What is ‘Poverty Porn’ and are we guilty of indulging in it?

Simply put, ‘poverty porn’ is a term of criticism applied to films which are accused of being made for a privileged audience and offer up stories of poverty and suffering for their enjoyment. The notion of ‘poverty porn’ seems to have emerged as a reaction to Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning film (2009), Slumdog Millionaire. The film was felt by some critics, both in India and outside, to have been made for a white audience who enjoyed the ‘exotic’ location that housed the story of deprivation.

“Slumdog revels in the violence, degradation and horror, it invites you, the Westerner to enjoy it, too.”

- Alice Miles, The Times 14/01/09

As well as emphasis being placed on the modern orientalist approach, of both the filmmakers and audiences in the wealthy West, the second part of this debate focuses on the idea of entertainment and pleasure, with the film being presented as ‘heart-warming’. The film depicts scenes of torture, acid burning and communal violence, with a large amount of aggression directed towards children. Critics of Slumdog Millionaire found the idea of enjoying the film distasteful.

“When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go”

- Vrinda Nabar, DNA India, 10/01/09

Precious: based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, has reignited the argument over ‘poverty porn’ bringing the debate to the cultural hegemony of filmmaking- America. The idea of representation and racial stereotypes has caused a backlash against the film, which has been accused of being manipulative and damaging.

Precious’ detractors have attacked the film on two fronts; firstly the content of the film and its use as entertainment, and secondly in terms of racial representation.

“offering up the heroine’s misery for the audience’s delectation”

- Dana Stevens, Slate, 05/11/09

What is implied in both these critiques is that Precious has been made for a white middle class audience. While I doubt this was the filmmaker’s goal, undeniably it is pretty true statement of facts that Precious is being seen by more white than black audiences. This film and Slumdog Millionaire have and are being watched by people who are very far removed from poverty.

“Precious is meant to be enjoyed as a lady Bountiful charity event”

- Armond White, New York Press, 04/11/09

Does this matter? Do you have to be a scientist to enjoy science fiction, or a martial artist to appreciate Kung-Fu films? It is not the demographic of the audience that is the problem. Attaching the title ‘poverty porn’ to a film, is to question the morality of the filmmakers, and while there certainly are manipulative directors and producers out there, I think there is a case of misdirection here, it is not only the film, but the viewer who need to consider their intentions.

The question of representation has been hotly contested. Some critics view the film as connecting Black America with themes of teen pregnancy, sexual violence and obesity.

“offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity”

- Armond White, New York Press, 04/11/09

Do white audiences revel in seeking justification of racial stereotypes they already hold? The film is not a treatise on the African American experience, those who view the film with negative racial stereotypes have entered the cinema with them, not collected them along the way. But while some critics fear the film reinforces racist stereotypes, defenders of the film refute this label stating that it,

“buys into the narrative that there can be only one acceptable presentation of black life”

- Latoya Peterson, Racialicious, 10/11/09

‘Poverty porn’ is a hugely fascinating concept of which there are many convincing arguments, but it is interesting to see when and how this terms pops up, who applies it and which films are singled out. For instance why wasn’t there the same outrage over the presentation of poor Brazilians in City of God, or Britain’s council estate residents in Nil by Mouth?

When ideas of poverty are opened for discussion and complex issues of culture, race and representation are thrown in the mix, it is not difficult to see why there has been a backlash against films like Slumdog Millionaire and Precious. With a history of negative depictions of non-white races, the question of representation is still raw. Who has the right to depict who and how, is still ferociously contested within many areas of the Arts.

Interview with Sapphire, author of Push:

Watching Precious is a gruelling experience and the filmmakers know it. If the film gave you nothing more than Precious as the object of abuse, then certainly the film could be labelled as ‘poverty porn’, but it doesn’t and it isn’t because the film shows how Precious is able to make significant and improving changes in her life. No Precious doesn’t have a makeover and lose lots of weight, nor can she change the health implications of her abuse. Precious is not perfect and neither is her ending, to have made it so would have been manipulative.

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About Beth Wilson

A Brit based in Sydney, Beth is constantly fighting for an organised queuing system and the right to call chips, crisps. She can often be found working at film festivals around NSW, and has become accustomed to surviving on very little sleep. You can follow her on twitter at @bflwilson