Media Lives: Panem En Circenses Continues with Poverty Porn

Legal Scholar Mark Thomas has described the Hunger Games Trilogy as a ‘Cynical encapsulation of the cultural and political poverty of Rome, sated by the ‘panem et circenses’ staring equally cynically forward, following the cultural trajectory of reality television to its logical, if barbaric, end point’ (2013, p.361).

The symmetry of viewers observing brutal suffering in the ancient roman gladiatorial rings, and modern day films about children being forced to murder each other, people suffering on reality television- is plainly clear. In promoting the current season of Survivor: Koah Rong, CBS instead of playing the normal tribal music, the network is highlighting the suffering that the contestants endured. (see below at 1.20sec mark)

We enjoy watching others pain. As Susan Sontag points out, ‘it seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked’ (2003, p.36). And so this brings us to the discussion to the Struggle Street and the genre of television called ‘Poverty Porn’.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.23.23 pm“Poverty porn” refers to both Westerners’ portrayal of global inequality, disease and hunger and also to the distorted presentation of disadvantage by the advantaged which produces objectifying images of the poor through a privileged gaze for privileged gratification (Threadgold 2015, p34). Obviously it is clear to see that Threadgold is highly critical of entertainment made by exploiting those living in poverty by his definition of ‘poverty porn’.

With the recession in the United Kingdom bringing forth more and more poverty- reality television has turned its view from the elite of society al la The Real housewives of XYZ, to the bottom of the social structure. In Australia, the SBS documentary Struggle Street was met with controversy when aired, and people from Mount Druitt where the filming took place saying they were ‘appalled at the elitism and disconnected privileged’ shown by the producers (Alcorn 2015). Mount Druitt is located in Western Sydney and is a poor area with high levels of unemployment, and no stranger to negative media attention. The graduating class of 1996 from Mount Druitt High School had the class photo published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph under the headline “The Class We Failed” and told that every student received a grade lower than 50 in the HSC. The students successfully sued the paper.

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Poverty Porn seems to be produced for the perpetuation of existing stereotypes about benefit claimants (Paterson et al 2016, p.212). Examining the way audiences respond to viewing these programs was found to be with negative reactions to those portrayed, and some argue that the programs were constructed in a way that leaves little room for critical perspectives- ‘making the social world appear self-evident and requiring no interpretation’.  The portrayal of those living in poverty for our entertainment undeniably cause them to feel victimised, stigmatized and objectified (Brooker et al 2015, p.31). Clearly this raises ethical questions about the production and consumption of such content.

Exploiting people for entertainment is not new- however the difference in content that exploits the rich, and the poor is the issue of consent and agency. The contestants on Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 2.23.58 pmSurvivor are suffering for our entertainment by choice and reward of $1 million; whereas those in documentaries like Struggle Street and Life On the Dole exploit then ridicule the subjects, much like the students of Mount Druitt High School.

The positive that comes from poverty porn is that it opens up a dialogue and that must be a good thing, rather than looking away. Sontag suggest that ‘perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering…are those who could do something to alleviate it’ (2003, p.37). And in that there may be an opportunity presented by poverty porn to break down barriers that prevent those trapped in poverty such as austerity measures and underemployment; as opposed to being laughed at or worse- demonized.

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REFERENCES………..

Alcorn, G 2015, ‘Struggle Street is Only Poverty Porn if We Enjoy Watching, Then Turn Away’, Guardian, 15 May, viewed on 1st April, < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/15/struggle-street-is-only-poverty-porn-if-we-enjoy-watching-then-turn-away&gt;

Bisht, T 2009, ”Poverty Porn’ and the Politics of Representation’, Eureka Street, vol. 19, no. 14, p. 16.

Brooker, P, Vines, J, Sutton, S, Barnett, J, Feltwell, T, & Lawson, S 2015, ‘Debating Poverty Porn on Twitter: Social Media as a Place for Everyday Socio-Political Talk’, Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings, p. 3177.

Gould, C, Stern, DC, & Adams, TD 1981, ‘TV’s Distorted Vision of Poverty’, Communication Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 309-314.

Paterson, LL, Coffey-Glover, L, & Peplow, D 2016, ‘Negotiating stance within discourses of class: Reactions to Benefits Street’, Discourse & Society, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 195-214.

Sontag, S 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Hamish Hamilton, London.

Thomas, Mark ‘Survivor on Steroids: Law, Law and Power in the Hunger Games’ (2013), 22 (2) Griffith Law Review 361.

Threadgold, S 2015, ”Struggle street’ is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism’, Australian Options, no. 80, p. 34.

 

 

 

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