Goody and Boyle: a tale of two (real) women
During 2009, tabloid press coverage has been dominated by the stories of two contrasting reality show contestants and the involvement of both old and new media in their rise and fall. Steph Hendry explores the central and ambivalent role of audiences in the lives of Jade Goody and Susan Boyle.
It’s been an odd year in the world of ‘reality’ television. Big Brother’s 2009 broadcast was less than enthusiastically received with declining viewing figures suggesting the country’s love-affair with BB and its tabloid spin-offs is at an end. This was confirmed by C4’s recent announcement that they will no longer broadcast the show after 2010. On the other hand, reality TV’s dominance in mainstream culture seems to have hit maximum capacity several times this year. Two events dominated the world of reality TV in the first half of 2009: the death of Jade Goody and the rise of Susan Boyle. Coming within a month of each other in March and April, the public and media responses to these two stories can be seen to represent the changing nature of modern media as we enter the second decade of the century. There is a decrease in ‘old media’s’ dominance in leading the way celebrity events are mediated and the phenomenon of Jade Goody was largely driven by ‘old media’ such as television broadcasting, tabloid newspapers and magazines. The Susan Boyle story symbolises the start of ‘new media’s’ power in disseminating information and allowing audiences to be part of the construction of a story; at the same time it highlights the rise in influence of new technologies such as YouTube and Twitter.
The story of Jade Goody is a tragic one. The death of any 27-year-old mother of two is sad, but in itself not particularly newsworthy; however this event was the resolution of the tumultuous narrative the media and Jade herself had presented of Jade’s life. As a Big Brother contestant in 2002, Jade was vilified by the tabloid press and despised for being ‘fat’, ‘ugly’ and ‘thick’. Despite not winning Big Brother, she went on to be the most successful ex-housemate in terms of her public profile and earnings. She became a regular fixture in magazines such as heat, OK! and Now! and was the subject of fly-on-the-wall documentaries which consolidated her fame. At the height of this time of positive representations she followed the lead of other celebrity ‘brands’ and a perfume was released under her name. Her popularity was hit when she was accused of racist and bullying behaviour whilst taking part in 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother and, until her illness, this scandal damaged her earning potential and her media presence dwindled. Jade was in the process of rebuilding her career when, on India’s version of Big Brother (Big Boss), she was given the news that she had cervical cancer. From this time on, her media saleability increased as her illness, her treatments and ultimately her death were all reported in a range of media forms. Towards the end of her life she was being filmed by Living TV and the image of her physical deterioration was used in tabloid newspapers and in gossip magazines along with a range of stories following her and her family’s responses to the illness.
Jade’s story was that of an underdog making good. She was an ordinary girl, who escaped from the mundanity of everyday life and found herself in the privileged world of celebrity. Not possessing a saleable talent, Jade’s unique selling point was her ordinariness and the fact that she represented a belief that ordinary people, with limited talent, little education and from poor and troubled backgrounds could experience a life of wealth and fame. Her illness and death became public property and it was recognised that this trying time in her life could financially benefit her, her family and a range of media outlets. She epitomised a relatively new media phenomenon, that of the celebrity who lives their life on camera – she has subsequently been replaced by ‘Peter and Katie’ (and now ‘Peter’ and ‘Katie’ separately, of course) and Kerry Katona, who have film crews documenting the day-to-day details of their lives as well as the more glamorous activities they undertake. All of these celebrities turn the events of everyday life – children’s illnesses, marital disputes, bad moods and tantrums – into dramatic conflicts for their televised or reported narratives. Peter and Katie’s recent split and Kerry’s bipolar disorder, cocaine habit and assorted problems have become threads in the ‘soap operas’ provided for their audiences. At times it seems as if these lives are being presented to us as a way to make us feel good about our own lives as the audience is shown the downsides of celebrity life and we are often positioned to sit in judgement as celebrity marriages fray, careers take downturns and we see the human weaknesses behind the ‘public face’. Of course what we are shown is not their private life at all; the public watch lives that are carefully edited and constructed into stories. The audience gratifications received whilst watching such programmes or following tabloid reporting are complex: the aspirational desire for the lifestyles we see, combined with the pleasure we take in seeing these figures suffering, has been described as the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of public punishment. However, Jade’s illness took these ‘pleasures’ to another level as her ‘punishment’ didn’t fit her ‘crimes’: she died the way she lived, with the public watching.
Whilst the web is part of the communication of these stories, celebrity exposés and the ongoing reporting of these reality stars’ lives suits the tabloid format well. Tabloid newspapers like The Sun, The Star and The Mirror are constantly searching for front page stories/images that will persuade readers to buy their publications. One of the conventions of the tabloid is that they tend to use emotive stories to engage their audience – the emotion itself isn’t all that important: shock, outrage, anger, pity, sadness or joy all work well. The reporting of Jade’s illness saw several narrative devices being employed as she was transformed from a figure of hatred and mockery into a tragic hero the audience could identify with due to her ‘ordinariness’, and admire due to her courage and strength in adversity. Her whole family were recast into roles that supported this view (both her husband, Jack Tweedy, and her mother, Jackiey Budden, had received almost exclusively negative press before news of Jade’s illness broke) and the emotional story of Jade’s illness and subsequent death were used to sell newspapers. Tabloid/gossip magazines also contributed to the dominance of this story with their weekly or monthly front covers being devoted to the ‘next instalment’ of the story of her illness. OK! even went as far as to print a special memorial edition before Goody died (including the claim that the magazine contained her ‘last words’). Although the magazine was dated March 24th 2009, it was, in fact, on sale from the 17th March – five days before Jade’s death on the 22nd. The magazine claimed that this was following the family’s wishes but, given the practicalities involved in printing and getting a magazine to the newsstands, it’s as likely that this was a cynical move by an organisation who knew Jade had very little time left and was determined to beat the competition in getting the ‘memorial’ edition to the public.
Where Big Brother’s ratings have been on a steady decline, the TV talent show has really hit its stride in 2009. One of the biggest stories of the year came out of reality television: the story of Susan Boyle who rose to national prominence when she took to the stage for Britain’s Got Talent in April 2009. The original broadcast of her performance was swiftly uploaded to YouTube and, thanks to Twitter, word rapidly spread about the ‘shock’ performance on the show. Hollywood stars, politicians and the news media quickly got involved in discussions about Boyle and the discussions included comment on the relatively new phenomena that has been developing over the last few years: the power of e-media technologies to spread information quickly and across national borders. Within days, Boyle’s’ performance was the ‘most watched’ video on YouTube and the singer had achieved international fame by the end of the week. This was, of course, just the start of the Susan Boyle narrative which continued for several weeks and had several threads: her past was scrutinised and judged; her next appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was eagerly anticipated; the impact of the sudden fame on a ‘simple woman from Scotland’ was discussed and her physical appearance and its changes became a story in itself. The story built to the climax that was the TV programme’s final. This climax became more of an anti-climax though, as Boyle came second to a dance troupe and the excessive media interest in her seemed to have tarnished her talent in the eyes of the voting audience – perhaps a victim of media saturation.
After losing the competition, Boyle had a stint in ‘rehab’ and ironically the media that couldn’t get enough of the Boyle story began to blame the producers of the television programme for not protecting her from the pressures of stardom – perhaps that should have been the pressures of media attention? A subsequent tour had Boyle pull out of a number of performances and she has, until recently, been off the media radar as she is working on the recording of an album.
Now the hype has died down it’s worth considering what the story was really about. ‘Woman can sing’ is hardly news even if ‘contestant in TV talent show can sing’ is slightly more unexpected. Boyle appeared to be newsworthy in the first instance, not because she could sing but because of the way she looked. Susan Boyle surprised people because she does not meet audience expectations: she is a middle-aged, plump woman who has talent. Any exploration of the news values of the Boyle story has to explore the idea of the representation of women, given that the most common positive representations of women, in today’s media are as being thin, young and attractive. Despite the recent ‘Size 0’ debates, the idealised physical image of women is still very narrow and often a woman’s accomplishments are secondary to her physical appearance. Myleene Klass for example is a classically trained pianist. This fact has been played on in recent Pantene ads but the main point of the campaign has been that Myleene has great hair.
The surprise that was created by Boyle, is evident in the video of the original performance where the cuts focus us on the responses of the judging panel and the audience which were clearly based on her appearance. What is clearly visible in people’s faces is mockery and disdain because Boyle did not present the image expected of women singers. She was immediately judged on her appearance and seen to be ‘other’, an outsider in a culture that favours physical perfection, grooming and youth. Piers Morgan reacted with disgust when Boyle, responding to a question about her age, challenged the preconception of her by saying that being 47 was ‘just one side of me’ while gyrating her hips. Morgan reflected the contemporary focus on youth culture by being revolted at the idea that an older woman could be sexual – until she started to sing. Boyle’s voice created an unexpected juxtaposition to the expectations created by her physicality and shone a light on some naturalised contemporary values, forcing people to re-examine them.
However, as the story progressed, Boyle’s emotional breakdowns became the focus of the story and reporting began to consolidate the ideas her performance had originally challenged. Her lack of urban sophistication and what was seen as her sheltered existence reinforced the notion that she is different – ‘not one of us’. The fact that she found the media attention difficult to handle reinforced the view that she was an anomaly, suggesting our initial surprise was, perhaps, the right response as she clearly was not cut out for the glamorous and exciting world of media celebrity. Boyle underwent a makeover and began to look more polished but nothing could alter the fact that she is a plump, middle-aged spinster from the country – not the usual candidate for tabloid attention.
The original performance created a mini-narrative in itself where an unlikely hero rose against the problems and conflicts in front of her to reach her goal. As the story developed further conflicts came to light and the heroic victory Boyle initially achieved on the Britain’s Got Talent stage began to diminish. It is still not clear how this story will resolve.
The role of e-media in the Boyle phenomenon is also significant. The speed with which her story spread, not only across the UK but also across the globe, makes this a unique news phenomenon. Twitter comments and the accessibility of the YouTube video ensured that within 24 hours those who had not seen the original broadcast were aware of it and had access to it. The fact that celebrity support was given to Ms Boyle, notably from Demi Moore, added to the story’s newsworthiness and as more traditional news outlets picked up on the story its impact increased. At the time of writing, the original YouTube video has had over 79 million views (and there are several other versions of the same clip).
Both of these stories identify the importance of the audience in today’s media landscape. In Boyle’s case, the audience response turned a non-newsworthy event into something that kept the world’s press busy for several weeks. The real story here was about the audience, not Boyle. The fact that millions of people found her performance noteworthy and, perhaps, felt guilty about their initial response to her appearance, was central to the media’s response. Similarly, the media’s focus on Jade’s illness and death was also a response to audience interest. If reality shows did not attract viewers and reality-show-led front page headlines did not enhance newspaper and magazine sales, it’s safe to say the story would not have dominated in the way it did. Given that these two events were followed by another celebrity media frenzy after the death of Michael Jackson (announced on a gossip website and passed round and commentated on via Twitter), it seems the modern audience may have been turned off by Big Brother of late, but the lives and deaths of celebrities big and small capture the public’s interest. New media are playing a major role in spreading the word and enabling audiences to be part of the story.
Steph Hendry teaches Media at Runshaw College and is an examiner for AQA.
This article first appeared in MediaMagazine 30, December 2009.