It probably goes without saying that Wisconsin is football country, and eight days ago I was tempted to tweet a GIF of that one scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope after I saw the score of the NFC championship game and realized that the Packers weren’t going to the Super Bowl. The campus I teach on is too small to even think of fielding a football team, though (and I don’t know where we’d even put a football field here), so basketball is kind of the main sport around these parts. It probably helps that we get a sizable number of students from Milwaukee, where the recent successes of the Bucks have the whole state buzzing. Even though my own personal interest in sports has waned considerably over the past few years, I still try to keep tabs on what’s going on, especially in this state, so I can chit-chat with my students before class and help them ease into the work we’ll do later, something that’s even more important during this first week of a new semester.
I didn’t go looking for sports news this past Saturday, but I still saw a story about how Lebron James had just passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The next afternoon, when I got a notification on my phone saying that Kobe Bryant had died, my initial reaction was that the story must have been a misprint, and that Kobe’s name accidentally got stuck into another story just because it had resurfaced due to Lebron passing him in total career points scored. It didn’t take me long to confirm the story from other places online, though, and I quickly realized just how sideswiped I felt by seeing those two news pieces about Bryant in rapid succession.
There’s a time and a place to discuss Kobe Bryant the basketball player and Kobe Bryant the person, but this isn’t it. As someone who teaches a lot of students who play and love basketball, I just knew that I was going to have to deal with a lot of emotions on campus when I walked over there this morning to teach my first classes of spring semester. Regardless of whether or not those students were fans of Lebron and/or the Los Angeles Lakers, I knew that they would have at least a great deal of respect for him based on what he accomplished in the NBA, and the fact that someone who was so successful in such a highly visible career could perish so suddenly would cause them to wonder who else could befall such a fate, whether other NBA players or friends or family members or even themselves.
I believe that I handled things with my students as well as I could, but I struggled with the fact that I didn’t really have a good frame of reference for an athlete, or even other kind of celebrity, who I “grew up with” in the way my students grew up with Bryant, who passed away when I was eighteen years old. Kurt Cobain’s suicide hurt me deeply, but I hadn’t been listening to Nirvana for three years when it happened. The closest corollary I could come up with in my own life was the whole O.J. Simpson thing, but I only knew Simpson as an NBC commentator and actor, and wasn’t aware of him when he was still playing. Even that isn’t a good analogy for what young adults who grew up watching Kobe Bryant are going through now, since Simpson didn’t die.
Several days ago, when Planters announced that they were “killing off” the Mr. Peanut character, I thought that I might have something there for a blog topic, since this is such a naked publicity stunt that I might have argued was in bad taste. I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to the Mr. Peanut character (I don’t know if he was even in any of the television commercials I watched growing up), but having to deal with the theme of death in media when it serves no larger purpose than to just turn people’s heads just strikes me as lazy. They could have done hundreds of different things with the Mr. Peanut characters (such as explore this trope of old food mascots imploring you to eat them, and by extension their friends and family), but instead they went with something easy that would get them trending on Twitter for a day instead of a more substantial ad campaign.
When the news that Nancy Drew would be killed off in a coming publication hit a day or two later, writing about the cheapness of character death as a publicity stunt seemed like an even better idea, but I still hesitated. It’s too easy to get lambasted as being “too sensitive” by writing about things like that, and I was worried that people would think I was making a big deal about something as trivial as the deaths of a couple of fictional characters. As tends to happen when those deaths are done poorly, though, real life stepped in to remind everyone that even when death is successfully framed as a comedy device, it still needs to be treated carefully, which the deaths of Mr. Peanut and Nancy Drew certainly didn’t seem to be.
As we’re learning now, Planters has the ability to effectively undo the death of Mr. Peanut, and the people behind modern media that includes Nancy Drew can stick her death in an alternate timeline that will leave her alive in all the other books they plan on selling with her in them. We have neither of those luxuries with Kobe and Gigi Bryant, and the seven other people who died in that helicopter crash last Sunday. I wish I could believe that this tragedy will be an object lesson in the necessity to treat death as a serious subject (even within the confines of comedy), but the way things have been going lately, I expect that I’ll start seeing horrible “jokes” about the helicopter crash in the next few days, even though I go out of my way to avoid the dank corners of the Internet where that kind of “comedy” lives. Maybe if the people responsible for mass media would do a better job of leading by example on this front, we’d at least see less of that kind of tasteless pablum.