I recently began watching Shameless (US) on Netflix, and found myself addicted after only a few minutes. The show follows the Gallagher clan, which consists of 7 kids ranging from about ages 2 to 19, with a deadbeat, alcoholic, drug-addicted father and mother – who also happens to have bi-polar disorder. The everyday mundane for kids consists of paying multiple bills, fighting over who gets to shower first, getting their siblings ready for school, going to work, and even rescuing their drunk father, Frank, who always ends up passed out somewhere in a pool of his own vomit. On the surface, Shameless is an addictive dramady, but it goes a lot deeper than that. With constantly absent parents always looking for a fix Fiona, Lip, Ian, Carl, Debbie and Liam have practically raised themselves, and the fact that their paying of house bills from the age of 12 is passed off as normal actually highlights in a positive light the amount of people who go through this. The family lives in “the projects” of south side Chicago in a run-down 2-storey, right near the L train. But in the midst of dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse, alcoholism and even jail time, they have managed to turn this house into a loving home, headed by Fiona, despite their situation.
I absolutely love this show, but I always feel a sense of guilt when I’m watching it. But why? There is always a sense of “otherness” in watching shows depicting poverty. The idea of “us” and “them” as two separate entities, not tied together. I think that when people watch these poverty porn shows, sure they can empathise and try to understand the situation and how the protagonists got there, but there is always a question of “Why didn’t they…” or “Why can’t they just stop…” I am definitely guilty of this myself – I have found myself questioning how someone could be so poor and why couldn’t they just clean up their act and go find a job? But it runs deeper than that – there are obviously many influences on a person’s way of life that can’t be helped – and yet audiences often find themselves feeling superior to the protagonists of poverty porn.
‘It does not romanticize the characters or their dysfunction; in fact, it usually more or less sticks to the usual American narrative that the poor are pretty much to blame for their own lot, and only via character building personal strife and abandoning the losers in their lives can they amount to anything..’ (Munsen, 2016)
It is precisely this classism that is the problem with poverty porn. A study on poverty in the media in 2009 revealed that shows, documentaries or even news pieces ‘have to be lively, engaging, interesting and watchable or readable’ (Robinson et al. 2009). And this is the problem. Like with anthropomorphism, we have to be able to connect with characters or protagonists and be shown similarities between “us” and “them” in order to understand, appreciate or even show interest in the stories presented to us. We have to be thoroughly entertained by comedy, drama or the like in order to care about or even simply listen to the issues presented to us in these shows:
‘…the class issue has been used as a source of humor, instead of an opportunity to depict the abuse, violence and darker side of poverty that is far from funny.’ (Macey, 2012).
And because the media and even Hollywood shapes their stories in this way, the otherness and classism has stuck, and will stay, I think, for many years to come – unless something is done to stop this. Honestly, I don’t think there is anyway to sufficiently depict poverty, as there is a huge difference between an audience hearing and actually listening, i.e. acting to prevent poverty. This is a huge generational issue caused by a divide in classes that has stood since the dawn of time. Instead of asking what we should be doing about poverty, maybe the question now becomes – how should we educate people about poverty in a way that respects and does justice to those affected by it?
Macey, W 2012, ‘‘Shameless’: Poverty Gets The TV Treatment, But What Message Does It Send?’, Huffington Post, 5 November, viewed 27 March 2017
Munsen, F 2016, The Subtle Allure of Poverty Porn, Peter Pendragon, weblog post, July 9, viewed 27 March 2017
Robinson, Else, Sherlock, Zoss-Ogilvie 2009, Poverty in the media: Being seen and getting heard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, viewed 27 March 2017