The inevitability of death as entertainment
Natasha Richardson wasn’t the only British celebrity who died tragically young this past week. Reality TV star Jade Goody passed away yesterday after cervical cancer spread to her liver, groin and bowel at the age of just 27. Unlike the universally admired Richardson, who grew up in one of England’s most respected families, however, Goody was an almost universally reviled public figure that the British tabloids gleefully raked over the coals on an almost weekly basis since around 2002. Originally a cast member of Big Brother, a program that’s grown into much more of a pop culture phenomenon in the UK than its American counterpart, Goody was pushy and obnoxious, a “chav” (the British equivalent of white trash) who seemed to have all the intelligence of a bag of rocks. As I did, you may shrug and think “Isn’t there one of those in every reality show?”
However, it would appear that Goody made it into an art form, appearing in subsequent reality shows and bullying and making racist remarks to a fellow cast member who was Indian. In an indicator of what a truly weird world we live in today, she achieved fame by being completely unlikable, akin to Paris Hilton, though as a friend pointed out to me a more accurate comparison would be David “Puck” Rainey from the third season of MTV’s The Real World, who somehow managed to become famous by being a filthy lout who ate his own snot and regularly antagonized his roommates with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. As opposed to most cast members of The Real World who quietly faded into obscurity, Rainey to this day, fifteen years after the fact, still makes public appearances based upon his own undeserved notoriety.
Full disclosure: I had no idea who Jade Goody was until it was revealed a few months ago that she had terminal cancer. I’m not much of an Anglophile or a fan of reality programming, and my limited exposure to the British tabloids proved them to be bafflingly vicious, much more so than US tabloids. They make Perez Hilton look like Cindy Adams. I’m pretty sure most Americans didn’t know who she was until the announcement that she was dying, when her story took an even more bizarre turn. Goody’s publicist declared that she was going to remain in the public eye, giving interviews and allowing OK!, England’s most popular gossip rag, complete access to her personal life, until the very end. Though supposedly it was intended to draw attention to the necessity of pap smears and pre-cancer screenings for young women, as well as earn money for Goody’s two young sons, OK! handled the story about as tastefully as you can imagine in such a situation, that being not at all. They banned all rival publications from attending Goody’s wedding, which meant that one of her closest friends couldn’t be there, and in a particularly ghoulish touch, put out a “tribute issue” to her, with her name and “1981-2009” on the cover when she hadn’t actually died yet.
Though some public opinion of Goody in light of her illness swung wildly in the other direction, turning her into a martyred saint and a working class version of Princess Diana, there were still many that viewed her imminent demise as just desserts. I stumbled across a blog post here at WordPress just last night that was a collection of jokes about Goody having cancer, all of them cruel, none of them funny. I clicked on the comments expecting to see the writer of the blog get his ass handed to him, only to see the majority of the commenters either contributing their own jokes, declaring “I’m glad the bitch is dead and I hope she’s burning in Hell” or dogpiling the small number of people who did criticize the post. Reminders that this was a young woman who left two small sons behind were sneered at or ignored. If this much vitriol is reserved for a TV personality, I can only imagine that someone really deserving of such hate, say a child molester or wife abuser, would get torn apart by a crowd French Revolution style.
OK!, not to mention Goody’s publicist, had to have known that she wasn’t a well-liked person among her countrymen, so their claims that turning her death into a media event was supposed to be “educational” and benefit her sons ring a bit hollow. I expect people who work for tabloids and in public relations to be scum, generally speaking, but it does bring up a disturbing question: who has been paying to watch Jade Goody die? Who has been “entertained” by this? True, there have been plenty of documentaries recounting someone’s death from an illness–a good example of this is Silverlake Life, a 1993 video diary about a gay couple’s demise by AIDS, filmed by the couple themselves. The difference is that these were understated, tastefully produced films, and you got a sense that the people involved were creatively at the wheel for it, for as long as they could be. I don’t believe for a second that Jade Goody had any say in the various photo shoots and interviews she gave in the last months of her life. If she did, her friend would have been allowed to come to her wedding. If she did, OK! would have literally waited until the corpse was cold before putting out their “tribute issue.” If she did, she would have realized the ugly truth: that this was a publicity stunt meant to appeal to the people who were glad to see her die. I didn’t know Jade Goody at all, and again, she didn’t seem like a very nice person, but I find myself pitying her anyway. What a strange life she had, and what an even stranger way for it to end.