Struggle Street and Poverty Porn

In case you hadn’t noticed, poverty is entertaining.

‘Poverty porn’ refers to both Westerners portrayal of global inequality, disease and hunger and also the distorted presentation of disadvantage by the advantaged. Like mainstream sexual porn that produces sexualised images from the male gaze for male gratification, poverty porn produces abjectifying images of the poor through a privileged gaze for privileged gratification.

It seems via reality TV and ‘documentaries’ such as the new SBS programme, Struggle Street, laughing at, deriding and blaming the poor for their poverty is fair game. In the UK, ‘poverty porn’ has been on the screens for a number of years, causing the usual moral panics about apparently feckless chavs. It has also provoked a critical response that questions the ethics of presenting those worst effected by rising inequality, high unemployment and underemployment, and austerity measures as figures of blame and disgust.

Pitched as a serious documentary, Struggle Street cloaks itself under the auspices of a ‘raw portrayal’ of a ‘tough topic’ (the producers words), but really plays the same symbolic role as parodies and reality TV: denigrating the ‘undeserving poor’, scapegoating and even pathologising them as figures of loathing, while completely ignoring the harsh structural economic realities that create such poverty in the first place. All in the quest for ratings.

Class is a taboo topic. Despite widening social inequality, there are public denials that it even exists. Ironically, the only time we hear class mentioned in politics is when the term ‘class war’ is invoked as a defence against redistributive economic policies.

In the US, French sociologist Loic Wacquant describes how poverty is increasingly criminalised, resulting in huge incarceration rates and a move from targeting the poor with workfare policies to what he calls ‘prisonfare’. This has also developed ‘penal pornography’ as crime and poverty is sensationally presented through media as entertainment where individual acts are divorced from their social bases. Australia does not have the same level of prison industrial complex as the US (at least for the non-Indigenous). But, while incarceration rates are rising and certainly crime is central to pop culture (how many C.S.I.’s are enough?), poverty is being reframed as entertainment.

My research on the way figures such as hipsters and bogans are used in media reports, opinion pieces, reality TV and comedy satires, shows how they provoke emotional responses to class relations and provide a sense of one’s place in social space. This is especially interesting as precarious employment is rising up the class system, to the point where it is becoming the norm for university graduates to be faced with with internships and McJobs upon graduation. The promise of the middle class ‘good life’ through hard work and education is increasingly uncertain if not impossible, especially when considered alongside the notion of affluenza. Class anxieties expressed as a sense of loss and injustice abound. Someone needs to be blamed.

The ‘bogan’ has rapidly become a key folk devil in Australia. On the other hand, the ‘hipster’ tends to equate with middle class endeavours and is at least allowed a reflexive irony that sees the term often used in a quite playful way. They both enable status distinctions to be performed while eschewing the very notion of class.  Both terms are mostly used as pejoratives towards various taste cultures. The ‘Hipster’ provokes (mostly) discussion and debate. The ‘Bogan’ provokes (mostly) disgust and denigration. The ‘bogan’ taps into fears, insecurities and a sense of injustice of the educated middle classes producing a forms of downward envy and ‘disgusted subject’. The ‘hipster’ plays a dual role: it represents a kind of clown that allows the middle class to laugh at itself alongside an ambivalent and somewhat sheepish recognition of the ‘cruel optimism’ of consumer culture.

Struggle Street, like its UK precursors such as Benefits Street and The Scheme, may well stir up the usual consternation about lazy and deviant poor people who would be fine if they just picked themselves up by the bootstraps and worked hard. Sydney Morning Herald ran a review piece quoting the producers of the show at length making claims that the show is going beyond stereotypes. But there is concern from both the protagonists and the mayor of Mt Druitt about unfair representation and dubious consent practices. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, one participant (or is it victim?) said “It is sending the wrong message about Mt Druitt. It makes us look like bogans and that’s not who we are. If I knew I was going to be portrayed like this, I wouldn’t have agreed”. A Current Affair ran a story calling the programme ‘a stitch up’, which portrayed the suffering caused by shows likes these shows. That said, I’m not sure that the Daily Telegraph and A Current Affair doing these stories, two principle purveyors of stitch ups of these kind, could even be called ironic. Both are likely to produce stories very similar very soon. In a positive note, many of the comments underneath newspaper stories are critical of the exploitation.

Of course, the more privileged of us swear, fart and take drugs, just like the less privileged portrayed in Struggle Street. But they don’t have exploitive documentaries being made about them. They are usually the ones making the documentaries. Sexism and racism are still rampant in our media, from subtle framing through to overt abuse. When this happens, it is increasingly called out and debated. This is obviously a good thing. While there is at least some progress being made in those areas, it is pertinent to then ask why ‘class racism’ remains permissible as long as it is elicited through invoking ‘morals’ and ‘values’ that obfuscate the social causes of private troubles.

This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, which you can view here.

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About steventhreadgold

I'm a sociologist at the University of Newcastle. I will be posting various thoughts on stuff here, mostly based on my research with young people about issues around inequality and class, DIY cultures and music.
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One Response to Struggle Street and Poverty Porn

  1. CineMuse says:

    Thanks Steven for a thoughtful explanation of a complex issue. Struggle Street has generated strong and widely differing views. As a Westie-born myself I found it to be a film beneath contempt. I’ve reviewed it and would be interested if you cared to comment at https://richardalaba.com/2015/08/29/analysis-struggle-street-sbs2015/

    Like

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