I lived in Britain (well, London) for a year, and the one thing I couldn't get over was how the class system bled into everything. Anecdotes beginning with 'I was in Budgens the other day …' were greeted with a wince. Formerly connotation-free personal habits, such as brushing my teeth, were suddenly signifiers. I was told at one point that I ate my toast in a lower-class way (i.e. sliced rectangularly. Common, don't you know.)
I've been watching with some interest the saga of Jane Goody, a British reality show contestant cum celebrity cum cancer victim who died this week:
The first time she was mentioned in the press, in May 2002, Jade Goody was described as a "pretty dental nurse, 20, from London". But 24 hours later, as she began her gobby, ignorant trajectory in the Big Brother house [It's a British reality show, Mom -- Mike], The People went on the attack under the headline: "Why we must lob the gob". Before long it was open season. The Sun called her a hippo, then a baboon, before launching its campaign to "vote out the pig". The Sunday Mirror rejected porcine comparisons on the ground that it was "insulting – to pigs".
As her performance on Big Brother made clear, her years of formal education had left Jade Goody with little knowledge. She thought that a ferret was a bird and abscess a green French drink; that Pistachio painted the Mona Lisa; that Sherlock Holmes invented the flush lavatory; that East Anglia ("East Angular" in Jade-speak) was abroad; and that Rio de Janeiro was "a bloke, innit?"
By 2007, when she made her second visit to the Big Brother house on Celebrity Big Brother (alongside her surgically-enhanced mother Jackie), Jade Goody had become, by her own account, "the most 25th inferlential person in the world" and a bona fide celebrity. She was said to be worth £2-4 million, was the proud owner of three "footballers' wives" style homes, a £60,000 turbo-charged Range Rover and was the "author" of a best-selling autobiography.
The unexpected fourth ring of this circus came last year, when Goody announced that she had terminal cancer, and had only a few months to live. Thus followed the quickie-marriage to the convict, various TV specials and, somewhere in London, a team of BBC editors cueing up a slow-motion montage set to The Four Seasons.
I was in London for the first few years of the Jane Goody tabloid judgmento-frenzy, and I remember being amazed at the vitriol being aimed at this woman (who I had never heard of), who was just a reality show contestant, not a head of state or a powerful CEO. I shouldn't be surprised that the Daily Mail and the Sun are writing sober, thoughtful obituaries now that the target of their exclamation-pointed normativizing has become un-famous in the only way they will allow.
Any obituary that wants to note the broader social implications of Jane Goody should at least mention the following point:
Nobody wanted to stop and ask: why doesn’t Jade know much? Here’s why. Her mother was a seriously disabled drug addict, so Jade didn’t go to school much because she stayed at home to look after her. From the age of five she was in charge of doing the cooking and ironing and cleaning.
Jade explained: “As early as I could remember I’d spent my whole life trying to protect my mum – frantically hiding the stolen chequebooks she used to have lying around the house when the police barged in on one of their raids; desperately denying to the teachers at school that she’d hit me for fear of being sent to social services.”
Her father treated her even worse. He stashed a gun under her cot, and her first memory was of him shooting heroin in her bedroom, his eyes rolling back and his body juddering. Eventually, after periods in and out of prison, he was found dead from an overdose in the toilet of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“He died without a single vein left in his body,” Jade explained. “In the end he’d injected every single part of it and all his veins had collapsed – even the ones in his penis.”
Go to any extremely unequal society – say, South Africa, or South America – and you will find a furiously suppressed sense of guilt. It’s hard not to ask, at the back of your mind: why am I here in this mansion, while they are in the slums? This guilt is resolved one way: by convincing yourself that the poor are sub-human, and don’t have feelings like you and me. Oh, the people in the barrios and townships? They’re animals! They stink! They’re stupid! Jade and Vicky and the labelling of the poor as “chavs” filled that role for us. They know nothing! They are repulsive!