Can I have some Telly with that Poverty
I was at a friend’s house after a party. We were trying to figure out what to watch and she said 'ooh let’s watch Can’t Pay, We’ll Take it Away! I love that show.'
This friend does not have a predisposition to television shows focused on the claiming of people’s personal belongings due to unpaid debts, nor was she the first friend who had expressed an interest in this show. However, it was the first time I properly realised this had become a new addictive part of television.
The addiction I refer to as ‘poverty’ porn is not necessarily a modern phenomenon, but the use of television in aiding this is. Frequently the elite use poor people as an example of how great their lives are, by inviting them to events and then offering them a minuscule portion of their lifestyle. The mocking of poor people also has history, as people take advantage of other’s financial situations to pay them to engage in humorous activities. However, the large scale on which this is now being portrayed seems to suggest the advancement of society is exposing the worst parts of our morality.
Now picture the scene. It’s a competition. Four judges sit in front of a large stage, whilst competitors perform for them, hoping the judges in combination with the millions watching at home will give them the vote to escape their monotonous daily life. Each competitor has a sob story. They want to give back to their family, or no one’s ever believed in them or this has been their dream since they were in the womb! I jest of course, but the claims do become dramatic. This description could be attributed to a host of reality television shows: The Voice, the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent. It also sounds a lot like ‘Fifteen Million Merits,’ an episode of Black Mirror.
Black Mirror is a dystopian drama series which questions ‘what if’ society developed a technological discovery and then pushes that thought to the extreme. The extreme scenario depicted in ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ is eerily similar to the description I just gave. In these reality shows, you often hear people talking about how far they travelled and how long they trained to prepare for their auditions. Travel and training are not cheap. In ‘Fifteen Million Merits,’ in order to compete in the reality competition, you had to work hard on a ‘bike,’ and save up. You get the gist.
We must now question if we are living in a dystopian drama. Have we pushed our need for poverty porn to the extreme?
In this context, poverty does not refer to a financial situation, but instead people in need. In all television shows, production teams work tirelessly to push narratives. However it must be said, the focus on need in these Black Mirror-esq. shows are uncomfortably telling of the state of our society. There has never been an applicant who is ungrateful for the opportunity, who has all they need and just wants to do the best they can. The competitors are always portrayed as having a deep need which can only be satiated through the public voting for them. Every one-to-one video of the performers acts as an almost Children-in-Need-like plea to give them their every wish. When watching bailiff collection shows, you often hear the begging of an individual as their home is ransacked and emptied. From a mental perspective, the degradation of this happening is problematic enough, but being able to see the most shameful part of your life is recorded for the viewing public to enjoy, is a psychological minefield.
There is also a disconcerting fact I recognise as I watch this year’s X-Factor and reflect on other like television shows. Representation of black people is not something I find lacking. In the exploitation of the poor, we find ‘equality’ in the races. In this context, it’s hard to not consider the historical experience of black people in human zoos being exploited for the entertainment of the majority white public. That said, at least this experience is somewhat voluntary.
When watching Black Mirror, viewers do not walk away with the perception that this is an acceptable way to live life, and yet the only way this ‘poverty’ narrative has been able to work successfully is because the public feeds into it. X-Factor is not portrayed as an extreme of society and yet in many ways, the idea that the public can pluck an individual from the usual 9-5 and turn them into a global superstar could easily be argued that way.
The exact reason why these shows are watched cannot be defined, as people from a variety of backgrounds take different things from watching. One argument is the desensitisation of the individual. As they are on television, they do not feel like an actual person and instead they are a figure on your television you do not need to empathise with. However, this empathy story does not explain how people are able to sympathise so effectively with reality competition shows.
Where will technology lead us next? In previous years, a filmed ‘prank’ played by a YouTuber where he replaced food given to a homeless man with toothpaste was publicly attacked as morally abhorrent. The manipulation of a man in need was not something the society could condone. Then many of those reprimanding individuals put on their poverty porn television shows and got on with their day. A nihilist would say certain abhorrent things will get a new perception as we find our next extreme.
Ultimately, as the years go by and current poverty porn shows become tired, I just wonder where our social moral compass will lead us next.