Poverty porn is a type of media, whether it be “written, photographed or filmed, that exploits the poor conditions of an individual in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause” (Aid Thought, 2009).
It can be argued that the saying ‘any publicity is good publicity’ is true when it comes to awareness towards important causes, but does this objectification of human beings for profit and in some cases, entertainment, worth the exploitation?
SBS series, Struggle Street, received much backlash at how it portrayed Mt Druitt and its residents as drug-addicted, homeless and welfare dependent. It seemed to blame the poor for being poor whilst provoking debate about the ethics of presenting the marginalised in the media.
Steven Threadgold describes the series as “poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism”. This notion is particularly clear as the show does nothing to address the economic, political and social inequality that created the poverty in the first place. Instead, the patronising voice-over of David Field judges every action its subjects make. The viewers are seeing Mt Druitt through the camera lens of people who don’t live this lifestyle. Therefore, viewers are distanced from them further – there is a lack of empathy.
Rightly so, the documentary offended the residents of Mt Druitt. They felt like they were stereotyped and their situation sensationalised.
This example of Struggle Street puts into question the motivation or intention behind any sort of publicity towards the marginalised. I know when I watched Struggle Street I told myself that I would do everything I could to not get into their situation and it made me thankful for what I had. The fact that it made me feel good about myself is the issue with programs like Struggle Street or TV telethons that use the heartache of the non-affected toward the truly affected to garner attention towards a cause.
I personally think it’s important to consider who is telling the story. If someone told my story, it would be based on how they perceived me based on preconceived ideas, where I lived and how I lived. The end result could easily be far from the truth. And that is what has happened with Struggle Street – an outsider looking in on a situation they try to make sense of with their own prejudices. The documentary maker’s view is only seen, distorting reality. Is this ethical? The context may matter.
For Red Nose Day, Jack Black was flown to Uganda where he meets and spends 24 hours with Felix, a young homeless boy. The aim of the video was to encourage viewers to pledge money to the cause. Whilst the campaign had good intentions, I and many of my classmates felt like the struggle of Felix was overshadowed. The end of the video focused on how Jack Black felt and how it was hard for him to experience how Felix lives. This seems trivial compared to the young boy who is an orphan and sleeps in a garbage tip. Again, the intention is good, the articulation and focus was not.
I feel like examples such as Struggle Street and Jack Black’s Red Nose Day video make those who watch them and aren’t impacted by the issues feel good about themselves for caring and having empathy. It’s as low involvement as the #PrayFor(InsertTroubledCountryHere) hashtags. Tweeting the hashtag does nothing, but it makes the poster feel good about themselves, then they move on and forget about the whole thing.
It’s has been a difficult topic for me to get my head around. I think it comes down to the perspective of the storytelling. The marginalised often aren’t heard, so it is the voice of the privilege who decide on how that story is told.
Alcorn, Gay. “Struggle Street Is Only Poverty Porn If We Enjoy Watching, Then Turn Away”. The Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.
Threadgold, Steven 2015. ‘Struggle street’ is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism [online]. Australian Options, No. 80, Autumn 2015: 34-35. Viewed 16.03.17 Availability:<http://search.informit.com.au.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/documentSummary;dn=402904867931790;res=IELHSS> ISSN: 1324-0749. [cited 16 Mar 17].
“What Is ‘Poverty Porn’ And Why Does It Matter For Development?”. Aid Thoughts. N.p., 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.