In February 2016, I spent three weeks in two small villages in Ecuador on a volunteer trip. While it was one of the most rewarding and eye opening experiences, I also took away from it the ability to be real about my own white, middle class privilege. The poverty these people experienced wasn’t entertaining, it was heartbreaking. The hardship whole villages experienced because of political influences, geographical position and social class systems was tangible in the way they lived, worked, ate and learnt. The strength, humour and resilience shown by the people in Misahualli and Pakay Chicta will stay with me as how people deal when handed disadvantaged cards of life.
So when poverty is portrayed on television in a light that misrepresents the issues and problems real people face day to day, it really shits me.
“Poverty porn” is the distorted, objectified portrayal of underprivileged people and their lives for the view and entertainment of the advantaged and privileged. Shows like Struggle Street by SBS follow the formula of tv series seen in the UK like Skint, or Life on the Dole which are ‘documentaries’ about the lives of those who are disadvantaged socially and economically. The problem with these shows is it reveals the end product of classism, racial issues and political reasons why these people might be in the situation they’re in. It seems to be a way for people to watch ‘poor’ people and go back to their middle class, white lives without feeling guilty because they aren’t like the people on the show. There’s no active acknowledgement of the underlying problems that would result in someone turning to drugs, living in housing commissions, or living on the dole. These shows only serve to portray the people in them as less than, something to ridicule and denigrate whilst ignoring those structural realities that created this ‘poverty’ (Threadgold, 2015) in the beginning.
SBS is in a unique situation where it has the ability to influence and represent minorities and groups in a fair and even light. Instead they have done exactly what Foster and Chauhan in 2014 researched in the UK, whether or not meanings of social problems develop in a public sphere.
“…Use poverty to lend emphasis or to sensationalise and do little to further an understanding of poverty” Chauhan, Foster, 2014
Chauhan and Foster explore the phenomenon that occurs when media misrepresents social problems such as poverty. Struggle Street falls into the category of presenting the participants in the show as the ‘undeserving poor’ which is according to them, “deficiency in individuals who are portrayed as a burden on the taxpayer due to their dependency on welfare policies”.
The shows do nothing, in my opinion, than to widen the gap between understanding those who are not as fortunate as others and creating a deeper set of stereotypes that make it harder for some to break the cycle of poverty.
Poverty isn’t something you want. People don’t just become homeless because that sounds like a great idea. Also to darken the image of a suburb with the assumption that everyone in that town are bogans, dole bludgers and drug addicts amongst other labels, is poor ‘journalism’.
Now, I am not a religious person, but my mother always said something in response for hearing about something awful happening to someone else.
“There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
It means that you are grateful that only by factors outside of your control have you not suffered the same fate as that someone else less fortunate. And while I do not agree with the God part, I do agree with the sentiment. Anyone could be that person portrayed on Struggle Street. And it is only by different life choices, opportunities and education is it not. So to create and sell an entertainment piece of ‘Poverty Porn’ at the expense of someone’s misfortune is unethical and disconnected with the real world.
Chauhan, Apurv and Foster, Juliet (2014) Representations of poverty in British newspapers: a case of ‘othering’ the threat? Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (5). pp.390-405. ISSN 1052-9284 DOI: 10.1002/casp.2179
Threadgold. 2015. Struggle Street is Poverty Porn with an extra dose of class racism. [ONLINE] Available at: http://theconversation.com/struggle-street-is-poverty-porn-with-an-extra-dose-of-class-racism-41346. [Accessed 18 March 2017].