When Kate Spade, famous designer and fashion mogul, was found dead in her New York apartment, the world was horrified. Celebrities and the public alike were haunted by chilling images of the red scarf Spade used to hang herself. News reporters and tabloid writers thrived off this dramatic public reaction and flooded the internet, TV and newspapers with written reactions of their own. Though these writers projected a pretense of sadness, their first objective was obviously to promote a juicy story, not to express grief for a woman who lost a battle against her own mental illness. And what did the readers do? They ate it up, of course! It was another tragic romance. She was so young, so successful. The red scarf: what a devastating, poetic symbol of loss. The media didn’t deliver a sad account of a mentally ill woman’s suicide, they gave us a Shakespearean tragedy.
Celebrity deaths, suicides in particular, have been romanticized for centuries, from Vincent Van Gogh to Kurt Cobain. The way the media portrays these high-profile suicides has a direct impact on the way the public views mental illness and self slaughter. People frequently romanticize the hardships of creative people, claiming the artists’ tortured minds inspired their exceptional work, as though their sadness was necessary for their creative success. Suicide itself is discussed in the same twisted way, as though it is a form of artistic expression. If it is painted as a romantic, graceful ending, that is how it will be perceived. When impressionable individuals, many of whom already struggle with suicidal thoughts, see these stories as beautiful, courageous deaths, suicide seems logical. We often observe spikes in suicides after celebrities take their own lives, especially in people of the same age and gender as the deceased individual. In fact, statistics support that the more media covers the suicide, the more copycat deaths result (Hecht).
With news of Spade’s death beginning to fade from the headlines, media has begun to focus its attention on a more sinister individual. “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” walks viewers through the life of notorious serial killer, rapist, and kidnapper, Ted Bundy. As this documentary series gained notoriety, the movie trailer for “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” also about Ted Bundy, was released. The public response to these two films was not disgust at Bundy’s actions or sympathy for the atrocities his victims endured. Instead, social media exploded with thousands of tweets, posts and articles, all with the same disturbing message: “Ted Bundy is hot!” It cannot be denied that this social media craze may be largely affected by casting Zac Efron, a Hollywood heartthrob, as Bundy. Even so, these concerning comments reveal ignorance and disrespect. Netflix issued a statement begging viewers to stop obsessing over the murderer’s attractiveness, but this plea has had little effect on sensationalizing journalists, magazines, and Twitter users (Kotzum). They continue to emphasize Bundy’s alleged “good looks,” an aspect of the story that could be seen as romantic and mysterious, while simultaneously diminishing the scope of his alarming crimes against humanity.
We’ve always loved a good outlaw tale. Think of Bonnie and Clyde, probably the most famous criminal duo of all time. Their shocking heists and dangerous love affair are legendary, but we never hear of the innocent victims slaughtered on the couple’s “romantic” crime spree: namely law enforcement officers—people with lives and families. But who cares, right? It’s all part of the story, adding to the adventure.
The problem is that these aren’t just stories. Ted Bundy, Kate Spade, even Bonnie and Clyde were not made-up characters. We read about, watch, and scroll through “‘stories” every day, soaking up scandal after scandal, dazzled by drama and darkness and death. We tell ourselves that we know the difference between reality and fantasy: Violent video games don’t make us violent. Dark entertainment doesn't depress us. We can differentiate between murdering rapists and “hot” young men. But is that true?
Media blurs the line between factual accounts and fictitious entertainment, while readers and viewers forget to acknowledge that the line exists at all. If we truly recognized the horrific nature of these events, we would never see them as a source of entertainment. Do you think Kate Spade’s daughter found her mother’s death poetic? Did friends and family members of Bundy’s victims think he was “hot?” We need to consciously remind the media, as well as ourselves, that the individuals in these stories as real people, whether victims, perpetrators, or something in between.
Mental illness is not romantic. Rapists are not charming. Murder is not a joke.
Hecht, Jennifer M. “How the Media Covers Celebrity Suicides Can Have Life-or-Death
Consequences.” Vox.com, 8 June 2018, www.vox.com/first-person/2018/5/5/17319632/anthony-bourdain-kate-spade-
Kotzum, Sheri. “Time to Stop Romanticizing Criminals.” Northwest Florida Daily News, Northwest Florida Daily News, 4 Feb. 2019,