Reality TV programs have been a popular form of entertainment since the beginning of television. There was “Sylvania Waters,” which followed the lives of an Australian family during the 1990s, and today we are regaled by reality programmes like “Big Brother” and “Masterchef.” These programs have one thing in common – they are not as ‘realistic’ as we would like them to be. People are cast in certain lights, designed to created tension and emotive viewing in order to transform participants’ mundane lives into something entertaining to viewers.
Perhaps the most questionable form of reality television is that which depicts people living in some sort of hardship. These shows have come to be known as ‘poverty porn.’ ‘Poverty Porn’ is defined as “Westerners’ portrayal of global inequality, disease and hunger and also to the distorted presentation of disadvantage by the advantaged” (Threadgold, 2015). These shows serve to preserve the stereotypes of “dysfunctionality,” and the fears of the middle and upper-class audiences on their mistrust of people living in low socio-economic communities (Mooney, 2011, p.6). Poverty porn has a tendency “to make those in poverty feel victimized, stigmatized and objectified” (Brooker, P. et. al., 2015, p.3). According to Jensen, “documentaries” like “Struggle Street” present such a convincing critique of a society that it does not leave the audience with any room with which to form their own perspectives on a topic (2014).
SBS has played jump rope with the line between documentary and poverty porn for years. Their documentary “Go Back to Where You Came From,” while strategically cast and dramatized, had a clear goal to increase Australia’s empathy with and compassion for asylum seekers. Other times, these ‘documentaries’ do more harm than good.
This harm was emphasised in the SBS “documentary” ”Struggle Street,” which claimed to expose the difficulties of people living “on the fringe” of Western Sydney suburb Mount Druitt. In actuality, it was a condescending portrayal of the most disadvantaged people in a low socioeconomic area, which pigeonholed an entire community into a stereotype comprised of the community’s extreme. It is so obviously exaggerated that it must be questioned how much the producers cared about accuracy, compared to entertainment value and ratings (Threadgold, 2015).
The Kennedy Family. Photo Credit: SBS
The show primarily follows the family of Ashley and Peta Kennedy and their children. Ashley has several existing medical issues and there are fears that he is in the early stages of early-onset dementia. Due to having several children that still live at home, Ashley’s disability pension does not go far, and consequently, the family struggles to stay afloat.
The way the show presents this story while covering all previous points does so in such a way as to portray all their children as dole-bludgers with foul mouths and no motivation. It does nothing to explain the almost inescapable poverty cycle trapping these people in their situation.
In order for the predominantly middle to upper-class audience to relate to the situations on screen, we are given an omniscient narrator to explain them. This element of the show is the most derogatory, as he uses clichéd language like “when you’re dealt a lousy hand, who says you can’t win,” and “when life sticks the boot in, it’s about how you fight back,” (The Guardian, 2015).
There are certain positive points during the first episode, including homeless man “William’s,” kindness to his dogs, as he says that he does not care if he starves as long as his pets eat. These sparse points of light in an otherwise dreary portrayal of life under the poverty line, however, seem only to be included in order to give the programme just enough balance between light and dark to be watchable.
William and his dog. Photo Credit: newmatilda.com
Peta Kennedy, along with others featured in the series, accused the show of selectively editing it’s the show to exploit the featured people and use them to emphasise their faults, (Koziol, 2015). Of the show, Kennedy said “When we signed up for it we thought it was supposed to be about people’s struggles and going through their problems and getting back on their feet, but this is awful… If I knew I was going to be portrayed like this, I wouldn’t have agreed” (Fife-Yeomans, 2015).
“Struggle Street’s” debut episode smashed all past ratings for SBS documentaries and even beat two prime-time reality shows, with 1.31 million viewers (Lallo, 2015).
It is deeply regretful that “Struggle Street” was edited in such a way as to cause so much harm, when in the past their documentary/reality shows like “Go Back to Where You Came From” have provided such a scintillating analysis of suffering people, and made a clear attempt to educate people for the better. By crossing the line to producing “poverty porn” like “Struggle Street,” SBS has proven that it is no longer concerned with creating accurate and beneficial documentaries but instead is more concerned with ratings.
Brooker, P., Vines, J., Sutton, S., Barnett, J., Feltwell, T. and Lawson, S. 2015, Debating poverty porn on Twitter: social media as a place for everyday socio-political talk, University of Bath
Fife-Yeomans, Janet, 2015, We’re not bogans! Mt Druitt fury at SBS Struggle Street series described as ‘publicly funded poverty porn,’ The Daily Telegraph, May 2, viewed March 26, http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/were-not-bogans-mt-druitt-fury-at-sbs-struggle-street-series-described-as-publicly-funded-poverty-porn/news-story/aced8475335c73fbc7d64dc69227810c
Jensen, T, 2014, Welfare Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy. Sociological Research Online, vol.19, ed.3
Koziol, M., 2015, Struggle Street: What happened to ice addict Corey?, Sydney Morning Herald, May 14, viewed March 26 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/struggle-street-what-happened-to-ice-addict-corey-20150514-gh1964.html
Lallo, Michael, 2015, Struggle Street sets ratings record for an SBS documentary, with 1.31 million viewers, Sydney Morning Herald, May 7, viewed March 26 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/struggle-street-sets-ratings-record-for-an-sbs-documentary-with-131-million-viewers-20150507-ggw15r.html
SBS, 2015, Struggle Street: Ep 1 of 3, (online video), Kanopy, viewed March 10 2016, http://uow.kanopystreaming.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/video/struggle-street-ep-1-3
Threadgold, Steven, 2015, Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism, The Conversation, May 6 2015, viewed March 26 2016, https://moodle.uowplatform.edu.au/pluginfile.php/598885/mod_resource/content/1/Struggle%20Street%20is%20poverty%20porn%20with%20an%20extra%20dose%20of%20class%20racism.pdf
Mooney, Gerry, 2011, Stigmatising poverty? The ‘Broken Society’ and reflections on anti-welfarism in the UK today. Oxfam, Oxford.
The Guardian, 2015, Struggle Street reality TV series promo lands SBS in hot water – video, (online video), May 5, The Guardian Australian Television, viewed March 26 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/media/video/2015/may/05/sbs-mount-druitt-struggle-street-promo-video-doco