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Tuesday, July 29, 2008 

Reality television, self-destruction and Jodie Marsh.

It's been alluded to in the press a few times of late, but it's worth dredging up here yet again as an example. In the very first episode of I'm Alan Partridge, in a desperate attempt to get a second series of his chat show, Knowing Me, Know You, Alan pitches a variety of brain dead concepts for programmes at the commissioning editor, including, most famously, Monkey Tennis. First shown back at the tail-end of 1997, in those intervening 11 years the idea no longer looks so absurd. In fact, if you set it up like the idea that if you give enough monkeys enough typewriters and enough time they'll eventually write Shakespeare, but instead give them enough racquets, enough balls and enough time, compared to Big Brother it would be exciting beyond belief. Will the monkeys ever play a rally, serve an ace or master the backhand smash? Tune in tomorrow just in case they do!

Commentators have been writing the obituary for reality television for almost as long as it has existed. At the weekend, supposedly prompted by the fact that Australia has cancelled Big Brother and that ratings for the show have fallen to 3 million (which is in fact the fairly average amount the show has been getting for the last couple of years) Rachel Cooke in the Observer went to investigate its health. While her article covers all the bases and is one of the better pieces on the genre's continuing lifespan, the most fascinating part is the interview with Jodie Marsh, who along with Jordan and Kerry Katona (both of whom existed prior to their forays onto reality television, but whom vastly improved their profiles due to it) is probably the other most recognisable female face which the shows have bequeathed us.

Marsh is a conundrum for the simple reason that unlike so many others who have attempted to shoot to fame on the coat-tails of the latest invasive camera show, she is quite clearly of above average intelligence. She could, if she was prepared to put effort into it, be something far other than the sum of her current parts, which include comedy sized breasts (paid for by one of the weekly one-handed lads' mags), comedy sized lips (courtesy of a Five show) and an apparently unfixable nose, which she broke whilst playing hockey at school. Instead, she's plunged herself into the world of reality television, not because she wants to just be famous, although that's part of it, but because she wants to be rich.

The trouble is that Marsh is a walking example of the maxim that money can't buy you love or real friends. It doesn't help that, judging by this interview and past ones, she seems to be thoroughly unpleasant and self-absorbed beyond belief, but again, that also hasn't prevented others from rising up the greasy pole. No, what overwhelmingly hits you reading the conversation between her and Cooke is the fury which seems to be sitting just beneath her skin. Also apparent is that this all too overwhelming anger is not just directed against those who have either slighted her or who she's worked with and thinks have taken advantage of her, but also against herself. The woman who formerly boasted of the fact that her breasts were real while Jordan, her erstwhile rival's, were not, has since had those same implants inserted into her already generous bosom. How else can you describe her decision to continue with such programmes as "Jodie Marsh: Who'll Take Her Up the Aisle", the inference being that not just will the husband she's looking for take her hand in marriage, but also be allowed to, as James Joyce's wife once begged her husband, "bugger [her] arseways," fitting neatly into that very modern, pornographic obsession and fetish that anal sex, probably because of the power it gives the male whilst giving the female none of the pleasure, is far superior to stuffy normal vaginal intercourse. It's hard not see, without getting too psychoanalytical, that Marsh's behaviour is self-harm on a scale which is far beyond what we usually associate with those who cut or otherwise hurt themselves, either as a cry for help or to "help", as they see it (and I include myself in this) with getting their pain out, while also providing all too vivid physical wounds to go with the mental ones.

Some will doubtless look at Marsh and feel that the blame rests purely on her own shoulders for the way she's lived her life. She has entered freely into the shows she's taken part in, knowing full well that she will be used just as much as she uses the producer's money afterwards. Unlike the aforementioned Jordan and Katona however, the difference between them and her is all too obvious to see: while both of them have been advised and have agents which have steered them reasonably effectively, with Katona a customer of Max Clifford, Marsh has for one reason or another relied purely on her own wits. They have ensured that their clients have not become the victim, or the one who is primarily being used; Marsh instead has made a whole host of terrible decisions, and has been fed on parasitically instead of making the deals that the others have.

In this, Marsh is perhaps the summation and ultimate tragedy not just of reality television, but of the way the tabloid media and culture works. Bullied at school, as she sets out in the interview, she sought solace in the thought of becoming famous, as none of the woman on the front pages of the men's magazines could ever be accused of being ugly. She then swiftly contradicts herself, making clear that no one should judge her on how she looks; yet it was her desire not to be that led her onto those self-same magazine covers. After all, how could she not be beautiful? She is little less than a walking fuck doll, the supposed male fantasy: blonde, large breasts, even if not real, luscious lips, and with a mind as filthy as a dirty protester's cell. Yet none of these things have made her happy. None of these things have brought the real success she craves. And very few men except a former boyfriend of Jordan's seem to want to go near her.

Perhaps, apart from her own bad decisions, the real reason why Marsh has not achieved the success of her rivals is that she embarrasses those who have made the rest of them. They're the ones who have set-up the rules, created the celebrity culture, and shoved all of this down our throats, yet Marsh's chutzpah and path of self-destruction is too much for them. She is simply too much; she's tried too hard, and she's followed all the rules far too closely. She is, in short, a monster of their own creation, and that repels them.

I'm not one of those indulges the view that this part of our culture instantly means that we have an entire generation of Jodie Marshes waiting in the wings to join her once they reach the required age. What is of concern however is that those who have grown up with reality television and what some call the raunch culture have not yet reached their coming of age, so we do not yet know what the overall effect will be. While I disregard the view that watching violence encourages violence, as it is hardly ever provided as aspirational, what is clear is that there is peer pressure amongst teenage girls, bullied perhaps like Marsh was, to look like the young women on this week's Zoo or Nuts, to act almost purely as their walking fantasies, indulging their every whim. As the National Post article I linked to at the weekend said, how did we know when first embracing "low culture" that it would become the only culture? It's not entirely true of course; there are other role models, other cultures, other trends. It's just that it's this one that seems so prevalent, and the one which is undoubtedly the most pernicious and troubling. Jodie Marsh, in her misery, is a warning, and might well be reality television's real lasting legacy.

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I'd say that Jodie Marsh's personality - or at least her self-destructive instinct - has been absorbed into her celebrity simulcra. The fact that she does have problems with alcoholism and does call journalists 'bitches from hell' is incorporated into shows like 'Aisle' in that, instead of the hook being the theme of the show, the hook is that the 'star' has accepted the theme of the show.

That won't endure, though, because as the market expands it will only become more structured. Recently, a girl in the year below mine was told by her modelling agency to go away and lose a stone before returning.

Sorry, I have never heard of her until now. My only thought is that she is unlikely to sink with a pair of those...

Ben, yes, that is quite true. My one problem in writing things like this is that I pretend that I know what the programmes are like while I wouldn't watch them if I was being paid to do so. Making do with the reporting on them will not necessarily give me the full picture, which is perhaps the potential interest I should flag up first.

A good policy to keep. Watching such programmes wouldn't really enhance one's knowledge of them - it's all in the trailer/synopsis - but would shatter any semblance of optimism that one may have ever had for humanity.

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