A Cultural Reference Point

24 March 2009

Mother’s Day in the UK, 22 March, was the day that we found out Jade Goody, British reality TV star, had died, aged just 27. It was, of course, expected: she’d been diagnosed as terminally ill with cervical cancer. She had chosen to live her final months in the full glare of the public eye, just as she had throughout her 20’s – her last minute wedding broadcast on TV, and a tribute issue of a glossy magazine published even before she had died.

Tributes came from all quarters – from Gordon Brown and David Cameron (did someone tell them it’s almost time for an election – start ‘connecting’ with ‘real people’ perhaps?) to Shilpa Shetty (whom she famously bullied in a racist manner on Celebrity Big Brother) and Stephen Fry: “courageous” perhaps, or “a kind of Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks”.

It’s an odd story. One of the best pieces of analysis I have read was from Channel 4’s Snowmail:

…whether one likes it or not the Jade Goody story is a cultural phenomenon.

She may not have had a ‘talent’ in the conventional sense… but in some ways she redefined celebrity and in Celebrity Big Brother was at the centre of debate when it came to the inherent, unknowing racism that exists in people who don’t consider themselves prejudiced.

And of course she has certainly raised awareness of cervical cancer, particularly among younger women…

It’s true, although the cult of Goody was more Shameless than Diana’s Panorama (or even Panorama in the days of that terrible Kirsty Wark), she was certainly no angel, but undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon.

Whether she should be a cultural phenomenon or not is irrelevant: she was, for many people. We’ve come a long way from Princess Di in class, but not in terms of media attention (arguably, in both cases, more self displaying of peacock feathers than vultures feasting on carcasses).

Perhaps she’s a cultural phenomenon of the spriallic descent of a society where the self-gravitating moment of fame voyeurism is exemplified by Goody’s Big Brother. A phenomenon in a world of Poverty Voyeurism – Shameless, Wife Swap and the like titillating the liberal middle classes. But Britain is one of the most divided countries in the world – where the richest 20% are six times wealthier than the poorest 20%, and surely the development of underclass-celebrity is more a creation of that than anything else.

Monday’s obituary in The Guardian agreed: “because despite the supposed democratisation of television, the truly uneducated, those marked by true poverty and deprivation, rareley appeared in the entertainment schedules. And suddenly, there was Jade, an unapologetic and unadorned symbol of all sorts of uncomfortable truths”.

I’m not sure we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the culture of celebrity. But the Goody years have certainly been a cultural reference point, where poverty p*rn continues to be increase as the financial excesses of the Banking Classes come collapsing down.


This is not a post about Jade herself. The Guardian’s obituary is worth a read if you’re looking for something on Jade. It concludes: We are bearing witness to someone battling against the odds as, she must have felt, she had been struggling all her life. Her seven years in the public eye played out in the manner of a modern morality tale and now her narrative arc is complete. It is to be hoped that after a life that was, save a few blessed stretches, mostly full of strife, Jade Goody is at peace and beyond the reach of scrutiny now.

%d bloggers like this: