Is it okay to watch poverty porn?

We all have our guilty viewing pleasures. Mine tend to be videos of people exploring abandoned places, extreme cake decorating, and trashy sitcoms. But when does one person’s guilty pleasure cross the line into another’s exploitation? Especially when it comes to matters of poverty, and so-called ‘poverty porn’?

In the superb volume, The Language of Money and Debt, Paterson, Peplow and Grainger examine the Channel 4/Love Productions program ‘Benefits Street’:

According to the authors, the regulatory watchdog in the UK received 950 complaints about Benefits Street. Most claimed it ‘misrepresented and vilified benefits claimants’.

‘Poverty porn’

Benefits Street, like the similarly titled Struggle Street produced by SBS in Australia (which just entered its second season) has been called an example of ‘poverty porn’.

The word ‘porn’ of course comes to us through the word ‘pornography’, the combination of two Greek words: porno- (concerning harlots) and graphos (writing). It literally means ‘writing about harlots’.

These days, however, ‘porn’ is used as a suffix in popular terms such as ‘food porn’ (delicious-looking food), or hashtags like #skyporn (pictures of sunsets and the like) – not necessarily with any sexual or guilty connotations.

When it comes to ‘poverty porn’, however, the use of the term ‘porn’ appears quite deliberate. It evokes notions of not only the guilt or shame the viewer is meant to feel, but also, the exploitation of the subject.

Poverty porn is defined by Paterson, Peplow and Grainger as  ‘a televisual genre that follows the lives of real people who have been selected for inclusion based on their socioeconomic circumstances’.

Judging the Rich vs. the Poor

It’s important to note, I believe, that it is specifically their lower socioeconomic status which makes these real people considered worthy of inclusion in ‘poverty porn’. Shows like ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians‘, previously examined here on Enrichmentality, or ‘The Simple Life‘ where stars are the object of interest on the basis of their high socioeconomic status (and are in a position of power to veto how they are depicted) are certainly not part of this genre.

The participants in Paterson et al’s study made judgements about how those they saw in Benefits Street spent their money. But they also made similar moralistic judgements about the extremely wealthy social elite. Both the ‘under class’ and this super-rich class were viewed as ‘immoral because they live outside of normal society‘.

Perhaps that is why these shows are so popular?

Are you taking the piss?

Paterson, Peplow and Grainger’s study is valuable in that they held focus groups with not only ‘average’ viewers, but with benefit recipients. Those receiving benefits frequently did not identify with those depicted in the program. However, one participant rejected the notion that the program was ‘taking the piss’ in its depiction of welfare recipients. They argued the stars were ‘just living their life and that’s the way real life is.’

Having watched Struggle Street when it aired in Australia, I can attest to the claims that it can be educative. While I already had some idea of the struggles those in particular low-income areas face, this program highlighted for me in stark relief just how important social capital can be.

However, at the same time, it is undeniable that just like the more ‘traditional’ porn of the sexually exploitative variety, it is the very imbalance of power between the subjects and the producers and viewers which makes their production possible. The sex industry broadly relies upon widespread child abuse in order to function. The vast majority of sex workers were abused sexually, physically, and/or emotionally as children. When it comes to pornography, many ‘stars’ were victims of incest. The ethics of any industry which seemingly by necessity draws the majority of its participants from such dire situations are questionable. Can the same be said of poverty porn?

The viewer vs. the viewed

Given the power imbalance between the viewed (who frequently do not have the final say on how they are presented) and the viewer (who can watch and judge behind the safety of a screen), even the educative potential of such programs may be questioned.

Furthermore, just as sexual pornography has been linked with normalizing more extreme, unhealthy and violent behaviour in viewers who see risky actions presented as ‘normal’, watching ‘poverty porn’ may provide people with a skewed version of what is ‘normal’ among those on benefits. After all, just as risky, taboo, and often violent or unhealthy sexual relationships are considered more ‘exciting’ viewing than loving, mutually respectful ones, someone dutifully purchasing an array of healthy foods to feed their children, and using their welfare check to pay their bills on time will hardly rival someone purchasing crack and setting a car on fire when it comes to prime time viewing.

There are, of course, more and less ethical ways for researchers and film makers to work with underprivileged populations. This includes taking an ethnographic approach. Permitting the subjects of the film to be more than just subjects, but true actors with agency. Allowing participants to make decisions about how they want to be represented, rather than having someone else choose the most extreme examples and stereotypes and airing those. Louis Theroux’s documentaries (which have covered, among other topics, both poverty and pornography) spring to mind. However, ethical questions appear inevitable. In the case of poverty porn, even if the adults participating want to take part, I do wonder (as I wonder in the case of every parent who over-shares their child’s life on social media) how the children depicted will look back on the program.

Is it art or porn?

Ignoring poverty and only ever depicting the struggles of the middle class is not the answer. But neither is sensationalising or denigrating the poor (or the rich for that matter) for the sake of entertainment.

A show which depicts those in poverty is not necessarily ‘poverty porn’, just as a show which includes sex or nudity is not necessarily ‘pornography’. The degree to which poverty or sexuality is presented in a stereotyped, exaggerated, exploitative way is what makes it so.

Check out the other side of the coin – keeping up with the Joneses – or the Kardashians!

Do you know of any shows that explore issues of wealth (or poverty) which are commendable? Recommend them in the comments below!

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