Jade Goody & the mythology of redemption: the spectre of cancer in the media

Jade Goody–the Big Brother reality television “star”-cum-cancer martyr–died the day before I started my own chemotherapy. I remember standing on the platform at the Royal Oak train station, waiting to go to the hospital for my first chemo treatment, looking at everybody’s greedily-grabbed copies of the Metro and the London Lite; even in the “real” papers, Jade Goody was the front-page news (alongside findings of a recently-published study, coincidence or no, about the non-improvement of cancer survival rates in the UK).

 I don’t know how large the storm surrounding this woman was in the American media, but in England she was as ubiquitous as Big Brother himself: first for the car-crash entertainment value of her all-around ignorance and repugnance, with the cherry-on-top of racist allegations–and then for the car-crash entertainment value of her stage 4 cervical cancer, and society’s ensuing Schadenfreude at observing her decline, glued to the television with eyes wide.

She made a mint out of that damn cancer, and, maybe even more sickeningly, seemingly won everybody’s sympathy from the media exploitation of her sickness –from her showstoppin’ Cancer Special, to her eight-weeks-to-live “fairy-tale” white(trash) wedding, to which she sold the rights to Ok! magazine for £700,000. (A  few months after Goody’s death, her previously-incarcerated Prince Charming was arrested yet again for an alleged sexual assault on a teenager. This may want to be excluded from the Disney version of the Jade Goody Story).

The debate raged as to whether Jade, being dumb as pig shit, was the victim of the media’s agressive manipulation of her, or whether Jade, being an unscrupulous media whore, was in fact the one doing the manipulating of her audiences. But whoever was pulling the strings, the result was the same–as her Guardian obituary put it:

The pig who deserved burning had become our sacrificial lamb, garnished with sentiment. Britain had turned 180 degrees to embrace a woman it had earlier scorned. Symbolically, at least, it was the right time for Goody to die.

–what someone on the BBC referred to, as I listened to Radio 4 while waiting for my chemo, as “the mythology of redemption.”

Goody was briefly praised posthumously for the awareness her death consquently raised over the cervical cancer screening policies in the UK–much like the new recommended mammography guidelines in the US, these policies try to eliminate the anxiety of abnormalities in younger women by beginning screening ( “invitation,” as they say) at 25, rather than 18 as is customary in the US (although new guidelines for young women are emerging for that too). Having had an abnormal pap smear at a young age, I admit it induces anxiety–especially when dealing with the Vassar Women’s Health Service (“Honey, I’m calling ya from my kitchen. I wanna talk to you about your pap smeah.”) But having also been diagnosed with cancer at a young age, I can safely say that dealing with cancer is worse than dealing with the anxiety of a false positive.

Yet more than creating a culture of awareness about cervical cancer, Jade Goody created a culture of fear and ignorance, for she was still treated as if the cervical cancer had just happened to her, had come upon her like the proverbial thief in the night–rather than as a slowly-escalating problem contributed to by her self-proclaimed fear of gynecologists and the irresponsible lifestyle which made her negligent about her own health.

And oh the kids, the kids! All that money she made: she was doin’ it fer the kidz. Jade Goody, the doting mother. Where was this devotion to her children when she chose to return to the public eye to go live in the Celebrity Big Brother house? The poor kids were a detail as unfortunate as the cancer itself, like HPV a side-effect of unprotected sex.  

You can rail all you want about the sanctity of human life, but symbolically or otherwise, the greatest good the woman did the world was to die–for its education perhaps, but mainly for its entertainment. And the “mythology of redemption,” dreamt up on television, remains our last & most pervasive mythology.

It is a mythology nicely coupled with the enduring romance between cancer and the media–which most often (like a lot of this previously raged-about breast cancer awareness month bullshit), rather than creating “awareness” about or “support” for cancer, reduces it so minutely into the abstract that all it actually does is make people afraid. As Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman, “Though women are terrorized by the constant evocation of the spectre of breast cancer, they are never put in possession of the facts.”

The continual and omnipresent televised cancer circus is the reason I’m uncomfortable about–not solidly opposed to, just uncomfortable about (though no matter how tentatively I say it, or how clearly I try to express myself, I suspect I’ll be witch-hunted for it)–this initiative for BRCA+ women to go on Oprah. Not because I think the women are poorly intentioned–far from it–but because the last thing I heard from Oprah was a promotion for her exclusive interview with the woman who was mauled by a chimp, with 911 audio as a teaser.

Why do you think this woman is worth $2.7 billion?

Because she’s selling you.

Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe a well-intentioned act with favorable end results is a good deed (and I am not disputing the fact that BRCA publicity is precisely this) regardless of the avenues through which it is achieved, be it Big Brother or daytime talk TV.

And I don’t mean to place blame on the obscure and faceless entity Big Bad Media, because what it really comes down to is our collective appetite for disaster. And I “defend to the death your right to say it,” etc. We create and dispel our own spectres–and see, guilty creatures, the mirror held up to our sick and sorry natures on television. It’s “human interest”–and what we’re interested in is fear and death and ugliness, or lies and rainbows and redemption. The truth, the stuff in-between, doesn’t sell well.

Re: selling this “human interest,” I can’t help but think of the violation of the 3rd maxim of Kant’s categorical imperative:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end”–

and wonder to what extent women with cancer are truly used as a means to the media’s end of attempting to cater to this insatiable appetite.

And yes I’m well aware that a fine line’s being tread for me to say any of this at all. As far as my own blog, I swear my intentions are purer than Jade’s; it is not self-promotion for Ok! or Oprah. I began writing this blog after realizing the good that reading the other Emily’s and mainly Jeanne’s blog did me, and wanting to enter into the dialogue of a global problem. Before the ‘blogosphere,’ the only other women with cancer I “knew” were the ones whose glossy photos appeared in “Coping with Cancer” pamphlets supplied by the hospital, the ones who were quoted as saying things like oh, cancer can be fun, you finally get to wear that crazy hat you always dreamed of. But after reading these blogs and others, the “spectre of breast cancer” as it existed in the abstract, embodied by these Cookie Cutter Cancer women with their small blessings and their stupid hats, began to fade like King Hamlet on the cock’s crow. I realized not all women with breast cancer were rah-rah-glory-of-god-dough-eyed-dumb-as-dirt-pink-ribbon-shitheads.

And I felt, I suppose, Horatio’s impetus to address this breast cancer spectre:

(Thou art a scholar; speak to it).

The more I think about Horatio’s (futile) speech to the Ghost in Act I Scene I of Hamlet, the more I find Greer’s spectre-metaphor enticingly apt to my own experience of cancer.

Re-enter Ghost


I’ll cross it, though it blast me. Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done
That may do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me

Cock crows

1 Comment

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One response to “Jade Goody & the mythology of redemption: the spectre of cancer in the media

  1. I never, ever say “You ought to try to publish this” to someone unless I really mean it. (You ought to try to publish.) Have you read Blood Matters? I am reading it now and very glad to be doing so, though admittedly, I’m closer to the author’s age so that may be why it works for me.

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