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Pop Culture

The Aftermath of Celebrity Suicide Lingers

Anthony Bourdain blew into our collective consciousness like a cranky, foul-mouthed, uncomfortably insightful hurricane: from his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential, which exposed the grimy underside of even the fanciest restaurants’ kitchen counters, to his beloved travel shows, where he never hesitated to turn that incisiveness on his own impact as a visitor, he didn’t shy away from harsh truths.

His partner, Asia Argento, has a similar antagonistic streak: she’s brash, fond of flailing her middle fingers and last year she became one of the most visible members of the #MeToo movement when she publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her in 1997. Though most commended Argento for her bravery, the response from some corners of the internet wasn’t pretty. The opening lines of her essay on the subject sum it up in just four words: “Whore. Liar. Traitor. Opportunist.” But she never shrank back, no matter who tried to discredit her. It is Bourdain’s unwavering support of Argento and the #MeToo movement as a whole, including those who took down his friends and peers in the restaurant world, that makes some fans’ reactions to his tragic death all the more astounding. Within minutes of the news of Bourdain’s death by suicide, people had flooded Argento’s social media channels to blame her for his passing. Much of their ire seemed to focus on a photo she had posted several days prior, in which she walked hand-in-hand with a male friend. “Who is this guy and why do you have this photo of you holding hands?” one commenter said. “You are with Anthony Bourdain everyday before his suicide and knew he was depressed why would you post this? You are a selfish attention seeking bitch.”

Scroll through Argento’s Twitter mentions now and you find a surreal split between messages of support and accusations of cheating, callousness and an almost supernatural degree of control over Bourdain and his mental state. For writer and psychologist William Todd Schultz, who has examined this phenomenon in the past, the response is unsurprising. “It’s taboo to be angry when someone kills themselves, but at the same time, a lot of people, fans and friends, are angry, and so the anger has to go somewhere,” Schultz explains. “It can’t attach to the lost person. The lost person must be held blameless at all costs. So what people do is locate other targets. And if there is a woman even remotely involved, a basic misogyny erupts, and all the blame gets directed at this imaginary evil harpy.”
It’s taboo to be angry when someone kills themselves, but at the same time, a lot of people, fans and friends, are angry, and so the anger has to go somewhere. It can’t attach to the lost person. The lost person must be held blameless at all costs.
If this is all sounding familiar, it should. It’s all part of what Schultz refers to as “the Courtney Love Phenomenon.” Love, of course, was married to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain when he also died by suicide in 1994. Since then, she has been dogged by rumors that she is responsible for his death, the most upsetting of which is that she had him killed and staged the scene to look like a suicide. This theory, so pervasive that it was the core of the 2015 documentary Soaked In Bleach ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary, including Cobain’s well-documented depression and previous suicidal ideations, in order to allow fans to maintain a pristine image of their hero. 

When Heath Ledger overdosed in 2008, he was in the midst of a custody battle with actress Michelle Williams. At the time, Williams was said to be seeking sole custody of their young daughter, Matilda, due to Ledger’s alleged drug use. Headlines and comment sections across the internet were merciless in their judgment of Williams’s supposed decision. “Well she got sole custody now. Wish granted!” reads a typical response. Like Bourdain and Cobain, it seems that neither Ledger nor his addiction controlled his fate: a spiteful woman did.

These men are far from the only examples. Before the internet, it was people claiming that Nancy Spungen wanted Sid Vicious to kill her, thereby exonerating him from blame for her murder. There are entire blogs devoted to the theory that Elliott Smith, another openly depressed individual with previous suicide attempts, was in fact murdered by, of course, his girlfriend. As Schultz points out, no one has publicly blamed Kate Spade’s husband, from whom she was separated, for her death. In this version of the world, women are responsible for not only their own actions, but everyone else’s as well.

Interestingly, the hatred spewed at these women is not just coming from men. It is fairly common for women to express their own internalized misogyny in these situations, Schultz explains: It’s as if female fans especially are saying, “Asia, you did not save him from himself.” As if that were her job (it’s not). They’re saying, without directly saying it, “I would have loved him better, I would have been there, I would have erased his demons, I would have played the proper female role.” And I think it’s even worse for people like Courtney Love and Asia, because they are unapologetically contrarian, sexy, unconventional badasses. They are perceived all too often as “bitches.” So it’s a short step to say “the bitch basically murdered him.”

In the last few days, Rose McGowan, a friend of Argento’s and no stranger to sexist slings and arrows, has called out Bourdain’s most misogynistic fans in a letter reading in part, “Do NOT do the sexist thing and burn a woman on the pyre of misplaced blame. Anthony’s internal war was his war, but now she’s been left on the battlefield to take the bullets. It is in no way fair or acceptable to blame her or anyone else, not even Anthony.”

Unfortunate though it is, statistics tell us that Bourdain will not be the last well-known man we lose in such a painful way, so the question becomes: how do we combat the misogyny that manifests in these men’s wakes? The response must be two-pronged, because, as Schultz notes, it’s about both veiled sexism and suicide. “Better understanding of suicide would help,” he says. “Knowing the risk factors, knowing that sometimes there is no cause except wanting all THIS to stop. No one is to blame.” A more nuanced understanding of suicide and addiction, along with continuing the work done by movements like #MeToo and calling out sexism and misogyny in everyday situations, could help to prevent the next woman from being unfairly targeted.

Bourdain’s inimitable way with words makes it impossible to know exactly what he would have said to those who would hijack his death in a way so antithetical to everything he believed. But it’s not hard to guess which finger he’d be holding up while he said it. 

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