Damian Thompson reflects on the death of British reality-TV star Jade Goody and what the media attention given the event says about our society:
Jade Goody has died. Move along now, there’s nothing more to see. Unless you count her grief-stricken relatives and “grieving” crowds, but you always get them with the death of a public figure. The fascinating spectacle of a young woman dying on camera is over.
And it was fascinating, judging by the “most read” lists on newspaper websites. Millions of people who would be ashamed to be caught rubbernecking at the scene of a car crash found themselves clicking on links and turning on the news “to see how Jade is doing” (i.e., to see how bad her cancer had got). And they didn’t feel guilty, because the victim of this particular car crash was leaning out of the wreckage and beckoning them in.
One could almost hear that irritating Geordie voiceover from Big Brother : “Today, Jade has to make it through her wedding without collapsing . . . ” It’s an obvious point, but the sight of Ms Goody receiving news of her diagnosis on camera, the progressive thinning of her hair, the unveiling of her new “bald look”, her dramatic weight loss (“it suits her”), the wedding, the terrified expression on her face as she was lifted into the ambulance one last timeall these developments occurred in the right order, parcelled up and presented to us by Max Clifford. They were “episodes” in more than one sense of the word . . . . .
Still, The Death of Jade Goody (as I think of it) raises troubling questions. Reality television is the product, not the cause, of a popular urge to turn our lives into drama, to measure ourselves against celebrities. The factory workers of the mid 20th century were encouraged to cast themselves as members of a proletariat who would be swept to power and prosperity by the inexorable forces of history. Or they might even have gone to church. Today’s lads and ladettes dress like celebs and turn their weddings into film sets; they can’t even draw up a shopping list without invoking their personal “fulfillment” . . . . .
That’s my abiding memory of The Death of Jade Goody : the entertainment it provided for young people who couldn’t wait for her to expire. They have been growing impatient in the last week: Jade, like King Charles II, took “an unconscionable time a-dying” (so long, in fact, that OK magazine deliberately and disgustingly jumped the gun). Their inhuman response can be blamed partly on media-driven expectations that this young celebrity would die in the right episode of her personal soap opera.
It goes deeper than that, however. Jade belonged to the first generation of Britons who have been raised without religion and the meaning it ascribes to death. A streak of callousness goes with being young, and always has done; but the peculiar brutality shown by twentysomethings towards the cancer-stricken Jade, for no better reason than that they didn’t like her , is a miserable and worrying sign of the times.