I’m sure, at least once, you’ve been watching television, a film or documentary and thought to yourself, ‘At least my life isn’t that bad.’ We feel good feeling bad for others. At least I’m not homeless, we tell ourselves. At least my family is whole. At least I’m not a drunk. At least I’ll always have somewhere to go. At least my life is better than theirs.
Some call it ‘poverty porn’; the idea that we derive pleasure from the suffering of others- that we enjoy being reminded of our own humanity by feeling bad for them. Documentaries such as SBS’s Struggle Street in Australia, or Channel 4’s Benefit Street in the United Kingdom as well as charity advertisements have been accused of exploiting the experiences of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in their community for the enjoyment of others. Beresford (2016) refers to these as the most visible representations of poverty in the media, claiming that programs that appear more concerned with revealing suffering than polarising audiences tend to get lower views.
The argument is; is it sympathy or empathy we feel for the people in these documentaries? Do these programs achieve anything beyond showcasing people in our community so we can feel better than them?
Recently, the internet has been abuzz with a new obsession. And, to be honest, it’s sort of also become my obsession. It’s a high school, small-town murder mystery. Trust me, it’s not as lame as it sounds.
Riverdale is a 2017 television series, loosely based on the Archie comics, aired on by The CW Network in the United States and made available internationally by Netflix.
It’s a nostalgic, albeit unsettling, nod to the original Archie comics that is bringing a new audience to an old favourite, dating back to the early 1940s (Sava 2017). The whole gang’s there: Archie, Betty and Veronica, Josie and The Pussycats, and even Sabrina the Teenage who has been confirmed to appear later in the first season.
Arguably, the most popular character is Jughead Jones, the show’s brooding narrator. He’s dark, sarcastic and, of course, it helps that he’s played by the handsome Cole Sprouse. But more than that, audiences sympathises with Jughead.
(Image: Riverdale MEMES via Facebook)
BE WARNED: there are spoilers after the page break. For those who have not yet seen Episode 7 of Riverdale Season 1, you might want to catch up before reading on.
In episode four ‘Chapter Four: The Last Picture Show’ Jughead is devastated at the imminent closure of the local drive-in where he works. “It’s like my home,” he tells the mayor. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that Jughead had been living at the drive-in, using the projectionist’s booth as shelter. With the closure of the drive in Jughead is now homeless.
It’s not until the seventh episode ‘Chapter Seven: In a Lonely Place” that it is revealed Jughead has moved into a utility closet under some stairs at Riverdale high. Audiences watch as he wakes before 6am to use the locker-room showers before anyone else arrives for the start of the school day.
Until this episode none of the other characters were aware of Jughead’s living situation. For three weeks, the audience wondered “Is Jughead safe?”. Having been discovered, Jughead tries to return to his broken childhood home. His father is a drunken, jobless criminal, and his mother and younger sister have left. It doesn’t last long, and by the end of the episode Jughead is sleeping in a sleeping bag on Archie’s bedroom floor.
Audiences love to sympathise with Jughead, after all, he is the show’s narrator. They love that they hate to watch him suffer. Those three weeks of uncertainty as to Jughead’s living situation was a sort of exquisite torture.
But is it poverty porn? Whilst I think it’s safe to say many young women would agree there’s definitely something sexy about Jughead Jones, I wouldn’t say so.
The key difference between Riverdale and the programs like Struggle Street is in the representation of the impoverished people. Jughead is presented as a victim of circumstance, rather than choice. But he also acts as the lens through which the audience sees the corruption and delinquincy of others in Riverdale.
We aren’t shown Jughead’s struggles to make us feel better about our own situations, but rather, to expose the systematic inquity of scoiety and the culpability of the upper classes.
Whilst Riverdale doesn’t incite action, Jughead’s character encourages a closer examination of poverty, rather than revelling in the misfortune of others and looking the other way.
Alcorn, G 2015, ‘ Struggle Street is only poverty porn if we enjoy watching, then turn away’, The Guardian, 15 May, viewed 15 March 2017, < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/15/struggle-street-is-only-poverty-porn-if-we-enjoy-watching-then-turn-away>.
Beresford, P 2016, ‘Presenting welfare reform: poverty porn, telling sad stories or achieving change?’, Disability & Society, 31, 3, pp. 421-425, CINAHL Plus with Full Text, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 March 2017.
Brooker, C 2014, ‘Benefits Street – poverty porn, or just the latest target for pent-up British fury?’, The Guardian, 13 January, viewed 17 March 2017,< https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/12/benefits-street-poverty-porn-british-fury>.
McNair, B 2015, ‘ Review: Struggle Street proves to be powerful, often poignant TV’, The Conversation, 7 May, viewed 17 March 2017, < https://theconversation.com/review-struggle-street-proves-to-be-powerful-often-poignant-tv-41427>.
Murdoch, L 2016, ‘ ‘Poverty porn’ and ‘pity charity’ the dark underbelly of a Cambodia orphanage’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June, viewed 17 March 2017, < http://www.smh.com.au/world/poverty-porn-and-pity-charity-the-dark-underbelly-of-a-cambodia-orphanage-20160602-gpacf4.html>.
Riverdale, n.d., IMDb, viewed 17 March 2017, < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5420376/>
Sava, 0 2017, The evolution of Archie Comics: updating the Riverdale gang for the 21st century, Vox, weblog post, 26 January, viewed 17 March 2017, < http://www.vox.com/culture/2017/1/26/13149304/archie-comics-riverdale-evolution>
Threadgold, S 2015, ‘ Struggle Street is poverty porn with an extra dose of class racism’, The Conversation, 6 May, viewed 15 March 2017, < http://theconversation.com/struggle-street-is-poverty-porn-with-an-extra-dose-of-class-racism-41346>.
Tvpromosdb 2016, Riverdale (The CW) Trailer HD, online video, 22 December, viewed 17 March 2017, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XmFTADupMc>.