When my friend Kenesha texted me on Saturday — “wait is paul walker dead?!” — I had to Google his name. I soon learned I was alone in my confusion. Over the course of the next two days, nearly every heterosexual woman in my life mentioned the death of the Fast and the Furious actor. They were low-level distraught, as if they’d lost a distant cousin or ex-boyfriend from way back, but their sadness was palpable. At brunch on Sunday, my friend Nikki gasped and shushed me when I said in a normal speaking voice, “I don’t care about Paul Walker.” My Facebook feed was flooded with Paul Walker R.I.P. posts, frowny faces peppering the comments beneath.
Were my friends all secret fans of his plotless action movie franchise? “No,” Kenesha said to me, “but I loved him in The Skulls.” She was only half-joking. And that’s when I understood that women’s grief over Paul Walker, much like the mourning of Heath Ledger, is really about losing some part of our teenage selves. I failed to join the mournful chorus for Paul Walker because I’d never crushed on him during high school. He wasn’t my type. I was a nerdy, sarcastic girl who actively chose not to develop crushes on fresh-faced, handsome male celebrities who resembled my real-life tormentors. When Heath Ledger died in 2008 and I confessed I didn’t care, friend after friend replied, “Whaaaat?! What about 10 Things I Hate About Youuuu?” I explained that didn’t see that movie until after college, right around the time Brokeback Mountain came out. Heath was not active in my early sexual imagination.
Experts say that we mourn celebrities the way we mourn family members because we’ve grown up with these people. They are in our homes and part of our conversations. “When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal — not because we knew the celebrity, but because they were with us as we grew up and as we had our own special moments,” Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, told U.S. News & World Report. In other words, they’re in emotional proximity to us even if we’ve never met them.
The celebrity objects of our teenage affection were safe vessels for sexual desire at a time when most boys walking the halls of our high schools didn’t quite live up to our ideals. Our celebrity crushes’ movies or music or TV shows are always available to us, so our relationships seemed ever-deepening. We’d have recognized his nose-crinkly smile anywhere; we knew the sound of his voice so well that we could replay it in our minds when we zoned out in class. On some level, the feelings were real. And years after abandoning the obsessive fantasy for more complicated relationships with real humans, some deep-down part of us is still in love with the ideal.
Even those of us who were culturally snobby teens can relate. I posted something sentimental about Lou Reed’s death in October because I spent my teen years mainlining the Velvet Underground. There are dozens of artists whose politics I admire more, whose music has touched me more deeply — but I was obsessed with Lou Reed during my most obsessive years. And it wasn’t even a sexual thing. Can you imagine the My So-Called Life generation’s reaction when Jared Leto dies — even if it’s from natural causes at age 102? Or, god forbid, if anything should ever happen to Ryan Gosling? Let’s not even talk about it.