Poversion: The Perverse Position of Poverty Porn

‘Poverty Porn’ is a new term describing any media that exploits the position of the poor, particularly to sell a product. Channel 4 seem to be the highest profile network cashing in, with last year’s show SKINT (a new series of which is forthcoming) and this year’s Benefits Street (Channel 4’s best-rating programme since 2012) amongst the biggest successes in the genre to date. It’s a recent phenomenon, which betrays something particular to our current moment; in February ‘Poverty Porn’ got a Wikipedia page.

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Politically, the term is deployed by those on the Left to indicate that such shows give deliberately misleading impressions of the lives of poorer people, in the process victimising them (by selling the lie intended to create a class prejudice). On the other hand, those on the Right see such shows as an indictment of the Welfare State, with all the rhetoric of benefit scrounging and underclass ferality that goes with it. Both shows have receieved complaint and protest; there have been motions from the residents of Grimsby and the Grimsby Telegraph to stop the new series of SKINT taking place there. Benefits Street was always designed to be controversial in this way and we should not be surprised that it will be investigated by Ofcom after it received so many complaints. Charlie Brooker made the point that Benefits Street is a title cynically chosen to push buttons. His point, which remains undeveloped, is perhaps the crucial one to make about these shows, in that it is in the setting-up of the terms of this debate that its politics really operate.

After the backlash Channel 4 commissioned an extra episode to run at the end of the series which featured a debate (followed live by the Guardian) allowing people to air their views, placating those who felt aggrieved and mis-represented by the show. Any viewer could see that Richard Bacon’s job was to stir up a fight, but also to give the reassuring impression that the residents of Birmingham’s James Turner Street were shown to have plenty of time on the mic.

The real politics in play here is this setting-up of the debate so that what appears to be an ‘open’ argument only occurs within the confines of a limited structure. Karl Marx argues that ostensibly oppressed and excluded classes ‘cannot represent themselves; they must be represented. Their representative must appear simultaneously as their master [and as a] power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above.’ Thus, this ‘debate’ functions by making it appear that the subjects of these shows act and speak freely, that everyone is ‘given their chance’ to say their piece, that the residents of James Turner Street – in the case of Benefits Street – or Scunthorpe – in that of SKINT – have been given camera-time sufficient to have had ‘their voice’ heard.

Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, glosses this quotation from Marx in her famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ She explains that a trick is played in which we are made to believe that beyond this ‘speaking-for’ those who are unrepresented there is a place where ‘oppressed subjects speak, act, and know for themselves.’ We imagine that it would be possible for oppressed subjects to express themselves, given the opportunity. For Spivak this ‘leads to an essentialist, utopian politics.’ Her point is that once the subject in question has been defined by the presiding culture as ‘subaltern’ (of a lower status) – that is, singled out as someone who needs to be given a voice from a subaltern position – the subject can then only speak back in the language given to them by their apparently generous governing class. In being asked to speak, such subjects are being asked to conform to a position that wants to speak in the language and terms set by the very system into which they are invited precisely as subaltern.

The main criticism of both of these subalternising poverty porn shows has been that they are selective, only showing certain elements of the lives they represent. On the contrary, it doesn’t matter how much of this they show, it is the very position of the showing (one that is perversely wealth-making) that determines these shows’ stance and their subjects’ representation, a position enframed by a dominant language which at once constitutes the subaltern class…

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