Who puts the Porn in Poverty Porn: Victim, Viewer or Voice-over?

‘Ciggy Butt Brain!’ It’s the catchphrase bestowed to Australia’s national lexicon by the “part derro, part yobbo, part bogan” duo Damo and Darren (Savage 2015). The obscene YouTube animation series created by Wollongong-raised animator Michael Cusack uses familiar local settings as the basis for its piquant social commentary (Zukerman 2015). The original video set at Dapto train station has amassed more than five million views, inspiring a cult-like following and a succession of remixes, memes and merchandise (Zukerman 2015). Yet is it morally justifiable to portray significant social issues, from unemployment and poverty to alcohol problems and drug abuse, as amusement for public consumption?

Documentaries and reality TV programming representing poverty or the poor are known as ‘poverty porn’, owing to their perceived exploitation of vulnerable people for mass entertainment (Mooney 2009, 2011, cited in Hamilton et al. 2014, p.1841). Critics allege that poverty porn routinely appeals to an ignoble audience interest, is patronising and reductionist, robs its subjects of their dignity and ignores systemic failings (Wasserman 2013, p.138).

A key illustration of poverty porn is SBS’s three-part documentary series Struggle Street. The series was broadcast across Australia in May 2015, presenting the plight of disadvantaged people living in the impoverished western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt. While SBS commissioned Struggle Street with the intent of providing “a voice to a segment of society who are living through immense hardship”, the show was framed and marketed as entertainment (Moody 2015). The show’s promotional video encouraged viewers to find the worst and weakest moments of people’s lives funny and entertaining.

Screenshot from Struggle Street promo

Dominating discourses around poverty porn is an anxiety not simply about the representations of people experiencing poverty, but about the imagined reactions of those viewing them (eds Korte & Regard 2014, p.207). According to Kane (2010, cited in Law & Mooney 2011, p.2), poverty porn is premised on a “horrified bourgeois gazing at the undisciplined classes”. The viewers’ gaze demeans the basic human dignity of the poor people who are observed and takes advantage of their vulnerability (Selinger & Outterson 2010, p.109).

In Struggle Street, viewers are invited to adopt an affronted bourgeois gaze in order to arrive at a moral judgement over the behaviour and lifestyles of those exhibited. Viewers rationalise a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power as a fair reflection of people’s worth and abilities, claiming for themselves the binary qualities of superiority, competence and respectability. This encourages dismissive distancing of the general public from those living with poverty, thereby constructing a ‘them and us’ society.

Under these circumstances, is Damo and Darren, by default, exploitative poverty porn, devoid of conscience and sensitivity? Addressing this question requires an understanding of the contexts of observation that are morally troubling.309771_10200403608518047_1218904526_n

Documentaries command a validity beyond the conventions of fictionalised narratives since they purport to be a transparent window on the indisputable truth of the social world (Law & Mooney 2011, p.5). However, documentaries always involve decision-making about how to represent what is depicted (Law & Mooney 2011, p.6). They are never simply a ‘snapshot of life’ as the programme-makers claim (Law & Mooney 2011, p.6).

In Struggle Street, the rights of lower class participants were surrendered to the creative and ideological control of middle class media professionals. Participants complained that they were filmed when they specifically asked not to be, were refused the opportunity to preview the programmes and were misrepresented when editing and voiceovers manipulated the storylines (Goodall 2015). This resulted in some participants suffering humiliation, abuse, insults and bullying as a result of the show (Tuohy 2015). On these grounds, Struggle Street can be considered as a form of ‘immoral voyeurism’ (Selinger & Outterson 2010, p.101) whereby members of a privileged group misrepresent the values and beliefs of an underprivileged group on the basis of selective observations of their lives.

In comparison, Damo and Darren adopts an animated aesthetic of suffering that depersonalises poverty. Unlike Struggle Street which maxresdefault (2)incentivised an underprivileged community to performatively adopt “entertainment” roles, Damo and Darren relies on voiced caricatures. Through rendering the ‘real faces’ of poverty unseen or invisible to the spectator’s eye, Damo and Darren alleviates the potential for public vilification towards individuals. This raises the question of whether observing cartoon depictions of social reality can be regarded as a more moral use of the gaze.

As a form of visual media, cartoons constitute a major, but often underestimated, vehicle for mass communication (Kleeman 2006, p.145). The communicative power of cartoons lies in their ability to reduce complex issues into a simplified, accessible and memorable image often laden with deeply embedded meanings (Abraham 2009, p.121). While most cartoons are humourous, they also have a ‘cutting edge’ and manage to offer deep reflection rather than just simple “passing chuckle” on social issues (Abraham 2009, p.118). Cartoons can, therefore, be used as a rhetorical device and even an activist tool for orienting the public’s understanding of social issues.

While Damo and Darren is symptomatic of poverty porn, parading the experiences of poverty for entertainment and reinforcing stereotypical views of disadvantage, it has not been subject to the same level of criticism as Struggle Street in regard to the defamation and vilification of vulnerable people. The trend in which contemporary media is transforming people’s experiences of poverty and suffering into individualised ‘reality’ psycho-dramas is troubling in that it reveals the media’s relationship to the marginal poor is more exploitative than ameliorative. Thus, further research should be conducted to understand the potential usefulness of cartoons as a conceptual medium to offer deep social commentary and to force a public with an ever shorter attention span to look, care and perhaps even act.

Reference List:

Abraham, L 2009, ‘Effectiveness of Cartoons as a Uniquely Visual Medium for Orienting Social Issues’, Journalism and Communication Monographs, vol.11, no.2, p.117-165.

Aubusson, K 2015, ‘Mt Druitt community leaders hurt, angry and feeling sick after Struggle Street documentary’, Sydney Morning Herald, May 6, viewed 19 March 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/mt-druitt-community-leaders-hurt-angry-and-feeling-sick-after-struggle-street-documentary-20150506-ggvtff.html>.

Goodall, J 2015, ‘An ethical tightrope across Struggle Street’, Inside Story, 8 May, viewed 22 March 2016, <http://insidestory.org.au/an-ethical-tightrope-across-struggle-street>.

Hamilton, K, Piacentini, MG, Banister, E, Barrios, A, Blocker, CP, Coleman, CA, Ekici, A, Gorge, H, Hutton, M, Passerard, F & Saatcioglu, B 2014, ‘Poverty in consumer culture: towards a transformative social representation’, Journal of Marketing Management, vol.30, no.17-18, p.1833-1857.

Kleeman, G 2006, ‘Not just for fun: Using cartoons to investigate geographical issues’, New Zealand Geographer, vol.62, no.144-151.

Korte, B & Regard, F (eds) 2014, Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain, De Gruyter, Berlin.

Law, A & Mooney, G 2011, ‘‘Poverty porn’ and The Scheme: questioning documentary realism’, Media Education Journal, vol.50, p.1-13.

Moody, S 2015, ‘SBS Struggle Street series sparks audience anger’, Sunshine Coast Daily, 4 May, viewed 19 March 2015, <http://www.sunshinecoastdaily.com.au/news/sbs-struggle-street-sparks-anger/2626372/>.

Savage, E 2015, ‘Ciggie butt brains indict Aussie middle class elitism’, Eureka Street, vol.25, no.3, p.30-31, viewed 19 March 2016, <http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=42497#.VveaJhJ95cA>.

Selinger, E & Outterson, K 2010, ‘The Ethics of Poverty Tourism’, Environmental Philosophy, vol.7, no.2, p.93-114.

Tuohy, W 2015, ‘SBS poverty documentary has destroyed our lives’, Herald Sun, 5 May, viewed 19 March 2016, <http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/sbs-poverty-documentary-has-destroyed-our-lives/news-story/b94e33e0b18d74d4999c277b9c8d1ef9>.

Wasserman, E 2013, ‘Ethics of Poverty Coverage’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, vol.28, no.2, p.138-140.

Zukerman, W 2015, ‘Why are we laughing at Damo and Darren?’, The List, 31 August, viewed 19 March 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/thelist/why-are-we-laughing-at-damo-and-darren/6732380>.

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