After Jade, whose death will we watch next?

The salacious reports of Jade Goody’s physical demise confirm that death is the new sex: a form of voyeuristic entertainment.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Culture

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This was never about Jade Goody, this spectacle of death we have witnessed over the past few weeks. This was about a society that takes a morbid pleasure – even meaning – from watching the slow unfolding of human fragility and demise.

Some have seen the macabre rituals of Goody’s death, which were transmitted into people’s living rooms through their TVs and newspapers, as the continuation of the mourning sickness that assumed such a dramatic and feverish intensity at the time of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The actor Stephen Fry characterised Jade, a reality TV star who succumbed to cervical cancer on Sunday, as ‘a kind of Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks’.

It is true that, outwardly, some of the themes of Diana’s life and death have made a comeback. The mawkish moralisation of victimhood, for example. As with Diana, we are continually told in relation to Jade Goody that suffering made her a ‘better person’. In the cases of both Diana and Jade, it is not what they did but what has been done to them that makes up their moral claims for sympathy and public attention.

Also today, as before, sections of the public respond to a celebrity’s death with a rather sad enthusiasm to be part of the drama. Both in 1997 and today, politicians, church leaders and commentators have informed us that, through our common grief, society might rediscover its soul. ‘Remarkably, in mourning a reality TV star, Britain may find itself reflecting on ideas of life and love’, speculated one Guardian commentator (1).

However, as a social phenomenon, the response to Jade Goody’s death has not simply been a rerun of earlier displays of public mourning. What marked out the public response to Diana’s death was the rise of an intensely public and emotional form of mourning. In the case of Goody, there has been a kind of premature ritual of pseudo-mourning. More importantly, however, the decisive thing today is the compulsive watching of a person’s physical demise.

For some time now, it has been clear that the imperative driving the rise of reality TV is a desire to transform the most intimate and painful aspects of human experience into a form of entertainment. For a while, sex and displays of pseudo-intimacy provided a steady diet of entertainment. Personal troubles – illness, dysfunctional relationships, addictions, parenting problems – have also become compelling viewing in a society confused about the distinction between public and private. It was only a matter of time before death became the new sex.

In the brave new world of reality TV, nothing can be left unviewed. The cultivation of a voyeuristic media culture has unleashed a race for exposing intimate moments, including that rarest form of intimacy today: acts that are still private. The death of Jade Goody is really the last instalment of a reality drama that started with her appearance on Big Brother in 2002.

It is tempting, but futile, to blame reality TV and the tabloids for the transformation of a personal tragedy into a public spectacle. I for one was stunned when, four days before Goody’s death, I saw an advert for a ‘tribute’ issue of OK! magazine marking Goody’s death and containing her ‘final words’ and ‘final pictures’. It seemed as if some sections of the media could not wait for Jade to die. This morbid phenomenon of a pre-death obituary reveals just how much the media was going through the motions of faux-grief. However, there is little point in simply blaming the media, when there were so many public figures that were all too willing to be part of this seedy drama.

The great and the good were also keen to play a part in the national reality show. However, when you analyse what they actually had to say, the contrived and disoriented character of this episode of public mourning became all too clear. There was no Tony Blair to describe Jade as ‘the people’s princess’. The tributes to Jade come across as singularly formulaic, even incoherent. Probably the most revealing comment came from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who noted that he was ‘very interested’ in the public’s response to Goody’s death. According to Williams, the publicity surrounding her demise ‘was used not to aggrandise her but to tell people what mattered to her and say something about the values she tried to live with at the end of her life’. But what were these values? The very posing of this question highlights the futility of endowing the final episode of a reality TV drama with moral meaning.

Inevitably, there have been attempts to frame the media’s addiction to Goody’s story as a service to the public. In recent weeks, we’ve been told that in making her demise public, the media is helping you and I gain insight into the meaning of death. Such self-serving claims echo past attempts to justify the publication of pornographic material on the ground that it helps voyeurs understand the secrets of the human body. Others have argued that the publicity surrounding Goody’s fatal illness will encourage thousands of women to seek advice on how to prevent cervical cancer. In fact, inciting young women to contact health professionals about their risk of contracting this disease will only put an unnecessary burden on the screening service (see Jade and the dangers of smear testing, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

In a fundamental sense, the response to Jade Goody’s death raises uncomfortable questions about how contemporary culture encourages those who suffer to gain meaning from their experiences. The media continually depicts personal tragedies as morality plays, where a victim’s loss is endowed with special significance. Thus whenever a tragedy strikes, a member of one of the families affected will invariably tell the TV cameras that they hope their loved ones have not died in vain. A tragic death is swiftly transformed into a cause; a charity might be set up to make sure that others learn the ‘lessons’ of the tragedy. In this way, death – which has no intrinsic meaning to those who have no direct link with the person who has passed – is given moral significance by being turned into a ‘lesson to others’. There is something desperate in this project of endowing the public’s response to Goody’s death with moral purpose. The collective act of watching someone die does not create the foundations for new forms of moral solidarity; it may simply whet the appetite for a repeat performance.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

(1) The curious legacy of Jade, Libby Brooks, Guardian, 23 March 2009

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Topics Culture


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