The camera pans across a common Australian suburb, with its local schools, pubs, clubs and shopping plazas. As the camera zooms in, we are presented with the protagonists of the series, the everyday battlers, their children, their families and friends. We go further, delving into their economic struggles and personal conflicts. Then there’s the money shot: a pregnant woman smoking, an intoxicated partner breaching an apprehended violence order or a pensioner slapping away the last of his weekly allowance at the local.
This is the inherent conflict of representing low socio-economic communities as seen recently in the SBS docu-series, Struggle Street. Programs like Struggle Street that seek to document the lives of the disadvantaged are considered poverty porn: exploitive, ‘distorted images of the poor through a privileged gaze for privileged gratification’ (Threadgold, 2014). These programs, by their form and substance, feed into the divisiveness of issues like welfare dependency, the daily fodder for radio shock jocks and tabloid publications.
Poverty porn is not limited to film and television, the ability to edit and share videos on YouTube has allowed interviews featuring low socio-economic respondents such as Sweet Brown, Ted Williams and Antoine Dodson, to be viewed by millions. These videos elicit an emotional, predominantly humorous response from their audiences. The viewer’s focus on the entertaining interviewee overshadows the substantive community issues that have evoked this response from the subject: inadequate infrastructure, drug and alcohol addiction and high crime.
Alternatively, the producer of Struggle Street, David Galloway, believes that his documentary challenges negative stereotypes and the anti-welfare views held by some viewers of the program (Kalina, 2015). By showing viewers the issues that permeate within low-socio economic communities such as drug and alcohol dependence, poor mental health, unstable homes and low numeracy and literacy levels, the viewer, he argues is presented with an alternate and confronting narrative (Kalina, 2015).
Though representation is important to disadvantaged groups, presenting real people and their actions to audiences can lead to certain personalities and issues being discussed over others. Jensen (2014) suggests that in relation to poverty porn, ‘it is not the indignity and injustice of poverty that forms the centre of the story’ but the personal lives and actions of the protagonists. White Dee was the star of the UK’s Benefits Street, a program that followed the lives of the benefit-dependent residents of the Birmingham street, James Turner Street. Though Dee has found subsequent success through her advocacy defending the role of welfare in British society and the need for appropriate reform, it was her controversial appearance as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother that further illustrates Jensen’s point of poverty porn’s preference of personality over substance (Guardian, 2015). The popularity of the series also had a transformative effect on the street itself, with Dee describing the street as turning into a tourist attraction and its cast becoming polarising figures (Guardian, 2015).
Similarly, many of the individuals and scenes presented in Struggle Street overshadowed the substantive issues that Galloway intended to highlight. In the program, a scene was featured in which a pregnant woman, named Billy Jo, was shown smoking a bong. Billy Jo’s action became the focus of numerous publications analysis of the program as a whole and raised questions over whether producers should have intervened or if the scene itself was edited (Freedman, 2015). Though these questions are important, the scene demonstrates how these programs become poverty porn, with their focus on emotion over education.
Poverty and disadvantage are a complex issues that require more attention than a few documentary series and the subsequent media think pieces and outrage associated with their broadcast. While producers may have good intentions in sharing these stories, they must balance evoking emotions out of their respondents and educating their audience.