The strange absence of poverty from Poverty Porn – By Bernhard Wagner

People Like Us (BBC 3, 2013) can be seen as the first of a wave of controversial and very successful docusoaps that were filmed in poor neighbourhoods and claim to depict the lives of their residents. Harpurhey in North Manchester, the Westcliff estate in Scunthorpe and James Turner Street in Birmingham are the settings of  People Like Us, Skint (Channel 4, 2013) and Benefits Street (Channel 4, 2014) respectively – some of the most prominent examples of a new sub-genre of Reality TV: “Poverty Porn”. Their blunt exploitation of symptoms of deprivation and poverty for entertainment purposes, combined with a somewhat voyeuristic view into what the narrator of People Like Us calls the ‘secret world’ of the poor, make this label quite appropriate. However, to what degree are these programmes actually about poverty?

People Like Us claims to be a truthful and authentic representation of “what it really feels growing up the hard way” (narrator in the opening sequence). Truthfulness is claimed both explicitly and through the use of supposedly unintrusive fly-on-the-wall filming techniques. Apart from the wobbly hand-held camera footage viewers are very much used to, People Like Us uses film material produced by its participants. Finally, the sense of authenticity is underlined by the narration of Natalie Casey, a Northern actress best known for playing sympathetic, down-to-earth characters. The intended effect of this choice of narrator is to invoke familiarity and ‘ordinariness’, and to reduce distance between the authoritative voice of the narrator and those whose lives are being placed on display.

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As it is typical for the docusoap genre, the focus of People Like Us is clearly on characters rather than issues. However, the soap-opera like storytelling and the typical ‘problem-resolution’ narrative attaches a single, easily identifiable characteristic or ‘issue’ to the individual participants. Mirroring soap operas to some degree, discrete conflict-laden storylines are introduced, developed simultaneously and brought to a close within each episode. In my research on the show, I have found that over the six episodes of the series, 24 stories are told that, by and large, can be subsumed under five themes: Work, career, self-fulfilment; Criminality & anti-social behaviour; Drug consumption and excessive drinking; Parenting (with a strong emphasis on single-parenthood); and Nationalism and Racism.

These perceived consequences of deprivation clearly resonate with a stereotypical view of contemporary working class life. Criminality, excess, ‘troubled families’ and inadequate parenting as well as racism are portrayed as ubiquitous in Harpurhey. However, none of these issues are treated with seriousness in the programme. People Like Us shies away from anything but a very superficial exploration of these issues, providing individualised stories that reproduce stigmatising ideas about those living in poor communities.

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Interestingly, given that People Like Us is set in the formerly most deprived local authority in the UK, poverty is not an issue that features prominently in the programme. A small number of characters allude to being short of cash, but poverty in the sense of hardship and the struggle to make ends meet, is strangely absent from the programme. Although the high degree of deprivation is mentioned in the opening sequence (and is presumably among one of the reasons why the programme is set in and around Harpurhey), the consequences of living in deprived circumstances are not explored further. The same can be said about social security. There are very few direct mentions of state benefits. Generally, work and employment are portrayed not so much as an economic necessity, but more in the sense of self-fulfillment. The emphasis appears to be more on how the protagonists “follow their dream” (opening sequence) than the need to sustain oneself. As mentioned before, the economic and emotional strain of not having an income is only (superficially) explored in one storyline.

It could be seen as a positive that the programme does not sensationalise contentious issues like social security, drug consumption or parenting, and in that respect People Like Us might, in the docusoap universe, qualify as “Poverty Soft Porn”. In particular, the contrast to Channel 4’s Benefits Street could not be more pronounced. There are similarities in terms of setting, narrative and imagery, but the central theme of Benefits Street hardly features explicitly in People Like Us. However, I would argue that People Like Us not only shies away from the issue of social security, but also from any other examination of inequality. The omission of serious and negative repercussions of living in poverty trivialises and ultimately depoliticises social problems. Inequality, and related issues like exploitation and low pay do not enter the discourse.

Again, it certainly can be argued that it is not the role of a docusoap to offer a balanced and comprehensive account of inequality. In a sense, it lies in the nature of the genre to offer a partial and mostly character-centred view of the social world. Kilborn and colleagues (2001: 384) argue that docusoaps are “structurally incapable of providing critical engagement”. In the case of People Like Us it seems that a too graphic depiction of poverty, drug consumption, racism etc., let alone any serious societal or political considerations of these, were omitted in order to uphold the rather humorous, light-hearted and entertaining tone of the programme. I would argue that this is insofar problematic as docusoaps like People Like Us purposely deploy a “documentary look” in order to suggest objectivity, seriousness and make grand statements about their truthfulness. It would be false to assume that viewers of reality TV programmes necessarily take everything they see on screen at face value, but I think it would be equally naive to assume that these docusoaps do not feed into a trivialised, individualised and depoliticised understanding of inequality and poverty.

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