Jade Goody and her celebrity cancer
The respectable media are outraged by Jade’s illness-as-publicity-stunt. Yet they’re the ones who made cancer a subject for public titillation.
Not for the first time, Jade Goody, the British reality TV star, has found herself in the eye of a media storm. Five years ago, when she first appeared on Big Brother and was mocked in the tabloids for being a fat, thick, Bermondsey pig, she generated a debate about the innately cruel nature of reality TV. Two years ago, when she uttered the now infamous phrase ‘Shilpa Poppadom’ in reference to the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, she was held up as the ugly face of British racism. Now, after having her cancer diagnosed on air during the Indian reality TV show Bigg Boss, she is said to have reduced TV to an ‘utterly shameful’ new low (1).
Some suspect Ms Goody’s diary-room diagnosis was a ‘publicity stunt’. They point out that she and her cynical PR team knew there was a possibility that her tests for cervical cancer – carried out in London a few weeks ago – would result in a ‘bad news’ phone call while she was on set in India. Certainly her PR machine has gone into overdrive since she arrived back in London. She’s done teary-eyed interviews with GMTV and the News of the World and has appeared on the front cover of the gossip sheets heat, Star and Now!. And she is reportedly making a new reality TV show about… cancer (2). Some suspect that Goody – or more likely, because she is a ‘coarse, thick chav’, her puppet-masters – are milking this sickness for all it’s worth (3).
The respectable media are disgusted. In the Spectator, Rod Liddle said the on-air diagnosis of this ‘Bermondsey chav’s’ cancer marked a ‘new low’ in TV; he wondered what would turn up next in the schedules: ‘I’m A Tumour, Get Me Out of Here’? Another commentator, suspecting that ‘Goody could be more stupid than we ever thought’, said: ‘My bets are on the fact that Jade gave prior consent to the results of her tests being revealed on air.’ And that, apparently, is ‘the lowest of the low’; the ‘lowest publicity stunt ever’. ‘When did cancer diagnosis become fit for TV viewing?’ demands Lorraine Kelly in the Sun – the paper which splashed Goody’s celebrity cancer over its front page under the tantalising strapline ‘Big Brother’s Jade, 27, broke down and wept uncontrollably as she admitted: “I’m fighting for my life”’ (4).
Blaming Jade or her TV employers for dragging public entertainment to a new low, and for making even cancer into a celebrity issue, is as mad as blaming her for British racism on the basis of her argument over Oxo cubes with Shilpa Shetty. The truth is that Jade’s celebrity cancer diagnosis, followed by her cancer TV appearances, cancer magazine interviews and cancer TV show, is the logical conclusion to the transformation of disease from a private tragedy into pure public theatre. Over the past decade, as the line between private life and public life has been inexorably eroded, talking frankly about one’s ailments and tumours, and vomiting forth every detail about one’s diseases, has become quite the thing. And where did it start? Not on Bigg Boss, but in the respectable media, which was publishing cancer columns and death diaries when Jade was still failing exams and snogging boys at school in Bermondsey.
Lorraine Kelly might be shocked that a cancer diagnosis has become ‘fit for TV viewing’, but it has been fit for newspaper columns for quite some time. In June 1997, journalist Ruth Picardie, diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, started her popular death column ‘Before I say goodbye’ in the Observer. She wrote five-and-a-half columns before her death in September 1997. Before his death from throat cancer in 2001, John Diamond wrote a ‘cancer column’ for The Times about his ‘creeping demise’. He won the prestigious What The Papers Say award.
He also wrote a book, C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too, which was turned into a play called A Lump in my Throat by the hereditary journalist Victoria Coren. The Guardian obituary on Diamond said ‘it was a horrible irony that the illness that eventually ended [his] life was also, professionally, the making of him’ (5). Ruth Picardie’s sister, Justine Picardie, also wrote about living in the ‘dull half-light of Ruth’s fame [as a cancer sufferer]’ (6). Jade Goody, it seems, is not the first person for whom cancer might stoke up a bit of professional success. Picardie and Diamond’s columns did not only tell of their diagnoses – they also described, sometimes in detail, their demise and tragic impending deaths. One journalist, shocked by the emergence of the ‘cancer column’ in the late 1990s, described it as ‘the pornography of death’, designed to repel and titillate the reader in equal measure (7).
Beyond the columns of the respectable press, advertising one’s physical and mental deficiencies, even defining oneself by a sickness or disease, has become de rigueur. Princess Diana is at least as famous for having been bulimic as she is for having been the spoilt daughter of superb privilege. Yet she was hailed for making a public display of her petty ailments. The Stalinist feminist Beatrix Campbell said that, in ‘telling her story’, Diana ‘joined the constituency of the rejected – the survivors of harm and horror, from the Holocaust, from the world war and pogroms…’ (8) Comparing a princess’s narcissistic puking of foie gras to the vaporisation of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis… that’s enough to make me want to bring up my lunch, too.
Other famous people have also ‘told their stories’ of sickness, from Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer to all those ‘survivor memoirs’ and ‘cancer diaries’ to Stephen Fry’s TV show on his bipolar disorder (yet when Kerry Katona talks about her bipolar, she is laughed at). Meanwhile, TV shows such as Embarrassing Illnesses on Channel 4, hailed as ‘awareness raising’, treat viewers to pre-watershed footage of rugby players feeling their bollocks for signs of cancer and women showing their piles to a doctor/millions of viewers (9). Even some of those who have directly attacked Goody have become part of today’s sick show-and-tell culture of disease. How many ‘survivor celebrities’ has Lorraine Kelly had on her GMTV sofa to tell all about their struggles with disease/insanity/alcoholism? Rod Liddle got into a public, newspaper-based slanging match with his ex-wife, which involved revelations that he used Viagra. So, a journalist’s allegedly floppy cock is a suitable topic for public discussion, but a reality TV star’s cancerous cervix is not? Who makes the rules on which ailments can be made into books, plays and TV shows and which cannot?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Jade is being slated because she has the wrong kind of ‘celebrity cancer’. When Kylie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, the Guardian ran a long feature on ‘why Kylie’s illness matters’ – because ‘the diagnosis is [a] jolting reminder that Minogue is as much blood and bone as the rest of us’ (10). Goody’s diagnosis, by contrast, only seems to remind us what a grotesque, cynical, stupid fucking chav she is. It seems that Kylie, in some people’s eyes, has ‘chic cancer’ (of the breast, and treated in Paris if you don’t mind), while Jade has ‘chav cancer’ (of the cervix – which may indicate early sexual activity, the fecund harridan – and as diagnosed on mass TV rather than in the Guardian). In our sick society, we now even have A-list cancers and Z-list cancers; ‘good’ celebrity cancers to be written about in newspaper columns, and ‘bad’ celebrity cancers to be looked upon with horror.
Jade has not dragged public life to a new low. Nor has her PR man, Max Clifford, who is being discussed as the supermastermind of her lower-than-low publicity stunt. Rather she is taking her cue from a public culture which relishes in talking about sickness and which celebrates people who have allegedly trendy illnesses (breast cancer or bulimia, not lung cancer or herpes) as wonderful survivors. This speaks volumes about a broader denigration of public life; about a shift from analysis to narcissism in the media; about a replacement of achievement and heroism by sickness-as-identity; and about a steady erosion of the distinction between private life and public life. Indeed, previous death diarists and their supporters wrote of their desire to erase the barrier between private and public. Following the death of her sister, Justine Picardie complained in 1998 that ‘so much is still unsaid… there is still a gulf between the public and the private; it’s a kind of wasteland that I inhabit’ (11). In many ways, these earlier, respectable assaults on the private/public dividing line, the attempts to nuke that ‘wasteland’ between private life and public display – which were carried out by the cultural and media elite rather than by Max Clifford – are what nurtured today’s reality TV culture of on-air kissing, revealing and disease-diagnosing.
Jade Goody is literally sick and we can all, surely, wish her a speedy recovery. Society is metaphorically sick – and it will take more than a course of chemotherapy and the support of friends and family to pull it through.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Frank Furedi looked at our unhealthy obsession with sickness. Emily Hill said Britney and Amy Winehouse were right to refuse to go to rehab. Brendan O’Neill looked at Brad, Angelina and the rise of ‘celebrity colonialism’ and welcomed us to the People’s Republic of Bono. Mick Hume outlined the importance of trashing celebrity culture. Or read more at spiked issue Celebrity.
(1) When did a cancer diagnosis become fit for TV viewing?, Sun, 23 August 2008
(2) Jade Goody ‘to film cancer documentary’, Now!, 2 September 2008
(3) After Jade’s cancer, what next? ‘I’m a tumour, get me out of here’?, Spectator, 20 August 2008
(4) Jade tells Sun of cancer battle, Sun, 23 August 2008
(5) Obituary: John Diamond, Guardian, 3 March 2001
(6) Cited in ‘Enough said’, LM magazine, February 1999
(7) Cited in ‘Enough said’, LM magazine, February 1999
(8) See The Holocaust as showbusiness, New Statesman, 20 November 2000
(9) Embarrassing Illnesses, Channel 4
(10) The girl who fell to earth, Guardian, 18 May 2005
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