The subject of desensitisation and the aestheticisation of violence in the media is one of many debates throughout the world and has been for decades. Is it because we have become too desensitised to violence and suffering in the media? As a society have we become emotionless when watching violent acts on TV screens? Seeing suffering through journalistic type photos in newspapers and reading web articles that delve into the devastating world of war and poverty has become the norm. There shouldn’t be this kind of normality in such harrowing acts; nothing about seeing the suffering of others should be okay, full stop. Yet we continue to look and this is where the term ‘poverty porn’ comes in.
‘Poverty porn’ is a term I’ve not heard before, yet it makes so much sense to me now. Poverty porn is a well-established expression used in media studies circles where images of suffering are ubiquitous and practically define today’s perception of charity and humanitarian work (ThoughtBox Education, 2015). There are shows on TV like ‘Famous, Rich and Homeless’, ‘Benefits Street’ and ‘The Briefcase’, which reduce the poor to a stereotype for the entertainment of others. There is certainly a lack of decency and respect for these people and for what? A donation? An empathetic sigh? It’s just not good enough. While it surely helps, these people don’t need charity handouts, they need activism and respect.
Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that all humans have protection from discrimination. Discrimination, as outlined by the United Nations, occurs when a person is treated differently based on a range of circumstances; this includes race, status and social origin. On this basis, it’s pretty clear to see that the people being depicted in these TV shows are not only being exploited for money, but they are also being discriminated against… FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S ENTERTAINMENT! (Can you tell it makes my blood boil a ‘lil bit?)
The sensationalism of poverty has made the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’ greater, it’s given those who are privileged the self proclaimed right to look down upon those who are lesser than society’s idea of average and comment on it. I think that Jamie Folsom puts it perfectly in her TedX Talk on her personal story involving poverty porn where she says:
“In many ways it’s like a hand with all the fingers talking with one another talking about the thumbs waaay over there, not one of us. But the reality is that we’re all connected through the Internet, through the media and the thumbs see the stories and hear the stories and hear you talking about them and they hear you talking for them. Poverty porn affects ‘them’.”
Poverty porn reads much like a narrative. There are many characters, all of who are labelled as poor, helpless and incompetent. But rejoice! For every story, there’s a hero! Whether it be the donor, the aid organisation or the individual who feels compelled to share a post on Facebook because it makes them sad or angry, without the hero nothing will get better for the poor main character. These stories are overused, they’ve been told so many times that as a society we don’t react anymore…
We’re making TV shows where the key message is that these people are different to everyone else; and in one such show (Benefits Street) one of the characters opens the show by reading the front page of The Gazette which says “The new series of controversial TV show Benefits Street has confirmed anger as poverty porn cameras start rolling in Kingston Road” this is followed by footage of the police booking a different character and a camera man having a bottle thrown at his head the narrator says “…This makes it hard to stay out of trouble and even harder to stay out of the headlines”. But if it weren’t for poverty porn and people like you aiming your camera in these peoples faced wouldn’t these people not be in the headlines? I don’t know, just an observation.
Onto another note, I wonder if as a society, we are becoming desensitised to violence and suffering not only within the media but also in real life. This subject led me to research the desensitising effect that violent media has on people in real life situations. In doing so I found a great research report conducted by B. Bushman and C. Anderson at the University of Michigan, the University of Amsterdam and Iowa State University that tests two studies into the effects of violent media on helping those who are in pain. What I have understood from reading this report is as follows:
In study one, participants were asked to play an exceptionally graphic and violent video game for 20 minutes and the other half was asked to play a non-violent video game for 20 minutes. While completing a lengthy questionnaire after playing these games, a fight in which one person is injured happens just outside of the lab they are sitting in. Those who played the violent video game took longer to respond to the real life violence and rated the fight as less serious of an issue than those who played the non-violent game. In study two, violent and non-violent movie attendees are witness to a woman with an injured ankle struggle to pick up her crutches outside the movie theatre either before or after the movie. Participants who had just watched a violent movie took longer to help than those in the other three conditions. The findings from both studies suggest that violent media makes people numb to the pain and suffering of others in real life and aids in desensitising them to violent articles within the media.
As a member of society, I will admit that I am most definitely desensitised to what is happening around me because of the way suffering, pain and violence has become so normal. I don’t react when I see these things on TV or in the newspapers, I turn the page and continue on with my life. This might seem harsh or make me look like a horrid person but I think we can all agree that we’ve all done this one time or another and it’s only fair to assume that we will do it again.
Cowburn, A. (2017). The Big Benefits Handout is poverty porn at its worst, The Independent, <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/the-big-benefits-handout-is-poverty-porn-at-its-worst-where-desperate-families-are-reduced-to-a6877086.html>, 21 Mar. 2017.
Equalityhumanrights.com. (2017). Article 14: Protection from discrimination | Equality and Human Rights Commission, <https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/human-rights-act/article-14-protection-discrimination> 21 Mar. 2017.
NewsComAu. (2017). Critics slam ‘poverty porn’ TV show, <http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/benefit-street-a-hit-reality-tv-show-about-welfare-recipients-slammed-as-poverty-porn-by-critics/news-story/f2002de2649535b828fe66951d975730>, 21 Mar. 2017.
NewsComAu. (2017). Nine defends controversial US ‘poverty porn’ show, <http://www.news.com.au/finance/money/costs/controversy-is-an-important-thing-on-tv-nine-defends-poverty-porn-show-the-briefcase/news-story/ca6a0a82e36e2823231bd3b8a2664e47>, 21 Mar. 2017.
NewsComAu. (2017). The Briefcase is exploitative poverty porn at its worst, <http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/tv/tv-shows/the-briefcase-is-exploitative-poverty-porn-at-its-worst/news-story/7fc1d36fe986f8de95e9252c1e24731c>, 21 Mar. 2017.
Newstatesman.com. (2017). How poverty porn got its own game show, <http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/09/how-poverty-porn-got-its-own-game-show>, 21 Mar. 2017.
Sherwin, A. (2017). BBC hits peak ‘poverty porn’ with new reality show The Slum, The Independent, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/the-slum-bbc-hits-peak-poverty-porn-with-new-reality-show-a6827696.html>, 21 Mar. 2017.
The Huffington Post. (2017). 5 Reasons ‘Poverty Porn’ Empowers The Wrong Person, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-roenigk/poverty-charity-media_b_5155627.html>, 21 Mar. 2017.