The death of reality star Jade Goody raises many questions about what her ultimate legacy will be, in terms of the effects her life, highly publicized cancer battle, and death will leave on popular culture.
I have been aware of Jade Goody for some time now; she was all over the British tabloids in 2002 when my fiance was living overseas, and when I went to visit, her face seemed to be everywhere. I assumed, at the time, that she was a singer or actress of sorts. My fiance informed me that she was "just some girl from Big Brother," a show that never quite took off in the States as much as it had in England.
A few years later, in 2007, Jade came under fire for making racist remarks toward her Celebrity Big Brother castmate, Shilpa Shetty. Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian notes that Goody quickly became reviled for her behavior: "The People had already branded the 20-year-old "Miss Piggy" on account of her appearance, and ran headlines such as "Ditch the witch" and "Gobby Jade is public enemy no 1". For a moment, it seemed that a vulnerable and evidently poorly educated woman was going to be lynched – certainly figuratively – for the 21st-century crimes of being dim, mouthy and libidinous on a reality show."
A year later, Jade appeared on yet another reality show, Bigg Boss, an Indian version of Big Brother, wherein she discovered that she was battling cervical cancer, and that the cancer had spread. She left the reality show and became the star of her own strange saga, a reality show based purely in reality itself; she was dying, and the tabloids were invited to document every moment. An OK! magazine tribute cover was published weeks before Goody actually died, a bizarre testament to the coverage surrounding Goody, which seemed to be a countdown to getting the scoop of her actual death, rather than a celebration of her actual life.
Perhaps this is because Jade Goody filled the role of reality TV star to the extreme: she was "famous for nothing," she once said, a woman who went from obscurity to a national sensation due to the public's desire to create heroines and villains out of their neighbors, their peers, people who look and act quite like they do. Her short life was defined by public opinion; she was loved, then fiercely hated, and then pitied, but all of these things came through a lens, a distanced view; she was simply another character for the public to follow, and she knew and seemingly accepted this, giving her blessing to the tabloids to follow her until the very end. As Jeffries notes, "Like a working-class Princess Diana, Goody became the object of strangers' intense feelings, and she became a sacrifice, a woman whose suffering and death made it possible for people to ritually cry for someone they scarcely knew."
Goody hoped that her public struggle would raise awareness about cervical cancer and inspire young women to be more proactive about their health. But Goody's legacy may be her ability to use the reality tv/tabloid media to her advantage, even in dark times: for example, she recently held an elaborate wedding to her prisoner boyfriend, Jack Tweed, in order to sell the media rights and leave her sons with a substantial amount of money, knowing she'd be leaving them soon. Jade Goody was able to make a living out of living; as long as there was a camera present, and a photographer ready to chase her every move, she was able to capture the minds of millions, for better or worse. She forced the public, however unwittingly, to discuss racism, the challenges of cancer, and ultimately, the boundaries of fame.
"It's easier sometimes for me to deal with bigger things in the public eye," Goody once said. One wonders how that life will be remembered, if the public will take any lessons from her death, or if, as the world of reality tv often seems to move, the public's eye is already on the lookout for the next heroine, the next villain, the next star in the never-ending tabloid show.
Obituary: Jade Goody [The Guardian]
Jade Goody and her Big Mouth: Quotes From Her Life [Telegraph]