Watching Farrah's public suffering

All the attention surrounding 1970s icon's terminal illness shows how little we acknowledge death as a natural part of life.

Published May 15, 2009 6:31PM (EDT)

With all due respect to Farrah Fawcett and her family, the amount of attention surrounding her ongoing (and, sadly, unsuccessful) battle with anal cancer -- chronicled in the documentary "Farrah's Story," which airs tonight -- is a mite puzzling. Sure, there are lots of hooks: A producer of the documentary is suing Fawcett's partner Ryan O'Neal and best friend Alana Stewart for interfering with his creative control; O'Neal is saying he wants to marry Fawcett, after nearly 30 years of unwedded bliss; the type of cancer Fawcett suffers from is rare, and this is an opportunity to raise awareness. But still, close to 2,000 news articles in the last few days, about a celebrity who's mostly been out of circulation since the '80s? What do we as a culture find so compelling about the very end of her life, when we haven't been too fussed over the last 20 years of it?

The documentary "strikes me as unique within the cultural landscape -- a video of a celebrity on their deathbed," a friend wrote to me this morning. The grammar purist in me must reject the label "unique," in light of British reality TV star Jade Goody's recent and very public death from cervical cancer. But I'll grant that it's extremely rare, and this is the first time (as far as I know) it's happening in the States. A video of anyone on her deathbed is rare here, where dying and grieving are constructed as anomalous events best kept private, rather than natural parts of every human life. To millions of people -- doctors, nurses, orderlies, hospice volunteers, those who have survived cancer or cared for dying loved ones -- "Farrah's Story" is likely to be quite familiar, the images of her cancer- and chemo-weakened body wholly unsurprising. But still, much of the documentary's draw rests on shock value. A famous woman is dying, and we're allowed to watch. In a culture obsessed with the comforting myth that health and longevity are largely within an individual's control, a culture that pretends the grieving process should run its full course in the three days you get off work for a funeral, talking openly about death and dying is simply not done very often.

But it goes beyond that. This isn't just any celebrity allowing us a glimpse into the end of her life. This is one of the twentieth century's most celebrated icons of beauty, a trait we associate strongly with youth and good health. At 62, the favorite pin-up girl of the '70s no longer has either -- yet she isn't following the script that says women must keep the deterioration of their societally approved looks and vitality under wraps. She isn't hiding away until the obituaries run alongside her notorious poster image, erasing the intervening decades and the brutal reality of her death. She's letting us see who she is now -- what 62 looks like, what terminal cancer looks like, what time and illness can do to idealized beauties just as easily as they do it to anyone else. If anyone doubts how much of a factor that is in the hoopla surrounding "Farrah's Story," consider that the L.A. Times blog The Dish Rag ran a post with the headline, "Farrah Fawcett shaved her famous hair during chemotherapy." As though we might have reasonably expected a different outcome. As though the chemo itself should have recognized that hair as a national treasure and spared it. It's the ultimate "Stars -- they're just like us!"

Fawcett's representatives say they're "hoping for the miracle," and that "Farrah's Story" is a testament to Fawcett's strength and courage, an inspiration to those fighting cancer. But stories like that on TV are, frankly, a dime a dozen. What makes this one so compelling is that it tells a different, starker tale: Death comes for us all, even the Beautiful People. I admire Fawcett's bravery not just for battling cancer for three years, but for refusing to fade away quietly and allow those iconic 30-year-old photos to be our most indelible memories of her. 

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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