Jade Goody: As Real as Reality Television Gets

Jade Goody is dying.

We all know that.

She has weeks to live, her cervical cancer having spread aggressively to her stomach, liver and bowl. She will live out her last days in front of the camera. She will stop just short of letting the world watch her draw her final breath.

We all know that. We’re all watching it.

She’s doing it for her sons, so that they can have the opportunities she never had, coming as she did, from a broken, confused household, surviving, as she did, a broken, confused childhood.

We all know that. That’s the justification.

The New York Times, Time Magazine, every British newspaper in print, the Sydney Morning Herald – every publication, low, high or middle brow, is weighing in on an unprecedented occurrence. A woman who made a fortune from being on television is going to die on television and it is her choice for it to be that way.

Her choice.  Every step of this dastardly, premature death sentence, has been ladled out and served up for the public. Her diagnosis unfolded on TV in a series of televised operations and revelations, her wedding was broadcast on cable television, the photo rights sold to OK Magazine and every single day that Jade Goody leaves her house, bald and in a wheelchair, we see it. We’ve seen her pick up her wedding dress (donated by Al Fayed of Harrods) we’ve seen him pick out his wedding suit, and now we’re rejoicing because her convicted fiancé, who usually has to be home with his Mum by 7pm (following a stint in prison for assault) has been allowed to spend the wedding night with Jade. To put it simply, the rights to the end of her life have effectively been sold to a selection of media outlets that will benefit from her deteriorating health and ultimate demise. A choice she made.

Is this a new concept? Blatant manipulation of the media for personal gain. No. But, suddenly, we’re uncomfortable. News outlets across the world aren’t quite sure how to handle it. As consumers of pop culture and all its manipulated seediness, we’re oscillating between outrage, pity and admiration, all directed at Goody herself. How dare she exploit her own death? Well, celebrities and public figures exploit their sexuality, their children, their health, all the time. Massive corporations exploit child-stars then wash their hands when the Britneys and Mileys of the world become legal and suddenly not so malleable. And it’s all done for the same reason – to make money. So if we willingly eat up the relationship between the media and public figures, defined as it is by mutual exploitation and manipulation, everyday – and we do, we really do – why don’t we quite know what to do with ourselves now that Jade Goody has put her hand up and said, in as many words, watch me die, pay me for it, and pray that my death promotes awareness and ensures my children’s future is safe.

It seems that the fourth wall has been broken and it’s making us strangely uncertain.  We’ve always treated reality TV like its own cheap brand of traditional narrative storytelling.  The producers have given us heroes to root for, villains to boo, the occasional romance, the dramatic tension, the bittersweet finale.  They are staples of the genre.  So here we are struggling for a villain and hoping for a season ending resolution that we’ll actually like.  Unfortunately we have only been guaranteed one outcome, Jade Goody will die.  What’s worse, she’s the one reminding us of this fact.

The discomfort of everyone involved – viewer and media – is palpable.

Newspapers are bleating, she’s a product of our time. Bit of a cop out, we all are. The Sydney Morning Herald says Goody is dying to be on TV. No, she’s not. She’s not dying because she’s on TV, or dying through trying to be on TV. She’s dying on TV. And in the newspapers and magazines, and online. We can’t seem to grasp it, so we throw clichés at it. It makes us feel more comfortable, it squishes it into a more palatable concept.

Death in public is a sanitized affair.  It’s a career highlights reel, a memorial service, red carpet condolences, a memorial charity fund for the disease of the week and then a vague twinge of recollection whenever the dearly departed pops up in a midday movie.  It has begun to evolve ever so slightly perhaps as the result of two core influences.  The first is the ageing baby boomer generation, slowly coming to terms with their mortality.  They fought it for a while, but then their parents began to pass away.  Their next plan of attack was bucket lists, and then they began to embrace it with grand last hurrahs such as The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch.  That’s the point when the key became the graceful exit, a few sage words and a final bow.

The second influence is the rise of the Emo.  Into each generation a group of gothic obsessive teenagers is born and it is their core duty to remind us all it is only a matter of time before we all die.  As the years have progressed, these rebels have become mainstream, and the sense of doom they carry like a badge of honour has been acknowledged.

Neither of these influences has done anything to prepare us for Goody’s decline.  This is the first time in a hundred years that ordinary people living in first world countries have been forced to witness the gruesome burden and aching crawl of death.  Back in Medieval times people saw death in all its forms from a young age, but since then technology, political correctness and a highly organized medical and death-based industry removed this from our way of life.  We’ve replaced it with euphemisms such as ‘passing away’, ‘going on to a better place’ and ‘leaving this earth’ (as if the dead were astronauts and dying was ignition).  Now here comes Jade Goody, and what will not be a pleasant death, much of which will be broadcast for our viewing pleasure.

She should be allowed to die in dignity, some say. We are used to being able to rug ourselves up in self-righteous indignation over the false and shallow actions of reality TV personalities, but Goody’s direct and honest approach to her demise has left us defenceless. We’re so used to shaking our heads and taking a moral high ground, as we tuck copies of Famous and OK Magazine under the rug. Why the pressure on women to snap back to pre-baby bodies, we cluck, hungrily devouring grainy images of bloated celebrity mothers. Amy Winehouse has a serious problem, she needs to get help, we shake our heads sadly, scrolling down Perez Hilton for more photos of her ravaged face and body. Perhaps what Jade Goody is doing, maybe inadvertently, is putting it out there in simple terms. She has disarmed us with her honesty. The media provides, we consume, the subject of consumption gets paid. Jade Goody needs money to set her children up and ensure their future is in safe hands. The only way she can get that money and get it quickly is to cash in on herself and her death. So she is. Deal with it people. And eat it up.

So why are we balking at this latest twist in the reality genre? We’ll watch rape on-screen, in movies, on television. But that’s different, because it’s pretend. We’ll watch medical examiners with perfect hair perform autopsies on battered corpses. But that’s different, because it’s not real, right?  We’ll let our children fire pretend guns and play endless games where the object is to kill someone, but it’s not like they’re really doing it, so it’s okay. We’ll put women with serious eating disorders and substance abuse problems on the covers of the world’s most celebrated magazines and call them perfect. We’ll film Heath Ledger’s body being wheeled into the ambulance, on our mobile phones, we’ll devour book after book and editorial after editorial on celebrity deaths after they’ve died.  The gorier, the more sordid, the sadder, the better. We will celebrate, consume, dissect and embody acts and concepts far grosser, far more unnatural than death. And now, confronted with the steady decline and inevitable demise of a woman who has not chosen to exit stage right with a few sage words and a final bow, and whose choice is assisted purely by our consumption of it, we’re scrabbling to understand it all.

This is so much more than reality TV now, this is primal.  Ironically, this is in fact as real as ‘reality TV’ has ever become.  This is a certainty that can’t be reversed – for a shallow end of the television pool, Goody’s death will be the most ‘real’ thing to ever hit it.

So, what is it? A new level of voyeurism? A new chapter of pop culture? An inevitability for a society obsessed with celebrity? An unplanned twist in that phenomenally successful ‘reality’ genre? Or is it what we’ve been doing all along, just on a bolder, more honest scale?

Moreover, is it wrong?

 

Liv Hambrett and Jess Paine

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