We’re richer for viewing ‘poverty porn’ of Struggle Street

By Karen Brooks
Courier Mail
May 11, 2015
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LAST week, SBS screened the first episode of the much anticipated (mostly for the wrong reasons) “fly-on-the-wall documentary” series Struggle Street, described by Blacktown Mayor Stephen Bali as “publicly funded poverty porn”.

Action was taken to prevent the screening and demonstrate disapproval. Conclusions as to the producers’ intentions, whether or not the participants were exploited and community attitudes to residents of Western Sydney were made as well.

I was stunned so many commentators wrote quite lengthy objections to the three-part show on the basis of a trailer, the sole purpose of which is to get people watching and thus secure ratings and recoup some revenue. Yes, it did go the predictable route of sensationalising and drawing on tired and objectionable stereotypes to attract attention. A tactic that worked, making the show the most watched program in its Wednesday timeslot, attracting a national audience of about 1.31 million viewers.

Subsequently, reports the cast intend to sue over how they were portrayed have made headlines. This despite signing releases and the outpouring of support since the program aired.

“Poverty” or “Pauper Porn” is not new. Nor is our propensity to sit in judgment of and be fascinated by those featured. As academic, Lauren Rosewarne writes: “Focusing on the marginalised isn’t actually a new concept for the reality genre.”

In Britain, there’s been the show Benefits Street, where according to David Tiley writing in artshub.com.au, residents in a specific road in Birmingham became a tourist attraction.

Another show, Skint, which (much like Struggle Street) highlights particular areas, caused controversy before and during airing. Though it drew attention to the plight of the poor, concerns that since the cameras have withdrawn, promises made and money committed by politicians without a mandate to enact them will, as local priest, Simon Cross plaintively said, blow “away like sand”.

Sometimes, it’s the gulf between “us” and “them” that makes these programs compelling. Seeing how the “other half” live as well as the deliberate and predictable tabloid-outrage they facilitate generates audiences and commentary – remember the Paxton family? – but sadly, not real change.

The US has a plethora of these programs, from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to the people featured on the various “pawn” shows who sell treasured items to recoup the cash, often revealing their life-stories and what’s driven them to “pawn” in the first place.

Yet, not everyone who watched Struggle Street felt it was “poverty porn”, many arguing it not only exposed the lives of people too often ignored, overlooked or about whom we remain wilfully ignorant, but gave voice to their hopes, dreams, failures and aspirations as well as the very real and difficult issues they face.

Journalist Michael Lallo argued: “What we saw was a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks. And how damn hard it is to climb back up when you don’t have the money, family, friends or education most of us take for granted.”

He argues one family in particular (but the same could be said for all those depicted) are “presented as complex and human, not as one-dimensional tabloid targets.”

It wasn’t so much that Mount Druitt residents were exploited as used to highlight wider social issues: drug use, teen pregnancy, welfare, unemployment, family bonds, education, public housing, marginalisation and abuse.

Singling out those caught in a cycle of poverty, despair and welfare but who are trying to live within and beyond that may have humanised the problems, yet it also made them individual concerns. This attracts judgment towards the person trying to cope or not managing, rather than the system responsible for these circumstances.

As Emily Roenigk argues on one.org, “poverty porn” misrepresents poverty, highlighting it as an individual problem, not systemic.

She writes: “Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it.”

Any politicians watching the show should be deeply ashamed.

Struggle Street is a confronting and stark reminder that despite Australia’s claims of egalitarianism, there are obdurate class structures and concomitant inequalities ever present – which many in the public and political arena persistently disregard, unless it suits an election or professional agenda (think Julia Gillard staying in Rooty Hill for a week, or PM Tony Abbott governing from remote indigenous communities for a few days annually).

I would suggest that Struggle Street was not “poverty porn” in the sense there was nothing entertaining about the show. Was it exploitative? That’s for the people involved to decide.

Dramatised, edited and packaged as a program worth viewing, it highlighted significant issues and the people suffering through them, revealing nothing is black or white while forcing us to confront our own naivety and prejudices.