Channel 4’s Jade Goody documentary shows we still fail to treat reality stars as real people

The online reaction to Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain proves we still can’t think critically about how reality TV turns ordinary people into heroes and villains. 

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In the final episode of Channel 4’s three-part documentary Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain, the TV producer who filmed Jade Goody’s dying days is asked if she would do anything differently now. In the two hours of footage before this point, viewers are invited to watch – or rather, re-watch – as Goody rises to fame on Big Brother in 2002, destroys her reputation with racist bullying on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, and is diagnosed with cervical cancer on the Indian version of Big Brother in 2008. “Would I do it differently now than I did then?” Goody’s producer and friend Kate Webb muses. “No, I don’t think so.”

Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain is 147 minutes of social history, but nothing the doc shows is really in the past. Webb wouldn’t do anything differently because no one would – from journalist Kevin O’Sullivan, who laughs on screen as he re-reads his columns insulting Goody, to the hashtag #JadeGoody that flashes up after every ad break, inviting us to judge the late reality star all over again. It’s easy to condemn O’Sullivan, and publicist Max Clifford, and the producers who profited from Goody’s messy life. But we should ask ourselves the question asked of Webb: Would you do anything differently? Are you, now?

I don’t think so. I don’t think any of us at home have learnt from Goody being vilified, then lionised, then vilified, then lionised again on national TV. We place the blame for her exploitation on press, PRs and producers, but when we turn off the telly, our own unpleasant reflection lingers on screen. Why do we still insist on building up reality TV stars only to gleefully tear them down? Why do we bully them, call them names and claim to “hate” them?

Before I go on, it needs to be said that Goody obviously deserved to be condemned for her vicious, racist bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother, when she called the Bollywood star “Shilpa Poppadom” and “Shilpa Fuckawalla”. It’s undeniable that Goody earned her ensuing fall from grace. But the dental nurse from Bermondsey, south-east London, was vilified long before she became a villain – her crimes during her first stint on Big Brother including being loud, being naked and being unrefined. In the first episode of the Channel 4 documentary, we see the audience baying for her blood with the classic Big Brother chant, “Get her out!” One member of the crowd calls Goody “Jade the pig”.

In the same episode, it’s shocking to see presenters Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross respectively don a fat suit to mock Goody and say that men should “shag her brains in”. Yet while their behaviour has changed, our own hasn’t. After Mike Thalassitis became the second former Love Island contestant to take their own life this March, there were pleas on social media that we should all reconsider how we talk about reality TV stars. But by the time series five began airing in June, it was apparent no lessons had been learnt. “Never hated a slag more in my life,” reads a July 2019 tweet about one Love Island contestant. It earned 2,400 likes.

Reality TV isn’t reality. Shows thrive when producers and editors can neatly characterise people as either heroes or villains – but why are we still falling for their tricks? This year’s Love Island runner-up Molly-Mae Hague fell out of public favour when, mid-season, she spread a piece of gossip about another contestant that her boyfriend had asked her to keep secret. Yet in an interview with Closer magazine, Hague has now revealed that producers asked her to share the secret, pressuring her after her initial reluctance. What we saw on screen wasn’t real, but the abuse Hague received afterwards very much was.

Throughout the summer I watched in horror as people I otherwise liked or respected tore into the appearances and accents of Love Island stars. Since Goody’s time in the spotlight, the bar for what makes a reality TV star deserving of our hate has become lower and lower – earlier this year, Love Island contestant Amy Hart’s family received death threats after she told another contestant, “You’re always with your bloody boyfriend!”. Even the nation’s sweetest reality show, The Great British Bake Off, isn’t immune. In 2014, hundreds of people claimed to “hate” contestant Diana Beard after she took another contestant’s pudding out of the freezer – her doctor later commented that the 69-year-old paid “a heavy price” for appearing on the show.

When someone on reality TV is seen as cruel or villainous, we immediately pay them back in kind. Hart revealed that when she left the Love Island villa in July she was confronted with “180 tweets saying I’m ugly” – the irony that she was being bullied for being a bully was lost on everyone.

The reaction to Channel 4’s Jade Goody documentary shows we still can’t think critically about how reality TV makes heroes and villains of ordinary people. Look at the official hashtag and you’ll see two camps: those who despise Goody and those who glorify her. If you search Twitter, you can see recent tweets which variously call her an “idiot” and a “genius”; “gross” and “beautiful”; an “angel” and a “slag”.

Throughout her career, Jade was bad and then good and then bad and then good again, depending on which interpretation sold the papers. To this day, we strip our reality TV stars of nuance and deny that they can be both good and bad at once. We insult them and we tear them down for the crime of being human, as though every single one of us isn’t also an idiot and a genius, gross and beautiful, an angel and a slag.

I’m as big a fan of bread and circuses as anyone, and it’s not realistic to ask for these shows to disappear. Yet it’s a mistake to come away from Channel 4’s documentary judging Goody, the press, and producers, without in turn judging yourself.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh