Celebrity deaths in 2016: Who actually were they?

Jan. 20, 2017, 8:43 a.m.

While swiping through Facebook photos from my dorm’s trip to Lake Tahoe this past weekend, one post caught my eye: Betty White turned 95 today. I smiled upon reading birthday wishes from fans and celebrities, realizing just how much the world loves this feisty, elderly woman. Some people thanked her for decades of laughter, whereas others simply congratulated her for surviving 2016.

The past year has been considered by many to be one of the worst for celebrity deaths. Just over one year ago, legendary singer/songwriter David Bowie died of cancer. Alan Rickman, known widely for his portrayal of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, passed only a month later. Prince, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were among dozens of other public figures who stunned fans in the wake of their deaths.

After scrolling through White’s birthday posts, I began to think about the reason numerous generations know her so well. Two nights ago, I introduced my love of White to my friend, who had never seen “The Proposal.” White plays the eccentric grandmother of Ryan Reynolds’ character, who isn’t afraid to share her dislike for Sandra Bullock, Reynolds’ onscreen fiancée.

If you take some time to scan White’s Wikipedia page, her long list of successful roles really stands out. My grandparents probably know White for her ’50s sitcom “Life with Elizabeth,” while my parents remember her from “The Golden Girls” in the late ’80s. The span of her acting career must be the reason why both millennials and baby boomers recognize her voice, right?

I still wondered why I didn’t know the majority of the celebrities who passed in 2016. Every time a sudden death made headlines, I fell into the same routine: Ask my parents if they knew the person, Google the name, read through the person’s accomplishments and impacts, then sit alone in sadness. Why hadn’t I watched “The Brady Bunch” when Florence Henderson was still alive? Why hadn’t my friends and I decided to do a Garry Marshall movie marathon one night? I’m aware of my lack of knowledge of pop culture, but I should’ve acquainted myself with their work long before their deaths.

Curious to see if a knowledge gap existed between millennials and other generations, I set up two surveys and posted them to the Stanford Class of 2020 Facebook group and my mom’s personal Facebook account. Both surveys consisted of the same questions, but the latter one additionally asked for the age group of the participant. A total of 98 people responded to the surveys, each survey with 49 replies exactly. The majority of surveyed Stanford freshmen and adults older than 31 were aware of the great number of celebrity deaths over the past year, but how each group heard the news differed slightly. Thirty-nine of 49 freshmen claimed social media as the source. Thirty-two of 49 adults also learned of the deaths via social media, but the rest heard from news stations or in person.

Then, I presented a list of 15 names of celebrities who passed away in 2016. While some were more famous than others, all of the people were incredibly accomplished and should be known. I asked participants to check off the names of people they recognized or had any knowledge of, without looking them up on the Internet. The comparison is actually quite astounding. Eleven of 15 names were recognized by at least half of participants aged greater than 31. In contrast, only half of freshmen who took my survey knew five of 15 names. The most well-known celebrities in both surveys were David Bowie, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Harper Lee and Gene Wilder. John Glenn and Garry Marshall were mainly recognized by adults. Likewise, only two participants knew Noel Neill, the original Lois Lane.

The last two questions I presented were similarly worded: Were you (or someone you know) saddened or affected by any of the deaths in 2016? If so, which ones? Some participants chose to skip these questions, but for those who answered, their responses seemed to fall into a few categories. A number of people were not affected by the deaths at all. Some were slightly saddened, but not particularly affected. As one participant stated, “The deaths that affect me are close friends and family. Sure, I felt sorry for the loss of each but not saddened.”

For the people saddened or affected in both surveys, they mentioned the same names over and over: Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee and Prince. John Glenn, Elie Wiesel, Gene Wilder and George Michael were also repeated a few times. All of these public figures were introduced to new generations, even when they stopped acting or creating.

As another participant noted, perfectly, “It’s always sad to lose someone, especially if they were part of your personal history. Florence Henderson and Debbie Reynolds created wonderful memories during my childhood. John Glenn was a hero. David Bowie’s music evokes wonderful memories of a particular time in my life.”

I’m sure when Betty White passes away, I’ll be upset, but this won’t stop me from watching “The Proposal” a few times a month. Just like I was introduced to “Star Wars” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as a kid, I wish I had known George Michael’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or the story of John Glenn’s first orbit around the Earth. Although it’s never too late to culturally educate ourselves, I hope that we keep these names and future names alive in households and lessen this generation gap.


Contact Emily Schmidt at [email protected].

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