An exploitation of the disadvantaged or poor for privileged gratification. The use of any type of media, such as images or film to show a westerners portrayal of inequality through a seemingly entitled lens. The distorted presentation of the disadvantaged for the entertainment of the advantaged. These are a number of elements that make up what is referred to as ‘poverty porn.’
This blog post will essentially tie in with and explore the topic of looking at others regarding mediating suffering and poverty porn.
A recent and topical example of poverty porn is SBS’s 2015 Struggle Street. The 3 part reality television documentary series shed light on the struggles and aspirations of residents in public housing areas around the Western Sydney suburb Mount Druitt, an area commonly associated with high unemployment, drug use and various run-ins with the law.
Yet after the series was aired, it received multiple criticisms from residents of Mt Druitt and local governments, with the Mayor of Blacktown labelling it as ‘poverty porn’ (Aubusson, 2015).
The show seems to laugh at, mock, ridicule and blame the poor for their poverty. It triggered critical responses that questions the ethics of presenting those worst effected by rising inequality and high unemployment and as figures of blame and disgust. The show as predicted, stirred up the usual issue concerning lazy and deviant poor people would be fine if they just ‘picked themselves up and worked hard’ (Threadgold, 2015).
The show however is not specifically unique to Mt Druitt’s in Sydney’s west. Issues like unemployment, low average wages and high demand for health services are present in many communities across Australia, particularly in rural and remote areas.
Another issue I noticed which surrounded the show concerns consent and certain decisions of the shows’ creators. Is it the choice of the creators to portray the subjects in any means they want? Can they utilise specific media frames and tools to do so? This issue of consent is one that was common and raised amongst viewers and commentators.
When people, ordinary, powerless people, are thrust into the spotlight, are they able to give informed consent to be interviewed? Do they understand that the stories that will be portrayed won’t be their stories, but stories at best about them, their stories taken by journalists and transformed into the journalist’s stories? (Holmes, 2015). Concern was raised from both the protagonists and the mayor of Mt Druitt about unfair the representation and dubious consent practices the series entails.
To gain the subjects trust, documentary makers give assurance they cannot reliably keep, in that they are going to make a film that aspires to tell the truth. One of the featured characters in the series, Peta, spoke out after the first episode was aired.
“Were shocked, gutted and I feel very hurt. I did not agree to go on the show to be made a fool of. None of us did”, she told New Idea (Willis, 2015).
Furthering this issue, a Mt Druitt school student asked a reasonable question on Q&A around the time the series as aired. The girl was “appalled at the elitism and disconnected privilege shown by SBS” and asked “Is all coverage good coverage? When do our personal stories become ownership of the media?” (Alcorn, 2016). This goes to show the effects that the media can have on shaping or framing certain issues in a light that they wish to do so.
While incarceration rates are rising as well as crime being central to pop culture with the various TV shows and films that revolve around it, poverty in this sense is being reframed as entertainment. The subjects of the series essentially become characters of a comedy show, created for the enjoyment and mockery of middle and upper-class citizens, while completely ignoring the harsh economic realities that create such poverty in the first place.
As most of the viewers and myself agree, the series presented and raised plenty of issues that we normally overlook, and generated sympathy. It contains humour and shock value, yet also hope and courage that the individuals can turn their lives around. However, Struggle Street no doubt betrayed the expectations of many of those it portrayed, and of others who live in Mt Druitt. Yet this doesn’t mean the creators got the story wrong. Telling the truth is a powerful tool, even if it’s uncomfortable or unwelcome, when told about the powerless.
This therefore reiterates the power held by the decision makers and creators of shows like Struggle Street of how mediated suffering is portrayed to convey their message, whatever it is they want it to be, no matter how controversial it seems.
Alcorn, G, 2015, ‘Struggle Street is only poverty porn is we enjoy watching, then turn away’, The Guardian, <https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/598886/mod_resource/content/1/Struggle%20Street%20is%20only%20poverty%20porn%20if%20we%20enjoy%20watching%2C%20then%20turn%20away%20%20Gay%20Alcorn%20%20Opinion%20%20The%20Guardian.pdf>
Aubusson, K, 2015, ‘Mount Druitt community leaders hurt, angry and feeling sick after Struggle Street documentary’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Entertainment, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/mt-druitt-community-leaders-hurt-angry-and-feeling-sick-after-struggle-street-documentary-20150506-ggvtff.html>
Holmes, J, 2015, ‘Struggle Street and journalisms’ betrayal of Mount Druitt’, The Age: Comment, <http://www.theage.com.au/comment/struggle-street-and-journalisms-betrayal-of-mount-druitt-20150518-gh4nmp.html>
Thomas, J, 2015, ‘Struggle Street could be any county town in any state’, SBS News, <http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/05/12/struggle-street-could-be-country-town-any-state>
Threadgold, S, 2015, ‘Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism’, The Conversation, <https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/598885/mod_resource/content/1/Struggle%20Street%20is%20poverty%20porn%20with%20an%20extra%20dose%20of%20class%20racism.pdf>
Vuk, J, 2015, ‘Why SBS should keep Struggle Street on our screens’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Comment, <http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-sbs-should-keep-struggle-street-on-our-screens-20150505-gguixo.html>
Willis, C, 2015, ‘Struggle Street Mum Peta Kennedy says SBS documentary ‘has ripped us apart’’, News.com.au: Entertainment – TV – Reality TV, <http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/reality-tv/struggle-street-mum-peta-kennedy-says-sbs-documentary-has-ripped-us-apart/news-story/b73ac50de773884c7591b4db835d3adf>