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The Profitability and Entertainment Value of Poverty Porn

Poverty porn, aka poverty pornography, is defined by the Macmillan dictionary as ‘programmes and articles about poverty and poor people that do not address the issues behind the poverty but present it as a form of entertainment.’ What is crucial about Macmillan’s definition is the lack of help offered to those living in poverty. ‘Programmes and articles about poverty’ soon become problematic and harmful when the perverse speculation of poverty is prioritised over improving the lives of those who experience poverty. 


Building on this definition, this article will discuss the entertainment value of programmes about poverty, with a particular focus on depictions of the working class in 2000’s ‘trash tv.’ It will consider programmes about poverty, or ‘poverty porn for entertainment’ as seperate to charity work that, often, benefits from the profitability of poverty, which this article will dissect as an altogether separate issue. The notion of ‘white saviour hood’ will also be discussed as a nuanced sub-focus of ‘poverty porn for charity.’ 


‘Poverty porn for entertainment value’ can be best exemplified, thankfully, by British TV programmes that have long since been discontinued and would now be considered appalling by many. TV shows such as ‘Can't pay? We’ll take it away’, ‘Benefits Street’ and the infamous ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’ are known all too well for producing cheap laughs at the expense of the working class, but is this always the case?


The individuals in said TV shows are often characterised as thankless, benefit scroungers who are, of course, other to ‘us’ who watch disdainfully from the better-side-off our tv screens. Producers often air such shows under the guise of informing and educating the nation, when, in fact, there is nothing valuable to be learnt other than how cruelly misrepresented the working class is.


Take ‘The Jeremy Kyle show’, for instance. On this show, Jeremy Kyle would host guests and have conversations with them, all the while, a seated audience would observe and comment on said guests. A literal division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was created through this distinction of ‘us’ who spectated and decided judgement, and ‘them’ who deserved such lashings of judgement.


The premise of the show was that Jeremy Kyle would help solve the social and domestic issues, such as sex scandals or alcoholism, of usually working class people. He would act as a moral voice piece on behalf of the audience, whilst also airing out the dirty laundry of every single guest that he ‘helped.’ Looking back, it seems as though Jeremy’s ‘tough love’ and public humiliation was considered just by many, as though openly talking about their problems meant that these guests deserved to be berated by strangers. 


The show did feature Graham Stanier, director of after care, who would provide counselling and professional advice on how guests could cope after the episode had aired. Although, this seems an insufficient after-thought when considering the host’s treatment of guests whilst on the show. Jeremy Kyle would jeer and criticise guests for having several sexual partners, being unable to look after their children, and their substance abuse.


The serious issues that were discussed on the Jeremy Kyle show were just a punchline to a joke that affected the lives of many working class families. Viewers would laugh at guests' misfortunes and lack the sensitivity that would be expected for themselves if in a similar situation. Perhaps, this class barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is so ingrained that even respect or empathy were unthinkable towards someone they cannot identify with.


Another TV show, ‘Can’t pay? We’ll take it away’ trespassed on the lives of those who were in serious debt and vilified individuals who were unable to pay debt collectors. Episodes entailing trauma such as eviction or repossession were sensationalised and considered entertaining. Of course, bailiffs have to knock on the doors of countless vulnerable individuals and debts have to somehow be reclaimed, but it is worth considering why such personal events are televised.


Poverty porn such as ‘Benefits Street’ gives a voyeuristic account of the day-to-day lives of people living below the poverty line. However, the accuracy of ‘the day-to-day’ is often distorted by the media’s focus on entertainment value. The media is able to condense the complexity and nuances of the working class into neat and profitable stereotypes that are easy to recognise and harmful to perpetuate. The intention to inform and educate is not always disingenuous, but working class individuals are nonetheless stereotyped. These stereotypes are so deeply rooted that they are believed to be true and therefore pass as educational.


Working class individuals are often demonised by stereotypes and the language used when talking to or about them. Working class women are often misrepresented as loud, hypersexual, busy-bodies who are single mothers. Working class men are cornered into caricatures of uneducated, bone-idle alcoholics. As Tim Lott wrote, ‘The working class don’t simply sit around drinking, fighting, gambling, signing on and watching TV, just as the middle class don’t only sip pinot noir and listen to opera.’ Such stereotypes strip working class individuals of dignity and their sense of identity.


The term ‘poverty porn’ not only relates to TV shows about poverty, but also the catch 22 situation of how poverty porn is often profitable for charity work that is trying to help alleviate said poverty. Well-meaning charities will use photographs of poverty stricken children and exhibit their bodies in an almost pornographic fashion. Images of starving children and grieving mothers catch the eyes of millions who are willing to donate. There seems to be a perverse need to see the people we are donating to, in photographs, or on the news, rather than just reading about them in the papers, to prove to ourselves the extent of their suffering. 


Perhaps, there is a disconnect when we are without the visual aid of seeing who we are giving our money to, as though we need the evidence. Jorgen Lissner, author of ‘Merchants of Misery’ explained that the use of such photos ‘puts people’s bodies, their misery, their grief and their fear on display with all the details and all the indiscretion that a telescopic lens will allow.’ 


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a treaty that stipulates the rights of the child and how children worldwide should be treated. Even though The UN Convention has been signed by 195 countries and is known as the most ratified human rights treaty in the world, it is legal for organisations to take and use photos of children. In western countries people are appalled at the thought of someone taking a photo of their child, let alone using it for advertisement. So, why is there a double standard for other children? Why do African children not have the same right to privacy?


In 2020, Comic Relief announced that they would no longer send celebrities to Africa to be photographed with critically ill children. Child Rights International Charity, who stopped the use of such photos in 2014, tweeted that it was about time they stopped. The classic image of a white celebrity holding a vulnerable and unconsenting child only enforces the white saviour hood complex. The ‘white saviour' is someone who plays the role of saviour or protector to someone who is not white and has not asked for their help.


White saviour hood falsely assumes that it is the white person’s place to save people of colour who are living in poverty. People of colour are positioned as helpless and incapable of saving or even knowing what is best for themselves. The act of selflessly ‘helping’ is instead centred around whiteness and is done for the sake of the white person’s ego. The white saviour will often forget that there are white people who live locally to themselves who are also living in poverty. They will harmfully associate poverty with images of emancipated African children and rely on such images to aid their poor understanding of what poverty is.


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Tags: #poverty #entertainment #class #theworkingclass #misrepresentation #whitesaviourhood #povertyporn



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