I’ve been wrestling with Jade Goody. When I first learned of her death, yesterday morning, Mothers’ Day as it to make the plight of the boys she left behind all the more poignant, I dashed off something harsh and at the same time sentimental to mark her passing. Jade has been on my mind a lot these past couple of months. I know there is something profound and wise to write about her untimely death from cancer, but I’m still not sure what it is. I suggested in the blog entry I knocked off yesterday morning that we are all implicated in her death. This is wrong. We are not, and your sometimes violent reactions against that broad charge were justified. Which is why I’m starting again.
I am implicated in her death, is what I really meant to say. I am implicated because I bought OK! to look at her wedding pictures. I wanted to see them not because I cared that much about the hastily convened nuptials of Jade Goody and Jack Tweed, but because I had a feeling this was a significant point in modern history, like it or not. This woman of 27, dying of cancer that began in her cervix and spread to her bowel, liver and groin, was turning into some kind of icon. It’s an overused word, I know, but what better way to describe an ex-dental nurse from Essex who achieved substantial and lasting celebrity through sheer force of personality without exhibiting any tangible talent at any stage along the way? Even before her illness, she had become a symbol, a representation, a picture. Though her celebrity was based upon “reality” TV shows, she was not real. She was a photo spread in OK! or a pap shot in Heat, a press conference for her perfume or a press conference for her autobiography. The closest we ever got to the “real” Jade was when she let the mask slip and disgraced herself on Celebrity Big Brother 3, complicit in lazy but vicious racism with two other young white women. Shock, horror, she was not a Guardian reader.
In creating a Truman Show world around herself (without perhaps ever having seen The Truman Show), and in particular around her terminal cancer, she sealed her own fate: to be vilified by those who despised her already, and deified by a macabre, overstating tabloid press who must turn every soldier into a “hero” and every death into a martyrdom. She was called “the Essex princess” yesterday. I haven’t seen the headlines this Monday morning, but I think I can guess them. Cancer gave her courage and meaning, in the eyes of a media that had once called her stupid and ugly and opportunistic. Even her decision to be filmed and photographed, via two exclusive deals, right to the end, was grudgingly accepted because she was doing it for her boys – the same boys she had turned into public property by featuring them in photo spreads and a cookery book and accompanying DVD. When Jade’s mum called for “privacy” for the family yesterday morning, she probably saw no irony in that pathetic request. Perhaps, like her daughter thrown into the public eye from nowhere and given a public makeover, Jackiey Budden craves publicity, and would wither again without it?
So who killed Jade Goody? I know, in truth, a compromised immune system did it. She’d had a number of cancer scares during the last six years of her young life. Her body was being attacked from within. Meanwhile, the media kept prodding her to dance for them, and she complied. There is no way of specifying who has the whip hand when a Faustian pact of this kind is struck. Jade had become addicted to her own fame; addicted to Jade. The tabloids loved her and hated her in equal measure. She chose for herself, and for her family, a life in the open. The blanket coverage that did not destroy her, made her stronger. She even survived the racism row – something most politicians and sportspeople would find hard to come back from. She went into the Indian Big Brother house like Cardinal Ratzinger posing at Auschwitz – it was a genius bit of spin, suggesting that darker forces were at work behind the scenes of Jade Goody Enterprises.
I had no love for Jade Goody, but I followed her story with interest. I watched as she and her mother and her boyfriend were cast as performing monkeys by the producers of Celebrity Big Brother, perhaps the greatest ironists in the country, and the family from hell gave us our money’s worth of poorly educated circus. But we didn’t expect the daughter, so different now in her smart black bob and glasses from the blonde Essex stereotype who had entered that same house of games five years previously, to reveal so much venom, so much anger, so much ignorance. We gave her an inch and she took a mile. We condemned her.
It would be too sensational to say that the media killed Jade Goody, or that Jade Goody killed herself – there is no smoking gun here – but because everything she was, and everything she had, was tied into being public property, we must take some of the blame. And by “we”, I really do mean any of us who read about her in a tabloid or gossip magazine, or watched her on television, or bought her book, or read about the fact that she had written a book. If you did none of these things, clearly, you may walk away without a thoughts, furiously scrubbing your hands of Jade Goody. You never cared about her then and don’t care about her now. But if you turned on the TV or picked up a magazine in this century and raised an eyebrow about someone you had never met who had been photographed with someone else you had never met and, even for a fleeting second, cared enough to find out their name: surely you’re all part of the culture that created Jade Goody.
She’s not a princess. We did not know her. We only started caring about her when she became “brave Jade”. But it’s OK to feel sad at the death of a 27-year-old mother from a nasty disease. By feeling sorry for Jade it doesn’t mean you don’t feel sorry for the anonymous 27-year-old mother who probably also died of cancer on Mothers’ Day, but whose face was not in the newspapers. Most people who die of cancer wouldn’t wish their photograph to be in the newspapers anyway. Why would they?
I haven’t got to the bottom of this subject yet, which is why I keep writing and rewriting my reaction to it. Something key has just happened. I don’t really know what it is. But maybe it’ll fall into place at some point.
It’s not the end of the world, or the end of civilisation. But it’s sad, in many different ways. And the OK! “tribute issue” survives as one of the most ghoulish pieces of publishing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t buy it. A futile gesture of protest this late in the game.