I’ve never watched an episode of Big Brother. Ever. I once met somebody who was runner up on the show and did not realise until a colleague pointed out to me just how much I’d put my foot in my mouth as I snubbed the lovely man’s claim to fame to his very own face, “I don’t know what’s worse – actually being on Big Brother or wasting your precious time by watching it.” He took my unintended vitriol with grace and dignity before excusing himself from the conversation, I imagine to do literally anything other than carry on speaking to me.
Having lived a life so oblivious to the TV juggernaut that was Big Brother, I had only a passing knowledge of who Jade Goody was. I had absolutely no clue what she represented. Ignorantly, I had only a mild inkling that she had died having lost a battle with cervical cancer in 2009, until I tuned into the Channel 4 docuseries ‘Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain’ which aired in August.
The docuseries presents a biographical chronology of Goody’s life, analysing at each key point what exactly she did to become so totemic in her representation of an ubiquitous strand of the British working class.
Before Big Brother, there was no accurate representation of large swathes of the British population, certainly not of the strand of the working class of which Goody originated. The same can be said for the vast majority of British history’s portrayal in the arts, literature and media, with only rare exceptions such as Charles Dickens flipping the narrative to that of less fortunate and often less courtly characters. Peaky Blinders screenwriter Steven Knight nodded to this eschewing of working class representation in main stream culture as a core reason for his Birmingham-based crime drama receiving such acclaim amongst international audiences, as it is very much the first of its kind to regale viewers of the stories of historical figures who were not of the landed gentry. You could be forgiven for not realising that Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders share a common time frame, as their respective social backdrops portray vastly differing Great Britains. Without Peaky Blinders, one could easily assume that early twentieth century Britain was awash with posh frocks, banquets and prolific abundance with the obvious interjection of the devastation of the Great War, because until recent years that is the only depiction we as an audience have seen of the era.
Similarly, had Big Brother – the catalyst for a reality TV tsunami – never swept across our screens, Britons in 2050 would have viewed us noughties Brits as charmingly middle-class characters penned by Richard Curtis, throwing quaint dinner parties in beautifully preserved London townhouses, attending our university buddies’ lavish country house weddings and confessing our undying love on doorsteps here, there and everywhere without so much as a moped mugger robbing us of our Oyster cards. Big Brother, and in particular Goody as its ambassador in chief, catapulted the reality of working-class British life into the limelight. For the first time the saccharine depiction portrayed in BBC dramas and ITV three-parters was scewered by the reality of a binge-drinking, raucous, knickerless (by Goody’s own admission) spliff roller. Cue the reality TV tidal wave.
Goody’s reflection of an alternative but very real British culture illuminated two key societal embarrassments – the persistent covert rumblings of classism and racism, one of which she was a victim, the other of which she embodied.
As Goody took to our screens during her first Big Brother stint, the British tabloids waged war on her foul-mouthed, uncouth disregard for social graces, but in an exceptional act of defiance their readers refused to follow suit. Habitual News of the World readers shunned the paper in solidarity with their ‘Bermondsey Princess’ who, despite the onslaught of malevolent headlines, was lionized for her demonstration that an inarticulate, poorly educated child of two drug addicts – one a pimp, the other a clipper – could make a name for herself despite the institution fervently striving to silence her and ‘her type’. The superciliousness of the pearl clutchers fainting at her foul language and shameless nudity was met with roaring approval from those to whom she was relatable. The duality of society’s opinion of her demonstrated that a gaping classist fissure separated the two halves of Great Britain, one half desperate to be heard, the other half desperate to suppress the rise of the anathematised ‘chav’.
It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Goody’s infamy united the nation by building bridges across the class divide – in fact one could argue that her burgeoning popularity intensified the contempt each side of the divide felt for the other. However, she undeniably introduced the working class to the mainstream media in a way that had not been accepted previously, an achievement for which she has been lauded even in the years since her death.
This illumination of a strand of society which had not previously received positive media attention was both the making and the breaking of Goody’s unprecedented career, as in representing people of her social background she also exposed racist inclinations which Middle England (somewhat dishonestly and hypocritically) shunned as being of the past. The harmonious multiculturalism on which Britain outwardly prided itself was no longer the image being projected to the world owing to Goody’s second stint on Big Brother where she became embroiled in a jarring clash with Bollywood mega star Shilpa Shetty. As the series unfolded, an unceasing war of words between Shetty and Goody became so racially charged that even the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown on a trip to India was forced to defend his country’s “tolerance”* towards people of all ethnicities and origins.
Goody – abetted by model Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara of former S Club 7 fame – by her own admission bullied Shetty during their shared time in the Big Brother house, with insults darted at the Bollywood actress with tirades of resentful animosity which were in themselves excruciating to watch. What followed from the trio was the mocking of Shetty’s accent, an assertion that Indian people are slender because of their supposed inability to cook food properly and name calling which even Tommy Robinson might deem as crossing a line – not least the replacing of Shetty’s perfectly pronounceable surname with ‘Poppadom’.
When evicted and confronted with the national backlash to her behaviour, Goody blubbed “but I’m not a racist” through persistent crocodile tears on any programme that would air her desperate pleading. Evidently distraught – perhaps at the public flaying she was receiving as opposed to the hurt she’d caused – it became apparent that Goody genuinely did not see herself as a racist person, despite her words and actions being undeniably racist. This self-inflicted nosedive in her career reopened the dialogue about race and racism in the United Kingdom in a way which social commentators could never have foreseen. Questions were asked as to why racist sentiments remained prevalent in the UK and an educational conversation was kickstarted where it was demonstrated that you do not need to be wondering the night in a white peaked hood to be a racist exhibiting harmful behaviour. I don’t think any Brit of an ethnic minority would queue up to thank Goody for her role in casting a floodlight on the rumblings of covert racism which previously went unaddressed, but one cannot deny the cataclysmic effect of her infamous Big Brother fracas.
As illustrated by the Channel 4 docuseries, Jade Goody should be by no means revered or deemed a role model. Her crass behaviour and blatant racist tendencies are not to be regarded as exemplary and her lifestyle of tabloid-reliant wealth is one that cannot be viewed as an achievement worthy of applause. However one cannot be blind to the fact that she trailblazed the careers of reality TV ‘celebrities’ famous not for any body of work or carefully nurtured skill, but for being as outrageous and headline grabbing as they can be. The majority of these press parasites fail to manipulate the tabloids with the dexterity demonstrated by Goody who flipped the table to her own professional and economic advantage and, by extension, controlled her own narrative. Parallels can be drawn between Goody and the most famous of William Thackeray’s protagonists, the guileful Becky Sharp; exploitative with a disarming charm and a hunger for social escalation which both fortifies and shatters her. Both products of a divided nation. Both unsuccessful in their efforts to overcome the disconnect of classist Britain. Both navigating a system engineered to suppress them. Both testimonies to a country whose social structures have progressed very little in two hundred years.
*I take great umbrage with the use of the word “tolerance” in the dialogue about race for reasons which I will discuss in another post, but unfortunately it is ingrained in the parlance of our society so it is sometimes unavoidable.