Poverty Porn: Justice or Exploitation?

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To be completely honest with you, I know nothing about being poor and having very little to get you by. The closest I have come to it is scraping pennies together to buy myself a coffee until my next paycheck comes in. However, my struggle with my finances and trying to make ends meet is nowhere near the hardships many people in Australia and around the world have to go through.

Although when it comes to poverty we usually categorise it with people who have made bad decisions that have led them to live this way or people who had no control over their circumstances. This particular grouping has led to the media’s depiction of poverty has grown into a new genre called poverty porn.

Poverty porn is defined as a medium type either “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).

Steven Threadgold (2015) refers to poverty porn as Westerners’ portrayal of global inequality and their ability to distort the presentation of the disadvantage by making it an advantage for themselves.

“Poverty porn objectifying images of the poor through a privileged gaze for privileged gratification” (Threadgold, 2015).

It is argued, however, that the media’s exploitation of underprivileged people has created a negative stereotype that often seems like they have brought the situation on themselves by not taking the help or relying on benefits too heavily.

The media driven “reality TV” and “documentaries” have stirred debate on whether the representation of the poor is ethical and whether or not it serves as a successful purpose at rising awareness of people in need. It is often believed that ‘any publicity is good publicity’, especially when it comes to creating awareness for social issues, however, when can you draw the line from entertainment value and sheer exploitation of the people involved?

The SBS series, Struggle Street, is a documentary that follows individuals and families living poverty showcasing their stories and struggles in the Australian suburb of Mt. Druitt. However series has received great backlash in regards to the portrayal and stereotyped images that they gave the people living in the suburb.

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Steven Threadgold (2015) coined the series as “poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism”. This statement is made clear throughout the different elements of the show, as well as the lack of attention paid to the economic, political and social fators that have created poverty within Australia in the first place.

The patronizing element of the voice-over, who makes it clear he has been brought up in a privileged environment and knows little about those who live in poverty. Adds a judgemental and cliched tone to the show, “When life sticks the boot in, it’s about how you fight back,” said true-blue narrator David Field. “If you want to survive you’ve got to keep moving and never give up on your next silver lining.” Gay Alcorn, (2015) adds that it is this tone that shows no sympathy to the despair happening onscreen. The residents of Mt. Druitt were also unpleased with the series as it showed the entire suburb to be stereotyped and showed those who did live in poorer conditions as sensationalised.

Struggle Street, aids as Australian-based questioning if poverty publicity motivates an intention to help the marginalised or if it just acts as a well to allow privileged people feel grateful that they are not in that particular situation.

It can be seen that Struggle Street alongside any other Australian-based series that follows poverty doesn’t receive the same reaction as campaigns and series’ that follow poverty in third world countries.

Jack Blacks meet a homeless boy campaign for Red Nose Day, it a great example of how poverty in a third world country, with children, can have more of an effect towards helping then that of a documentary in a Westernised country.

The Red Nose Day campaign also uses the familiar face of Jack Black, better known for his comedic work, breakdown on camera and ask for help for the young boy who has lost everything and none of it was his fault and completely out of his control.

The topic of poverty porn can be taken in many different directions and the debate over media coverage of these topics is still in the air. I, however, have come to the conclusion that in this situation, having poverty broadcasted for people to see is very subjective depending on who’s watching and what that individual person is like. It is possible to criticise the elements of production from the documentaries, however, everyone’s perceptions are different and some will view voice-overs, camera angles and the stories themselves very differently.


References:

Alcorn, G 2015, Struggle Street Is Only Poverty Porn If We Enjoy Watching, The Turn Away, The Guardian, 15 May, viewed 19 March 2017

Matt 2009, What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?, Aid Thoughts, weblog, 1 July, viewed 19 March 2017, <http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69&gt;

Threadgold, S 2015, Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism, The Conversation, 6 May, viewed 19 March 2017

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