are touched so deeply?  After all, the vast majority of people who “know” us cannot make us feel.

The Internet and the DVD changed the way audiences experience television, and the feelings of love and loss are more immediate.  Normally, we fall in and out of love with television characters over the course of weeks.  Exposure was limited to the caprices of a television schedule.  It is that time on screen (not the spaces in between episodes) that let shows woo their audiences.  Post-Internet, post-DVD, we no longer have to abide by the weekly schedule; we can watch it all at once.  There is less of a chance to forget characters or lose interest when the next episode is so immediate.

When a beloved series has only a limited run, the ardor never has a chance to cool down (as with long-running series); the loss feels all the more acute.  No show epitomizes viewer love and loss better than Arrested Development.  While it was in danger of cancellation, its fans fought hard to save it and were ultimately unsuccessful.  The show had a second life on DVD, a much better format given the pace, humor, and complexity of the story.  The DVD brought new viewers to the show but too late.  The grief over the end of the show produced a sort of denial and the promise of a movie that may or may not happen.

Freaks and Geeks was another show that found a second life on DVD.  Like with Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks got a new life on DVD, and the format rewards the viewer with a beautifully told storyline, not subject to the whims of scheduling or commercials.   The series did not last a full season, but it is still one of the finest dramas that network television has ever aired.  Every single actor in that show is great; even secondary characters are fully realized and integrated.  After watching the entire show, my significant other said to me how sad he was it was that it ended because it felt like he lost his friends.  It was a sentiment that I completely shared.  I feel that way even more so about Beautiful People.

****

With the exception of the British Queer as Folk, I have never encountered a show that speaks to gay men as intimately as Beautiful People.  There are no concessions to straight audiences the way that American shows routinely make for series that are nominally focused on gay characters.  Without intending to, I invested myself in the show even though I knew that there were only 12 episodes.  Nevertheless, knowing that Beautiful People has ended is extremely painful and depressing.  I mourn the loss.

The irony about Beautiful People is that closure was built into the show’s structure.  Each episode is framed by the adult Simon Doonan telling a story from his youth.  The first season is about how Simon comes to terms with his difference from other boys.  The second season is about how he comes to terms with his sexuality.  However, because the adult Simon narrates the show, the audience knows that young Simon turns out okay.

At the end of the final episode, young Simon almost gets his first kiss, and his family accepts his sexual orientation.  But Beautiful People makes its only misstep at the end.  When the memory ends, the adult Simon tells his mother that he is getting married to the boy he had a crush on in school.  It is a tacked on ending to wrap everything up.  “Look,” the show is saying, “Simon is happy and getting married.  Everything is okay.  See, it all works out in the end.”

But it doesn’t.  There is too much of a story left to tell, and even with an ending that attempts to make everything right, the emptiness does not get filled.  There is no closure.  Watching the show from beginning to end another time will not help.  It is akin to looking at old pictures of ourselves.  The pictures remind us of our memories, but they are frozen in time.  We can not revisit the past to make new memories.

Closure in anything, even television, is a rare gift.  When there is a loss, no matter the significance, we lose a part of ourselves: the part of ourselves that we invested in the object.  I miss Lindsay Weir and Michael Bluth, but the loss of Simon Doonan and Kylie Parkinson is particularly intense.  Because of the sexual orientation connection, I feel like I lost something extremely intimate–the gay best friends I never had growing up.  The part of myself that was Beautiful People will dwindle and fade–and it will do so painfully.  All I have left are memories and YouTube clips: the Internet version of old pictures.

Music I listened to: Boyzone “Better”; Christina Aguilera “Beautiful”; ABBA “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room”; Katia Guerreiro “Ser Tudo Ou Nada”; Patricia Kaas “Falling in Love Again”; Chiara “Angel”; The Low Anthem “Charlie Darwin”; Eva Cassidy “Imagine”; Melissa Manchester “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.

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