I surprised myself recently. When my boyfriend told me that, after months of tiresome media exposure of her battle with cervical cancer, TV reality "star" Jade Goody had actually passed away, I was sad. Confused by it, but sad nonetheless. For all my long-standing criticism of reality television in general, and Goody in particular, no-one could really, humanely, feel otherwise when a 27-year-old woman dies in such pain, leaving two young boys motherless. There is no denying - it's sad.
You know what's coming though - a "but". And there is one. Because my sadness rapidly turned to disgust as my TV and newsagents' stands were inundated by front cover stories and video ads all dedicated to the passing of Jade. We had tacky music and faux-sentimental voice overs to help boost an advert for Ok! magazine. And heading in to Sainsbury's for my lunch, there she was, on the cover of every gossip rag, every tabloid. Her family are being hounded, the press and paparazzis trying to milk every tear for as much as they can get. Before long, my sympathy had turned to annoyance, even repulsion, as the life and death of a relatively insignificant woman was shoved down my throat at every commercial break and whenever I went to purchase a newspaper and a bag of sodding Monster Munch.
And then came the clincher. On the 24th of March, just after Goody's passing, columnist Johann Hari of The Independent wrote a piece called "Jade showed the brutal reality of Britain" (http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1468). I am an avowed admirer of Hari, yet it has to be one of the most monumental piles of drivel I've read in a while. In his article, Hari lambasts the snobbishness of Britain's press, media and public who insulted and derided Goody when she was on Big Brother, intimating that the hostility amounted to little more than middle class prejudice, and even racism because she was mixed race. Now, I will readily agree that the British press has displayed mindless hypocrisy over Goody, as the very rags that are encouraging us to weep over her death even as we hand them our pennies are the same ones who were calling her a "pig" 9 or so years ago. Stop the press, Johann, our tabloids are hypocrites. What a scoop...
But to assume that the antipathy Goody generated was simply down to her being working class is silly, and short-sighted. I do not hate poor people. But I hated Jade Goody, and will readily admit it. But to assume that it's because I want to sneer at people less well off than me, or worse, that it is due to some ingrained racial prejudice, is ridiculous. In many ways, it's not even Jade I hated. Jade became a symbol of the "dumbing down" that has become a feature in this country. She was uneducated, vulgar and rude, yet we held her up as some sort of "chav" heroine ("Britain's favourite chav"). I resented that I was being told that she was someone worth emulating, an example to follow. And I resent Hari perpetuating this idea now. I do not consider it "class prejudice" or "sneering" to express the feeling that young Britons should not be told to be like Jade Goody. I would rather my kids -should I ever have any- aspire to be like, say, Patrick Wolf or Kanye West - smart, educated, inquisitive and well-spoken. And the fact that she came from a poor background is no excuse, as Hari again -somewhat patronisingly- intimates. There have been quite a few celebrities who have come to be known despite coming from run-down areas or cash-strapped families, and who achieved their fame through talent and hard work, as opposed to sitting on their arses in front of TV cameras guzzling booze, vomiting and talking incoherently.
In last night's London Paper, a journalist was reviewing a latest BBC 2 X Factor-like reality show called The Speaker where, instead of singing, contestants -aged 14 to 18- were judged on their public speaking skills, with an emphasis on eloquence, wit and intelligence. The journo derided the concept, and even went so far as to have a pop at one of the judges for his silly hair and at fellow judge Jo Brand for being a "poor man's Cheryl Cole" (there's your class prejudice, Johann!). So, in dumbed-down Britain, a vacant fashion victim WAG who has been loading bland generic pop on the nation is deemed preferable to a witty, funny and intelligent comedienne, simply because the WAG is hot and the comedienne is fat. Is this really where we're going? Stupidity and "attitude" as primers over clarity of thought and education? Thank God for Stephen Fry, although it's telling that more people will gather around their TVs to watch Britain's Got Talent than anything the Norfolk-based genius could come up with.
The connection? Well, I think this shows just how pervasive the dumbing-down culture is here. We'd rather a vapid, crude illiterate yob with a big mouth and limited vocabulary than a smart, eloquent intellectual. To say otherwise is to be a snob or even prejudiced, apparently. And Goody, like this journo, was a prime example of this mindset.
In his article, Hari even goes so far as to whitewash Goody for her part in the racist bullying of fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty two years ago. Despite much footage of Goody screaming and jabbing her finger at the Bollywood star, and the blatantly racist terms she used such as "Shilpa poppadum", he claims she basically did no such thing, and apparently Jade couldn't have been racist as she herself was mixed race - convoluted logic if ever there was. Has he not heard of Robert Mugabe?
He even seems to suggest that Shetty brought it on herself by being a rich, pampered "princess" whose lack of exposure to the real world understandably offended the hard-working inner city lass Goody. Oh, well that's alright then. Bollocks. Goody had precedence of such bullying on another piece of celebrity reality dross, Celebrity Fit Club, when she poured scorn and hatred on overweight singer Rick Waller. But maybe that was his fault for affronting her with his fatness...
The fact is, Jade Goody was being racist, and was rightly condemned for it. She was a bully, she was ignorant and she was vulgar, and yet was held up as a role-model. And this is the crux. Most people who denounced Jade did not hate her, not really. They hate the trend in this country to cast education, erudition and eloquence to one side and to instead promote the Jade Goodys of this world as examples to follow. Is it any wonder that smart kids in inner city schools are getting bullied, if their peers are being told a Jade Goody is a worthy role model by The Sun, Heat, Hari and Max Clifford? Is it any surprise we have so much bullying in our schools, if hers is downplayed to such an extent? Jade Goody was not a heroine, not a saint, not an angel. She was an ordinary woman who got famous via the cheapest and least meritous of means. And with fame comes exposure. Hari thinks Jade Goody exposed an ugly trend of class elitism and snobbery. I think she symbolises the "lowest common denominator" culture that is only getting worse as the years roll by. It's a shame she died, especially for her kids. It's also a bloody shame that we can't find a more deserving person to weep so many tears over.
As an aside, and by way of making up for critiquing him so much in this article, it's worth reading Johann Hari's recent expose on Dubai. Quite an eye opener: http://www.johannhari.com/archive/article.php?id=1475