Struggle Street: what’s tacky is telling Western Sydneysiders how helpless they are

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
May 06, 2015 /

Click here to view original /

Coupling the word porn with poverty is irresistible. Sure, there’s all that alluring alliterative appeal, but more enticing is the voyeurism. The guilt. The thorough sordidness. Stir in the firecracker of the show being “publicly funded” and the marketing campaign for SBS’s Struggle Street writes itself.

Cracking open the public coffers to pay for it – while an obvious bone of contention for commentators – is much less interesting to me than the question of ethics. About whether there is something dodgy about making a show about people who are poor(er). About whether it’s not merely distasteful, but if producing it is actually unconscionable.

While reality TV has long fetishised the lives of the wealthy, the vacuous, the famous, this time SBS have gone in a different direction. Seizing on a gaping hole in the market left by the Paxtons, Struggle Street offers up a squiz into the lives of those not merely less celebrated but in fact, those frequently – and loudly – maligned.

So from the looks of the trailer we’re getting battlers, brawlers, bucket-bongs. A woman who calls her cat a slut. And swearing. Plenty of bloody swearing. Because only the tattooed-poor swear like bleepin’ sailors.

Focusing on the marginalised isn’t actually a new concept for the reality genre. Gay people, disabled people, fat people, ugly people, conjoined people, even people living in trailers who subsist on nothing but sketti and go-go juice have been the focus of such shows in the past. In varying degrees of seriousness, networks have repeatedly taken the route of offering up pseudo-anthropological forays into how the other lot live.

But Struggle Street is a new concept for Australia. New and already proving divisive.

In the exact same ways that Here’s Honey Boo Boo – the now-defunct US show notorious for its pervy peep into the lives of po’ white folk in the American South – was criticised as classist, Struggle Street has been condemned similarly. Of capitalising on the unemployed, of turning the problems of addiction into entertainment. Of exploiting those who’ve made questionable life choices like a diet of chips and gravy and using a hand-fashioned bong while seated on a toilet.

Exploitation is an interesting word and one most often deployed in attempts to speak up for those deemed unable to do so. (Alternatively, it’s used to make prejudice sound legitimate, but let’s sideline that idea for today).

And here is where my reluctance to too-quickly dub Struggle Street as exploitative lies.

My guess is that most of the participants would be kick-the-cameraman-in-the-nuts outraged to have others tell them how vulnerable they are. Few people enjoy the victim label, and commentators attempting to prove just how helpless and exposed those Western Sydneysiders are is tackier than the trailer contrasting them with suit wearers. Suits, apparently, being the uniform of society’s important.

In a world where reality TV has filled our screens for a couple of inglorious decades – where we all know precisely what horrors to expect from the medium – those who signed on to participate knew exactly what they are getting into. Whether they were motivated by money, fame or to spotlight the plight of their people, they knew they’d be unfairly edited, how soundtrack would be used to manipulate audience emotions, and that vague, and invariably unjustified rage, would be directed towards them.

And yet they each signed on.

In truth, I wholeheartedly support people electing to be exploited if they are fully informed, are able to consent – and to withdraw – with free will and then get fairly compensated.

And yet, with my ethics committee hat on, vulnerability is not something to be taken lightly. While I am unwilling to deem a person exploitable simply based on unemployment or drug use, the Struggle Street trailer offers up some serious grounds to question the ethics procedures implemented pre-production.

In the mere-minutes long trailer we see an Aboriginal man boasting about his stash. There are specific guidelines for doing research with Indigenous people – even without reading them, however, surely the audience is prompted to question the appropriateness of actively marketing a show using an Aboriginal drug user with no other images of Indigeneity to balance the stereotype.

Equally, the show’s website spotlights two of the cast members: Tristan with brain damage and Chris with mental illness. Brain damage and mental illness don’t preclude a person being informed about their rights or being able to advocate for their own needs, but their inclusion in a television show – particularly one about down ‘n’ outs – calls for a much more rigorous approach to consent than simply getting their signatures on forms.

Producing a program about people with social and cognitive challenges is a delicate task that poses a host of challenges. Challenges hopefully not skirted in favour of sensationalism but equally, challenges that shouldn’t negate the usefulness of exposure either.

© Lauren Rosewarne