Poverty Porn [SFW]

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Source: Oxford Dictionary

“Porn”, you say the word out loud… young boys snicker and conservatives begin to feel a little uncomfortable. Many begin to visualise a sexual experience, not of their own, but one they have watched. These reactions are justified by pornography’s definition; visual material intended to stimulate sexual excitement. So imagine how wrong it felt to combine a word associated with sexuality with the word ‘poverty’ for this week’s BCM tutorial.

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Source: Oxford Dictionary

‘Poverty’ describes the state of being extremely poor. Combine the words together and no entries can be found in the Oxford Dictionary. Online results suggest that the term has been used for approximately three years to describe ‘the objectification and exploitation of the poor in our media; exploiting their condition and suffering for financial gain’ (Roenigk 2014).

A 2014 article ‘5 Reasons Poverty Porn Empowers the Wrong Person’ enlists Emily Roenigk to explain poverty porn is doing almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty and is being used on Western audiences to elicit an emotional response, with the main goal often being to generate money. A perfect example of this is a video published online by Entertainment News, ‘Jack Black Meets a Homeless Boy’, a four-minute ‘appeal’ that follows celebrity Jack Black around Uganda for a day. Black meets a malnourished young boy, Felix, spends time with him, learns how he spends his days ‘working’ and even witnesses that the young boy sleeps in a garbage heap. Black fights back tears as he appeals for donations, having completed exploited this child for the purpose of ‘raising money to help him’. Only how do we know that if we donate this particular child is going to benefit? He is the one we are crying for, he is the one who has been taken advantage of and given hope by a Western man with money. Felix made us feel everything, as we watched mere minutes’ worth of his life; and this, in essence is ‘poverty porn’.

I grew up in Port Kembla, one of Wollongong’s beachside suburbs. Port Kembla is one of those funny areas where half of the people who live in the suburb are quite affluent and live in beachside mansions and the other half are living in housing commission or beat up old rental properties that will eventually sell for millions and be bulldozed, to make way for another beauty on the hill. Attached to low-socioeconomic suburbs Warrawong and Kemblawarra and a 5-minute drive from Lego Land, the Illawarra’s most notorious housing estate, growing up in Port Kembla certainly didn’t keep me sheltered. In fact, a lot of what I witnessed growing up in these areas meant that watching the SBS documentary series ‘Struggle Street’ this week didn’t surprise me. I have seen people virtually living in squaller, dirty bathrooms and kitchens in run down houses, 8 or 9 people sleeping in three bedrooms, I even remember the scent of something not quite right; food rotting or unwashed animals… I couldn’t place it but I knew as it hit my nose that things weren’t supposed to smell like that. I couldn’t count the number of houses I had been through that I didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to sit down on the couch of… I wasn’t being snobby, I wasn’t one of the rich kids of the hill, but I knew dirty from clean and some places just weren’t as hygienic as they should be.

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 Source: Daily Telegraph

Struggle Street hit home, as I watched the people of Mount Druitt explain their stories I thought, ‘yeah, this is real’. And the weirdest part of it all is, this series was created to be entertaining. I wasn’t entertained as I hesitated to sit down on a friend’s living room floor because it was so dirty I knew it would soil my clothes, so why were audiences so entertained by these real life human being’s misfortune? Steven Threadgold of The Conversation explains that Struggle Street, in the quest for ratings ignores the harsh structural economic realities that create poverty in the first place (2015).

I understand that some people might feel better about their own lives by witnessing those who have less and others might just find pure entertainment out of others’ misfortune. Then there’s the cases that elicit emotional responses but people think, ‘yeah it’s sad but it doesn’t affect me’. Poverty porn has a purpose, but from the reactions of our class and the responses I’ve read over on the web, I’m not quite sure that it’s actually receiving the desired outcomes. Fulfilling the entertainment factor? Sure. Urging people to act? Not so much. It is my belief that there are better ways than exploitation to inform the public and appeal for donations… but I’m not a billion-dollar entertainment industry, so my opinion stays here.

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