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Why Gen-Xers mourn their idols more than any other generation

29 Dec



We lost so many important people in 2016. Why was that particularly hard on my generation?

I feel like I’ve spent much of the last  year in mourning — not for family or friends but for people I’ve never even met. For many people that sounds like someone being overly dramatic but, for anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, they will tell you that it’s not. Every expression of grief is heartfelt and genuine.

Yesterday I woke up to the news that Carrie Fisher (beloved author and actress best known for playing Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars film franchise)  passed away at the age of 60. The news came barely 24 hours after the untimely death of another icon, pop singer George Michael, and after what feels like an endless list of obituaries of personalities from my youth: Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Garry Shandling and Gene Wilder. (In addition to other great influences like Harper Lee and John Glenn.)

Why do we feel for the loss of celebrities like we would a “real” person? I like to believe it’s because my generation (aka Gen-X: born from 1965 to 1984) is the first truly “multi-media” generation: the first to be exposed to cable & satellite television, home video recorders and the first early adopters of the internet. We didn’t just read about these people through static images and journalistic intermediaries. We brought them into our living rooms, our bedrooms, our desktop and laptop computers. Ours was the first generation that consumed their media whenever we wanted, as often as we wanted. We spent literally thousands of hours listening to their voices, reading their faces and even mimicking their best lines and moves.

As writer Stereo Williams describes it: “We were the first generation of kids to grow up with VCRs and Blockbuster video and cable TV as mainstays of our culture. We were able to watch our favorite movies at home whenever we wanted, we could tape our favorite TV shows, and were constantly bombarded with syndicated gems. (Requiem for an ’80s Kid: We’ve Lost Our Prince and Now Our Princess)

1101830718_400I may not have had cable television growing up in Manila in the 1970s and 80s but we could tap into the US Armed Forces’ Far East Network (FEN) UHF television signal, giving us a steady supply of American news, sit-coms and late-night television. I rented pirate VHS tapes recorded live off MTV in the US. When I close my eyes while listening to 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” I can tell you exactly who is singing and when. That’s also how I learned Prince and David Bowie were the coolest cats on the planet. Throughout high school, I had Bowie’s TIME magazine cover pinned to my closet. My copy of the 12-inch single of “Purple Rain” (in purple) is the most prized possession in my record collection.

But back to Carrie Fisher. My brothers and I had a copy of both Star Wars and Empire on VHS. I must have seen each film at least 200 times. (And that was just in the 80s.) Tell me any line from any of the movies in the original trilogy and I can tell you the line that comes immediately after. I played with my Star Wars action figures, mixing them with LEGO and Playmobil to create my own private “expanded universe” throughout my childhood (and even, I have to admit, long after it was considered cool to still play with toys).

Fisher is, of course, part of the original Star Wars triumvirate that includes Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. In 2016, all three reassembled onstage at Comic Con to promote Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

It was the first time I had seen all three onscreen for the first time in decades, each one having visibly aged since the original movie in 1977.  But as I watched with delight the Youtube clip on my living room TV, I noticed tears involuntarily streaming down my face.  I couldn’t fully explain why. I still can’t. I was just so happy to see all three of them together again.

So if you have a sibling, partner or work colleague railing at the tragic deaths of 2016, have a little sympathy. It isn’t just another random celebrity or pop star we lost but a piece of our childhood.

A version of this article was published in Esquire