Exploiting the Archives: The Enduring Embarrassment of the Maudlin Memorial Cartoon
As I have written here before, grief is such a powerful, intimate and personal experience that we do not have the right to judge it from the outside because we cannot, by definition, understand it, or understand it in its full complexity. That’s why I’m enraged when, for example, James Woods tweets something snide suggesting that the Parkland survivors must be merely pretending to be sad about their classmates being murdered to get on television, curry favor with the media and get some of the untold millions George Soros personally hand-delivers to every leftist in order to get them to pretend they do not worship Donald Trump and revere his incredible accomplishments, political, financial and sexual.
That said, there are some elements of the public grieving process that cheese me off. I recently wrote of my irritation with “Not a fan” as annoyingly common online non-commentary on the death and life of a beloved icon and David Leavitt’s sociopathic need to try to score points on Anthony Bourdain in the immediate aftermath of his death.
Leavitt and the “not a fan” folks wrongly feel the need to express their opinion about a celebrity in the immediate aftermath of their passing despite either despising them deeply for ugly personal reasons (in the case of Leavitt) or simply not enjoying their work. There’s another subsection of the grieving world that pisses me off not by being negative or apathetic but rather by being reverential and fawning in the most formulaic, saccharine, insincere manner imaginable.
I’m speaking of course about the plague of memorial cartoons, those saccharine tributes to the famous and recently departed that fill our vanishing editorial pages with empty homages to dead celebrities.
These tributes tend to follow the same nauseating, insulting formula: take the dead person, give them a shirt with their name on it or some other accessory clumsily referencing the formerly living celebrity’s life and career. Then place them at the gates of White Christian Heaven, surrounded by clouds and angels and old white men with long white beards, most notably Saint Peter, who, with tears of both joy and sadness in his eyes, says something admiring referencing what the late celebrity is best known for.
It goes without saying that the heaven that all of these people are going to is White Christian Heaven. Was the dead celebrity famously a fiercely non-sentimental atheist like Anthony Bourdain? Too bad. We’ve got a one way ticket to heaven for him here and these maudlin memorials do not like to let inconvenient facts get in the way. That’s why Muhammad Ali is slotted for a place in White Christian Heaven as well despite being somewhat noticeably not white, or Christian.
At their worse these tone-deaf and cloying abominations end up not only accidentally insulting the people they’re obsequiously trying to flatter but also entire demographics. That’s the case with a notorious cartoon that appeared after Christoper Reeve’s death where a no longer disabled Christopher Reeve confidently tells Saint Peter, who is pointing at a nearby wheelchair he can use, “No thanks, I’d prefer to walk.”
It’s obnoxiously maudlin but it’s also a spit in the eye to the entire disabled community by annoyingly insisting that the first and best advantage of being in eternal paradise is not being a part of that world anymore.
Sometimes these tributes try to economize by combining embarrassingly clumsy homages to multiple dead celebrities at a time. Because Bourdain and Kate Spade committed suicide around the same time they’ve been united forever in the public memory and the public imagination, but also in more than one editorial cartoon depicting these continental pop icons consoling each other in heaven.
These tributes come from an honorable, if perfunctory place of wanting to honor famous people whose lives and work mattered to society in ways that can be understood by the ornery sixty-three year olds who are the only people reading the editorial page at this point. But the one-size-fits schmaltziness of these leaden homages has the opposite effect. Instead of honoring the dead, these cartoons insult them by ignoring their complexities and darkness and turning everyone into the same fawned-upon exemplar of goodness.
Granted, I do not envy political cartoonist tasked with the impossible job of writing a memorial cartoon that isn’t mawkish, formulaic or offensive, so maybe it’s time to retire the entire field, to put it out of its misery, so to speak, to such an extent that no one will be around to write a mawkish memorial cartoon for the sad, sloppy, embarrassing and seemingly deathless bad memorial cartoon.
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