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Poverty Porn?

“Poverty porn”:  the phrase has been gaining currency since 2008/2009, and not surprisingly. Its aural qualities and quixotic resonance could be an advertisement guru’s dream: that alliteration, the lilting vowels followed by that abrupt consonantal ending, the punchy incongruity of the lexical juxtaposition.  The phrase appears now in numerous blogs, a significant number of news reports, not a few academic publications, and has headlined a number of conferences and seminars.

The going wisdom is that its current popularity dates to blogs and reviews taking issue with the aestheticized/exoticized depiction of poverty in the film Slumdog Millionaire (2008), notably Alice Miles’ in The Times. Tracking internet keyword searches, Elsaeser and Buckland have provided evidence of a leap in usage of the phrase in 2008/2009 (in Gehlawat ed. The Slumdog Millionaire: Critical Anthology, 2013, pp.187-8). “Poverty porn” is particularly associated with, and regarded as effective moral condemnation of, representations of “distant” poverty – meaning, not poverty in Europe or North America -- that appeals to: charitable souls contemplating starving children in sub-Saharan Africa, tourists who want to explore the favelas of Brazil, and so on. However, the phrase has been around for a while. I found a review from February 2000 which used it for a TV serial filmed at home for British viewers, Nature Boy. Jacques Peretti had observed then: “Nature Boy [… exploits] an increasing appetite for social deprivation as glamorous tableaux. Poverty porn, if you like. // One uncharitable explanation for this is that the middle class love to watch poor people when they're feeling prosperous, but stop when there's a hint of recession.”

In fact, that could have been said any time after 2008; with the difference that British TV audiences have not stopped because of a “hint of recession”. On the contrary, with more than a hint of recession and amidst neoliberal austerity from 2008 (which usefully coincided with the alleged boost to the phrase via Slumdog Millionaire) they have developed an appetite for documentaries about poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. The frequency with which such documentaries have been produced, listed in the page through that link, speaks for itself. Their viewing figures justify their repeated appearances. The phenomenon has been noted every now and then with a hint of unease, a feeling that there’s something unsavoury about it all, qualms that it evidences a growing taste for “poverty porn”.

The phenomenon in itself seems to me of less interest than the use of the phrase “poverty porn” in this context. The documentaries track an inescapable social concern from various ideological perspectives; the phrase expresses a particular ideological attitude, one of righteous opprobrium. But it isn’t easy to grasp the ideological underpinnings of that attitude.

The difficulty arises from what’s understood when something is labelled “porn”. The two sides of this label have been usefully traversed by feminist critics in the 1980s/90s for the very thing that is commonly called “porn”: performances, texts, images, films designed for sexual gratification. Guilty pleasures – but guilty of what and pleasure in what? On the one hand, porn invites taking pleasure in something unpleasant happening to someone else, the objectification and dehumanising and commodification of women’s bodies (Andrea Dworkin, Catherine Itzin). Male consumers socialised in a patriarchal system are culpable, and the point is to get all to realise this. On the other hand, porn invites taking pleasure in something that is really very pleasant – sex – for all parties, male and female; but which has the potential to transgress all sorts of established social arrangements and boundaries (especially patriarchal), and is heavily controlled by conservative moral strictures if not laws (Camille Paglia). So it is conservative morality that evokes guilt, and the point is to get over it.

The moral ambiguity about porn expressed in these arguments, emancipative on both sides, extends to the labelling of “poverty porn” – though more as a matter of ideological awareness than elemental pleasures.

On the one hand, the proliferation of documentaries for prime-time TV could be a symptom of audiences being entertained by something unpleasant happening to others: those suffering the condition of poverty, unemployment, homelessness. Hence, the labelling of such documentaries as “poverty porn”.  To understand the general phenomenon, the strategies used in specific documentaries (how aestheticized or glamorized, how selective the representation, etc.) are not particularly significant. In that respect, in such documentaries there is considerable variation; in any case, aesthetics and selection cannot be taken out of any production; and besides, as much depends on the viewer’s perception as on the producer’s intent.  The concern is more that the phenomenon (as phenomenon) is indicative of a wider social disposition to take sadistic pleasure at the expense of the poverty-stricken, which has been systematically grounded in everyday life and embedded through political and economic consensus. This is one of the arguments Philip Mirowski makes in his observations on contemporary “everyday neoliberalism” after the crisis: “In the neoliberal theatre of cruelty, one torments the poor or indigent precisely because they are prostrate. Everyday sadism of this sort is enshrined in every crisis-porn news story that dupes the victim into ‘sharing their feelings’ over their eviction notices and job losses; […] it is there in the ridiculous obligatory ‘upbeat’ ending to every failure narrative so as not to unduly derange our complacent spectatorship. It is rampant in every suggestion that relief offered by religious charities […] renders the predicament of the downtrodden and disenfranchised bearable. It underpins the argument that the poor must of necessity bear the brunt of austerity now, because it will only get worse for them later if they do not….” (Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, 2013, p.131)

On the other hand, there are powerful conservative and establishment forces which encourage neglect of poverty, ignorance of distressed strata of society, a guilty or accusatory silence about such unsavoury matters.  Such documentaries counter the tendency towards neglect and silence, invade the drawing rooms of the solvent classes, and bring poverty and homelessness and unemployment into visibility and audibility where it won’t otherwise be noticed (would be studiedly unnoticed) – in however mediated and piecemeal and partisan a fashion. Hence, the labelling of such documentaries as “poverty porn”. But does anyone really use the phrase without opprobrium, as signifying representation that causes unease among conservatives and pillars of the establishment? It always comes with the queasiness of middle-class morals rubbed the wrong way, with a holier-than-thou snort (which could be more-virile-than-thou or richer-than-thou). At best, porn is tolerated because censorship is bad.     

Suman Gupta, March 2015