Pop Culture

I Can Do Poverty Better Than You

If this past year was good for movies, it was even better for poverty porn. Not since Precious and Slumdog Millionaire have we been able to say, “Poverty: so hot right now.” From the cinema to YouTube to the nightly news, poverty was everywhere in 2012.

Poverty porn is slippery. Some questions to ask: When do depictions of poverty become pornographic? Is poverty purely a balance of income, assets, and liabilities, or should we also account for non-monetary signifiers like eating habits, dialect, and education? To consider these questions, let’s explore the following examples from the past year.

On the internet there was Kony 2012, the most viral video of all time (at least, until “Gangnam Style”), which propelled us into activism with images of Ugandan refugees and child soldiers. Beyoncé gave us the year’s raciest bit of poverty porn, the music video for Party. (Who knew above ground pools could be so sexy?) Even Bey’s THC-infused sister, Solange, got in on the action. In her video for Losing You, Solange wore DVF and Kenzo as she snapped and clapped her way around a South African township. Rick Ro$$ went to Africa, too, where he made it rain in a Lagos slum. And many of our hipster friends paid to see Detropia, a documentary critical of—but mostly enamored with—Motor City’s urban decay.

Poverty porn was also on TV. Maybe we were just weary of Election 2012, or maybe our poverty lust caused us to tune out the presidential debates and tune in instead to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Either way, Honey Boo Boo and her Mama June dominated our televisions just like the news coverage of Superstorm Sandy, which reimagined coastal New York as New Banda Aceh. And if there was any doubt about the genre’s future, MTV recently began airing Buckwild, a reality show about young West Virginians gone wild.

All of these are very disparate works—both in terms of the degree and variety of poverty exhibited. For example, Kony 2012 depicts poverty as a consequence of civil war, as does Rick Ro$$’s Nigerian travelogue. Contrast these videos with the images of Superstorm Sandy, which blamed New York’s newfound devastation on Mother Nature and global warming. Additionally, much of 2012’s poverty porn doesn’t depict actual poverty at all. With the success of their show, can we really consider Honey Boo Boo and company to still be poor? Ditto the kids in Buckwild. While they talk funny and play in the mud, half of the Buckwild cast is in college and the other half has jobs. Not that bachelor degrees and employment preclude poverty, but Buckwild actually tells us very little about its characters’ financial situations, as if that were beside the point.

Consciously or not, peddlers of poverty porn know that just like skin, suffering sells. No cultural item of 2012 exemplifies this maxim more than Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Beasts is 2012’s Little Movie That Could. It was made on a shoestring budget by first-time filmmakers and nonprofessional actors. The film has overcome these obstacles to earn fans, Oscar nominations, and a profit. It’s propelled into the spotlight its young African American star, Quvenzhane Wallis. Fame also found the film’s director, Behn Zeitlin, the leader of an art collective (Court 13) founded at and named after a squash court at Wesleyan University.

Few things in America are as symbolically privileged and white as a Wesleyan squash court, and even fewer are as impoverished and black as The Bathtub, the fictional Louisiana town in which Beasts is set. So we can ask: Why, Mr. Zeitlin, are you literally slumming it?

As a thematic element, poverty operates in three main ways. First, in works like Kony 2012, poverty and suffering act as calls to action, markers of inequality and injustice that are so very alien to our wirelessly enabled existence. Films like Kony 2012 use images of poverty to reinforce Africa as a place whose salvation requires our Western intervention. In a brilliant and hilarious critique of this Africa-needs-the-West narrative, the “Africa for Norway” charity single implores Africans to donate their radiators to save Norwegians from hypothermia, which “is kind of just as bad as poverty,” according to the song’s fictional creator, Breezy V. “People don’t ignore starving people,” Breezy goes on, “so why should we ignore cold people? Frostbite kills, too.”

Second, in works like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Buckwild, poverty and suffering create spectacle. When I watch Honey Boo Boo and her sister during an etiquette lesson (“Alana and Pumpkin Lean [sic] to Eat Proper [sic]”), it would be incomplete, though not incorrect, to say that I take pleasure in watching them fail to eat a hotdog properly. More specifically, the real pleasure is watching them fail to conquer something as mundane and normative as table manners. Above all else, the pleasure—that is, the spectacle—of their show is recognizing Honey Boo Boo as failed whiteness. TLC, which airs Honey Boo Boo, knows this, too. In a heavily edited and stylized promo for their hit show, Honey Boo Boo and her family dine al fresco while corn flies out of their mouths, food covers their faces, and Sugar Bear, the patriarch, dips. It’s all kinds of gross and nasty, but the family smiles and laughs as “Ode to Joy” climaxes on the soundtrack. We get it, TLC: Nothing is as white and highbrow as Beethoven, and nothing is as disgusting as this white family.

Finally, poverty can also function in service of fantasy, which is exactly what it does in Beasts. The existence of the poverty fantasy also explains why Honey Boo Boo is about failed whiteness as opposed to something more euphemistic like, say, “unsophistication.”

In an interview with The Atlantic, Zeitlin said,

The Bathtub is not a place where money exists. The whole idea of the Bathtub is that it’s a society where all the things that divide people have been removed. So there’s no religion, no politics, no money, no one sees race, there’s no rich and poor because there is no currency. So, I never thought about that because to me the Bathtub is this utopian place. And the poverty thing, to me it’s much more like it’s been cut off from the world, and it’s a survivalist place where they have to build everything by hand, they have to live off the earth. You don’t have any commodities to sustain yourself, but to me there’s no poverty there… When you see a trailer there’s a certain association. When you see black people in dirty clothes there’s an association. Those are things that people are bringing in because they’re used to those aesthetic elements communicating a very specific narrative about misery and poverty. So, it’s not that I don’t understand the reaction [against the film’s poverty], but I don’t know that it’s in there.

Beasts may have created a utopian fantasy, but its director is living in a fantasy all his own. His is a world where you can simultaneously acknowledge and deny the racial implications of casting black actors as poverty-loving free spirits. It is only through the casting of black actors that audiences can accept poverty as something to valorize, celebrate and, ultimately, ignore. This is why Beyoncé makes trailer park parties so unquestionably desirable; this is how Solange makes shantytowns so fashion forward.

To the extent that we love Honey Boo Boo and her family, we love them for their failure to be better. We look down upon them in ways that are both critical and self-affirming. On the other hand, to the extent that we love Hushpuppy, the protagonist of Beasts, we love her for her ability to live and thrive within her impoverished means. We look up to her in ways that are both uncritical and comforting.

What allows us to accept Hushpuppy in an uncritical way is the film’s fantasy and mythic focus. bell hooks—a grande dame of racial theory so grand that she refuses to capitalize her name—explains that “it is precisely this mythic focus that deflects attention away from egregious sub-textual narratives present in the film.” Myths both micro and macro in scale allow us to accept Hushpuppy for what Zeitlin wants her to represent: a plucky hero who can survive disaster and loss while spurring her peers to action; a girl so strong that she is not the victim of child abuse, but an emotionally alien character who triumphs when we would fail. The persistent myths of the modern black primitive and magical negress allow Zeitlin to market his protagonist as such. Far from coincidental, the extreme poverty with which Zeitlin surrounds his characters reinforces these myths and lubricates the audience’s acceptance of Hushpuppy on his fetishistic terms.

Many tropes of poverty on display in Honey Boo Boo overlap with those in Beasts, though perhaps none as memorably as poor table manners. We cringe and laugh derisively during Honey Boo Boo’s hotdog lesson, but we smile and cheer during a similar scene in Beasts. When a white Bathtubber tries to show Hushpuppy how to eat a crab properly, Hushpuppy’s father violently interrupts, demanding that his daughter “BEAST IT!”—that is, break it open crudely using only the strength of her hands. Hushpuppy struggles, but ultimately succeeds. Zeitlin cues the triumphant music, and his characters and audience celebrate. Without any expectation of whiteness, Hushpuppy’s poverty is a loveable character trait, but Honey Boo Boo’s poverty will always be a character flaw. At least she’s getting paid for it.

Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.