Is it Right to Mourn TV Stars Who Did Bad Things?

In the wake of actor Mark Salling's suicide, Charlotte Boulton examines the morality of mourning him whilst acknowledging his criminal past.

Charlotte Boulton
19th February 2018
Image Credit: marcore! (Wikimedia Commons)

As television watchers, whether we are avid fans or more of a casual viewer, sometimes we have to make tough decisions about supporting those we see on screen. If a celebrity is revealed to be somehow undesirable it can cause many fans to turn off the screens and their support. However, when death becomes part of the story of a disgraced star, it becomes more complicated.

Mark Salling, who played Puck on Glee for five seasons, recently died by suicide. Without any of the surrounding context, it feels natural for fans to mourn the death of an actor they likely grew up loving. However, a moral dilemma is present due to the discovery in 2015 of Salling’s child pornography collection. Police were informed by one of Salling’s ex-girlfriends, and he was charged with receiving and possessing child pornography. He pleaded guilty in September 2017 to the charges, and was registered as a sex offender and instructed to enter a treatment program. Salling’s sentencing date was scheduled for March 2018, where he faced between four and seven years of prison time. He had also been ordered to provide £35,000 ($50,000) of compensation to each of the victims who had been featured in the material.

Personally, I had been a huge fan of Glee when I was growing up. It was so important to me understanding my sexuality, and was my favourite show in my early teens. Discovering that Salling had been charged with this disgusted and shocked me. It seemed impossible that an actor I knew of and had enjoyed in Glee was capable of these actions. In a way, he died in my mind when I unfollowed him on social media and decided I didn’t want to know anything further. I couldn’t support someone who had done what he did, and that was that.

It feels fair to grieve for his character and what that may have meant to you growing up

The death of Salling raises many questions of what is the right thing to think, feel and say in these circumstances. Many people on social media expressed joy over Salling’s death, justifying that his terrible actions meant he deserved it. Others saw it as justice for his victims. I would argue that surely a better form of justice would have come from serving his time, and compensating the victims and their families. With talks of his court case being dismissed, and his legally required payout becoming irrelevant, the situation is further complicated.

Perhaps the correct response is somewhere in the middle of joy and grief. It feels fair to express support for his loved ones, who are dealing with the loss of someone close to them. Regardless of his actions, his family will still be grieving in their own ways. It feels fair to express anger over the potential legal outcomes of the death, and the unfairness of the victims being forgotten. And it feels fair to grieve for his character and what that may have meant to you growing up. But perhaps grieving who Salling was as a person just isn’t right. For some, what he did strips him of all right to any grief in any form. This is a tough moral question I’m not sure I can truly answer.

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