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Director's cut — January 2007

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January 1, 2007 by Tara Brabazon

And then suddenly — finally — it was all over. All the pseudo-celebrity nonsense. All the anti-intellectualism. All the attention to pedicures, makeovers, hair extensions, waxing, Manolos, ugg boots, thong bikinis, colonic irrigations, Pilates, flat screen televisions, stainless steel ovens, gazebos, water features, designer clothes, designer jewellery, designer bags, 4 x 4s, miniature dogs and massive barbeques. All these micro-choices of no importance had created a culture where how we looked was more important than what we thought.

But it has all gone now. One degrading and degraded woman in the midst of a reality television programme destroyed the pseudo-democracy that had been breeding through Wikipedia, text messaging and bloggers. The acidic ugliness of racism exploded over our faces. We have valued, laughed at and validated the stupid, inane, dense, dumb and thick. Now we see the consequences of a life where bread and circuses television has held a greater profile than bread and butter decisions about social policy and military strategy.

There was karma to the crisis. Jade Goody, a single mother with little education and fewer career prospects, did not win Big Brother 3. She came fourth. On the basis of this 'fame' she made public appearances, went on the revolving door of chat shows, lost weight, didn't tell anyone that it was through liposuction, released a workout DVD, put her name to a perfume and then — two years later — completed the cycle. During January 2007, Goody returned as a 'celebrity' to Celebrity Big Brother. It was the high water mark of reality television. A woman who was an 'ordinary person' before the programme had now become a celebrity in her own right. It seemed the conventional trash to treasure, zero to hero tale where a screened life was a successful life.

The problem was that the programme that made her also broke her. When paired in the House with Shilpa Shetty, a Bollywood actress, all the nodes of tension and decay in popular culture and public life were revealed. Jade Goody was part of a gang of three, including Danielle Lloyd, the (former) girlfriend of a footballer, and Jo O'Meara, the (former) member of S Club 7. Like the worst bullies from high school, the three Queen Bees strutted their ugly opinions without the restraints of evidence, knowledge or reasoned discourse. They were beyond bitchy. They were an embarrassment to their gender, their country and television. Effigies of Endemol executives, the producers of the programme, were burnt in India. The Carphone Warehouse withdrew its three million pound sponsorship. The Perfume Shop removed Shh … Goody's best-selling scent, from its shelves. Lloyd lost her modeling contract and her opportunity to be the face of Bennetts, a motorcycle insurance business. Her relationship with Teddy Sheringham seemed in shreds. Celebrity Big Brother — punctuated by racism — became the most complained about programme in television history. It was mentioned in the House of Commons. It summoned international protest and press coverage.

The problem is that — post-Thatcher, Major and Blair — there is no space to think about the relationship between the economy and identity. Fame and celebrity have become circuit breakers to a rational analysis of social structure and social mobility. To translate Marx for the Big Brother discourse, life does not determine consciousness any more than consciousness determines a life. Jade Goody, by making millions from selling an identity based on reality television 'celebrity,' has been granted a public profile and role that she could not manage. Goody possesses the unfortunate combination of a slow brain and a quick mouth. She spent the money earned through celebrity not on education, but on her body. When the time came for her to stand against racism and xenophobia, she merely recycled two centuries of assumptions about Britain and the colonies. In a violent re-emergence of Orwell's Big Brother rather than the Endemol translation, her celebrity self was killed through surveillance.

So much money has been spent on war, home improvement and breast implants. So little has been spent on education. It is no surprise that Goody, O'Meara and Lloyd are ignorant. Even The Sun termed Goody "the dim reaper" and a "halfwit." Their inability to understand the life experience of others resulted in petty jealousies, unsubstantiated rage, tacky conversations about sex and endless fascinations with nail polish, burping and farting.

Celebrity Big Brother is a destructive fracture — but also an important opportunity — to transform popular culture and to reassess our cultural assumptions, biases and prejudices since September 11. The hope is that this media event is a lesson to journalists and all of us interested in promoting a thoughtful popular culture. Being 'honest' is a destructive force when it corrodes the matrix of modernity, civility and respect that is necessary to operate a working democracy. We need to be smarter.