Why does our culture idolize tragedy?
Tragedy is tragic. More obvious words have never been spoken. We mourn tragedy every time it occurs.
So then why do we adore tragic figures?
People like Kurt Cobain, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are all idolized and celebrated today even though generations have passed since their tragic passings. There are celebrities who outlived their contemporaries by decades and yet never receive the same relevance or popularity.
One way of looking at it is the human fascination with tragedy. For some reason, humans always gravitate toward tragedy, whether it be Shakespeare’s plays or our inability to look away from car crashes. When a tragedy occurs, it is the water cooler talk of the day. This incessant human need to understand why tragedy happens is further amplified when it befalls our favorite icons.
For some, maybe it is the art these people made. Marilyn Monroe won multiple Oscars and is looked at as one of the most iconic actresses of her era. Her life story, however, is extremely tragic. Between abusive marriages, the oversexualization of her image and her desire to be taken seriously as an actress, Monroe is the embodiment of the archetypal Hollywood downfall story. Perhaps we pity her because we feel that she did not deserve the cards she was dealt. She made such great art and was the person that everyone wanted to be, so why was her life so miserable?
Perhaps the oversexualization of her image caused her to become the standard by which we measure beauty in modern society. Or maybe it is mysterious life that they led. This is the case with James Dean. His possible bisexuality makes him an early hero for the LGBTQ+ community. Not only that, but he was played by very popular actor James Franco relatively recently, keeping his name fresh in people’s minds. Dean was also seen as the most passionate performer of his time. But what really makes James Dean such an icon is his mystique. No one really knows about his personal life. It is unclear who he dated, loved, was friends with and had sex with. This level of mystique grabs at the human desire to be in the know. We so desperately want to know every detail because everything we uncover feels like a new discovery.
Maybe there’s a longing to see what these people would have done had they not died so young. Imagine Cobain at age 50 and the nuanced songwriting from all of the years of experience he would have built up. Most bands get to grow and change, but Nirvana never got to do that; Nirvana only made three albums. There is this longing to know what would have happened if they had continued. There could be anthologies of his work by now. Instead, we only have his work with Nirvana and a few demos.
Or maybe their idol status is preserved because they never had a chance to fail before they passed. They never had to face obscurity for making subpar art. Instead, what they created lasts because their work is near flawless. Nothing can be said that can take away from the overall impact their work had on society and thus, they become timeless entities. They become gods in their own right, gods who created the culture we call our own.
Charles Musante is a first year Politics major who has been James Dean for Halloween five years in a row. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.