Poverty is a "Foreign Country" on the American Screen
The movie Beasts of the Southern Wild is a travel film. You, the viewer, are invited to take a tour of a foreign country. The rituals are curious: The people cook with blowtorches. They coast the bayou on trash-heap floats. The landscape is fantastical, populated with mythic figures and beasts that seem to bubble up from the unconscious.
The uncanniness of the film is that this Louisianna landscape is not a foreign land, as its title mockingly suggests. This is home. This is America—a place where 46.5 million people live at or below the government-defined poverty line, which, for an individual, means surviving on less than twelve thousand bucks a year. We live in a time when we’re supposedly overcome with information, and yet we find next to nothing in popular culture about what’s going on with the half of us who are in or near poverty.
Rural poverty is nearly invisible on the screen. The film that usually calls it to mind is Deliverance, a thriller in which the nightmare of inbred mountaineers is as threatening as that of any gun-toting gangsters from Menace II Society. (Actually more so: “Squeal like a pig!”)
But lately there seems to be an acknowledgement, however cautious, that America’s geographical other should be rendered in more familiar terms. Winter’s Bone showed us the exotica of blown-out meth labs and squirrel-eating natives in a rural Missouri landscape, but the heroine, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is a pretty, virtuous white girl, a tour guide who makes the audience feel comfortable. With her, the Ozarks can be shown in all their decrepit glory.
Urban poverty, the pop-land of rap music and gangsters, is more familiar than its rural counterpart on the screen, but it has been a long time since we’ve seen anything like the struggling family of black ghetto-dwellers television producer and political activist Norman Lear brought to the American small screen in the 1970s with “Good Times.” Poverty on "Good Times" was mostly not a joke (save for the antics of son J.J. and his "dy-no-mite"), and Lear's social conscience was infused into the storytelling. Nor were its inhabitants foreigners (pre-cable TV had a meaningful constituency in the urban poor and there was no need to insult your audience). But the moment didn't last. Reaganists wiped all that away and left us with a racialized, other-ized ghetto where everybody who isn’t a dope fiend is a welfare queen.
Gradually, oh-so-timidly, the door is re-opening. “Orange Is the New Black”, a breakout hit for Netflix set to release Season 2 in July, gives us a pretty, white, upper-middle-class tour guide to a women’s prison, allowing us the comfort of laughing at the antics of the foreign inhabitants, who dance funny dances and say funny things. But the series also shows us the real consequences of being unlucky enough to be poor and imprisoned — your babies are snatched away and the prison guard demands a blow job for medicine. The Showtime comedy-drama "Shameless," which depicts a poor family living in the South Side of Chicago, started out mired in white trash stereotypes of drunkenness and compulsive thievery, seemingly concocted for the amusement of Showtime's affluent audience, but in its three years has matured into a more nuanced portrait of poverty which considers the larger forces that are impacting the dysfunctional father (played by William H. Macy) and his clan.
Recent screen depictions like Precious earnestly engage with at least some of the causes and conditions of the poverty, though they often relieve us of our responsibility: When Precious, an obese, HIV-positive pregnant teenager is rescued by benevolent strangers in a school program for at-risk girls, we get to say a collective “thank goodness!” Something will be done about the bad things that happen in this dangerous foreign territory. We do love our happy endings.
During the Great Depression, poverty was our poverty, America’s poverty, something we could all relate to. Charlie Chaplin was our Little Tramp, our everyman. The carry-over of that collective experience of poverty brought us “The Waltons” and gave us treacly reminders of a time when being poor was not a mark of shame. By the 1980s, television simply announced the problem of poverty solved: if you were black and virtuous, you got to be a Huxtable. If you were black and undeserving, the ghetto was your natural domain. If you were white, you never moved beyond reasonably comfortable working-class. Mostly you were upper-middle-class, if not rich. Voila! Meanwhile, actual poverty increased for people in America, both black and white.
TV and film both influence and shape public perception, and the go-to explanation for economic hardship is still the idea of a “culture of poverty,” which says that people are poor because their families are messed-up and they don’t want to work. (It’s interesting to imagine what the hard-working, righteous James and Florida Evans of “Good Times” would have said to Paul Ryan: here’s a glimpse!)
Commercial products have to resonate widely with the public, or they don’t get sold. It's still popular to look down on the poor or even gleefully mock them. (In the U.K., the smash TV hit "Benefits Street" depicts welfare recipients as fraudsters and losers.) But post-financial-crisis Americans may be more open now to depictions of poor people who are poor not because they are bad, but because they are confronted with enormous social and economic plutocratic forces. The Hunger Games is a start: the corrupt state makes a bold appearance as the force that messes up Katniss Everdeen, though the pitiless market is largely absent.
There’s conversation about poverty and class struggle that American popular culture hasn’t really had on a large scale since The Grapes of Wrath. But maybe it’s drawing near. Perhaps there is a new Grapes percolating in the consciousness of some artist who will dare to show us a narrative in which the solutions to poverty have to be collective, not simply a matter of individual aspiration and grit. Something that will not require an outsider figure to frame our gaze of a foreign land. A story in which we are confronted with the fact that low-income people and the middle-class are now quite often in the same boat. A story not about "their" poverty, but "our" poverty.
Let’s face it, trickle-down storytelling is getting pretty stale.