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Can Popular Culture Help Us Cope With Death?

Let's entertain ideas about death and dying.

Key points

  • We can be obsessed with death, which is reflected in popular culture.
  • Entertainment helps us engage with the serious existential question of death.
  • These existential questions about life include mortality and the afterlife.
From Barbie (2023)/Warner Bros. Pictures/Fair Use
Source: From Barbie (2023)/Warner Bros. Pictures/Fair Use

"Do you guys ever think about dying?"

This question, the key question in the best picture-nominated and extremely popular film Barbie (as well as, let's face it, the key question in every major religion out there), is the provocation of the moment. The question, which includes, of course, considerations of one's own mortality, others dying, living with grief, and the existentially compelling issue of what happens after we die, seems to be either explicitly or implicitly baked into forms of entertainment that do more than merely entertain.

Evidence for thinking about death, if not downright obsessing about it, can be found in numerous year-end summaries that accompany and ritualize the passage of one year into the next. The Guardian just published an overview of pop music this year, and except for the triumphs of Taylor Swift, the article mainly highlighted what the writer refers to as an "aching sense of loss" in so much music this year. It is an undeniably morbid, often sorrowful, grief-filled, and highly creative musical output of such artists as Sufjan Stevens and Everything But the Girl.

The touchstone commemorations of entertainers and other famous people who have died over the course of the year are also familiar reminders in our lives to remember death.

Other obvious mortal fixations that range from the most painstakingly intimate portraits of loss to collective fixations on the end of the world can be found across cultural productions beyond music, including film, streaming television, memoirs, fictional literature, pop psychology, podcasts, and on and on and on. Rather than denying the reality of death, Americans are, on the contrary, utterly fixated on it.

But as much as there are unique and peculiar characteristics of the United State's fascination with death, it is important to remember that, in fact, it has always been this way in America. And indeed, the prominent place of "thinking about death" is a central feature of human societies throughout history. As many anthropologists and historians know quite well, death is a key driver, if not inspiration, in human cultural production throughout history, from rock art to Shakespeare, healing and medicine to imperial political ideologies.

I tried to demonstrate this point in a post I wrote a while ago called The Disney Way of Death, which examined the early animated output of Walt Disney in early twentieth-century America. Talk about death-obsessed. From an early and enduringly popular short, The Skeleton Dance, with cats and skeletons dancing and fighting in a haunted graveyard, to the rather bizarre and frightening final chapter of Disney's Fantasia, to, of course, the iconic hunter murder of Bambi's mother, these films wallow in death, the fear of death, the threat of death, and the transcendence of death.

Walt Disney, Emily Dickinson, Robert Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan, Black Elk, Toni Morrison, and now Barbie—the list of death-haunted and death-inspired artists and fixtures in popular culture is endless, with an impact that is immeasurable. I would go even further and say this impact on people's consciousnesses, attitudes, and beliefs has become more profound than what religious leaders say and what religious institutions teach us about human mortality.

Film, music, television, literature, poetry, and other avenues for creative expression that are consumed by communities for entertainment show a pervasive engagement with thoughts of dying and death. Yet this is not simply a matter of vapid, senseless escapism. Instead, entertainment leaves audiences entertained with thoughts of serious existential importance.

The narrative of the Barbie movie is initiated by the intrusion of death into everyday life, like many Disney movies and other sacred stories and popular mythologies. In myths and stories from cultures around the world and throughout time, the presence of death raises questions about what makes us human, how we best live in the short time we have, why we age, and where we go, if anywhere, after death.

The triumph of the new Barbie movie, similar in some ways to the climax in Disney's Pinocchio, emerges when the lifelessness of plastic, or wood, is magically replaced with this mortal coil. This transformation is depicted as preposterous, uplifting, and revelatory all at once.

Just like in real life, death is the central element that makes the story even possible, which is fitting since death is the fundamental and inescapable condition for life and, without question, its central mystery.

So, given these rather morose and deflating end-of-the-year reflections, where does that leave us? Speaking for myself, I'd say I'm just dying to dance.


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