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‘Escape goat’ to icon of empathy

01 April 2009

Jade Goody reminds Christians of the dangers of spiritual pride, says Hugh Rayment-Pickard

“Damaged but irrepressibly candid”: Jade Goody in February

“Damaged but irrepressibly candid”: Jade Goody in February

A woman a fortnight ago. She was 27 years old, newly married with two young sons. Her life, which was mostly tragic, began in June 1981. Her father was a pimp and a heroin addict, who overdosed in the lavatory of a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop. Her mother abused her, beating her up so badly that she was put into care. She was four years old when her mother introduced her to drugs: there is a family photo recording the occasion of the girl’s first spliff.

At school, she was at first bullied, and then became the bully, on one occasion taking a bite out of another girl’s ear. For seven years, she enjoyed celebrity and notoriety through television, tabloids, and gossip magazines. She made a great deal of money. Then she fell ill with cancer, and, despite various treatments, she did not survive.

Jade Goody’s funeral takes place tomorrow, and we are left trying to understand what the Jade Goody story means: what it tells us about ourselves and our culture. The obituaries have spoken about her as a “media creation”, a person crafted by TV moguls and newspaper editors for our entertainment. But Ms Goody’s story is the very opposite: again and again, she blew apart the media’s attempts to control her.

In her first stay in the Big Brother house, the level of hatred against her produced blind panic among execu­tives at the TV company Endemol, who realised that she had unbottled a real and frightening dimension of public feeling. Ms Goody represented the uncouth and uncontrollable under­class that is so feared by Middle England: crude, uneducated, and sexually explicit.

On her second stay, the rage against her racist comments resulted in her expulsion from the show, and the withdrawal of Carphone Ware­house as sponsor.

Her appearance on India’s version of Big Brother was cut short by her all-too-real diagnosis of cervical cancer. In the final months of her life, Ms Goody took control of the media, presenting them with her own story of her dying weeks.

Ms Goody was the reality-TV star whose life refused to be formatted for TV. Like her or hate her, she was the real deal: a damaged but irrepressibly candid woman, who could not or would not be shoehorned into tidy narratives scripted by programme-makers.

YET I think there is a narrative that helps us to understand the cultural phenomenon of Jade Goody. She is surely a modern Mary Magdalene, her sins paraded before a public eager for someone to hate. This happened on both of her appearances on UK Big Brother. On her first appearance in 2002, members of the audience carried placards reading “Kill the Pig” — had she lived in first-century Judaea, the crowds would surely have been armed with stones.

When she returned five years later for Celebrity Big Brother, her racist remarks to the Indian actress Shilpa Shetty provoked another storm of hatred. Effigies of Ms Goody were burnt on the streets of India. The pub­lic complained in record numbers.

Commentators and politicians rushed to the media to dissociate themselves from “The Pig”. Leader-writers frothed about her “pig- ignorant” behaviour. Jeremy Clark­son called her “a racist, pig-faced waste of blood and organs” (Top Gear, series 9, episode 1). Even Gordon Brown commented on her “offensive” remarks.

She was, as she said herself, “an escape goat”, a vehicle for our violent and unacceptable inner feelings. Hating or pitying Ms Goody made us all feel better about ourselves. We could enjoy feeling morally and intel­lectually superior to her. As the sanctimonious Pharisee in Jesus’s parable put it: “Thank God I’m not like her.”

IT IS extraordinary, but Ms Goody found a way to dispel all our projections of hate: she became terminally ill and bore it with grace. When she died, no one was using the word “pig” any more. The shameful placards urging us to kill her were forgotten, as the media hastily switched register to panegyric, now admiring the way she had faced her death with courage, dignity, and no trace of self-pity.

In her noble death, Ms Goody appealed to something noble in us. We discovered our capacity for em­pathy and compassion. Jade Goody the public scapegoat became a public heroine.

She was no saint, but Ms Goody’s life does, I think, have religious sig­nificance. If the classic saintly icons of the Christian tradition are in­tended to teach us about the path of holiness, then the image of Jade Goody is an icon of our common human fallibility, a reminder that we are all risen from the dust, and that we must avoid the proud temptation to think ourselves better than others.

For Christians, this is perhaps the keenest of the temptations: to think that our faith gives us some moral advantage over a woman such as Jade Goody. Jesus repeatedly warns us against religious pride, about the dangers of judging others, and the need to remove the logs from our own eyes.

In her turbulent life and graceful death, Ms Goody educated us in various ways. As the focus of public loathing, she illustrated our power-ful and unholy need of scape-goats. But, in her death, she showed us that it is possible to overcome the scapegoat mechanism. As we enter Holy Week, with our eyes focused on another scapegoat, this is a good time to be reflecting on such things.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the co-author with Steven Shakespeare of The Inclusive God (Canterbury Press, 2008).

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the co-author with Steven Shakespeare of The Inclusive God (Canterbury Press, 2008).

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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