Although it totals only three hours in length, the SBS documentary series Struggle Street packs a punch. It has put social disadvantage on the map of modern-day Australia for free-to-air audiences, and sparked a discussion about the ethics of observational journalism. According to its critics, the program only confirms and reinforces some of the worst stereotypes attaching to the poor, and encourages a demarcation between a privileged audience guilty of “middle-class voyeurism”, and those whose misfortune is cruelly exploited for the sake of entertainment.
On closer inspection, however, many of the lives profiled in the series subvert and resist the trope of the hapless victim. Furthermore, the scenes of poverty in Struggle Street are a symptom, not a cause, of the demonisation and disenfranchisement of Australia’s poor. I believe that the program is largely effective in highlighting the commonalities between the members of supposed ‘mainstream society’ and its underclass. The importance of family is a key theme. We look to family to provide something of a buffer, and a sounding board, when life inevitably throws challenges our way (and are sometimes disappointed when these bonds don’t seem to count for much).
Like young Chris, we struggle to wake up on those frosty mornings when the imperative to go and earn a dollar has us crawling out of bed in the cold and dark. And we all have to hustle to get along. Not hustle in the sense of making a living via illegitimate means, but rather, the constant work involved in proving one’s employability, of jumping through a seemingly endless series of hoops often only for the reward of a short-term contract, coupled with the despair that bills won’t get paid when the work inevitably dries up. The predominance of insecure work under neoliberalism has made this constant low-level anxiety a reality for the working-class and the supposedly ‘educated middle-class’ alike.
As in society at large, mental illness touches every one of them in some way, although the co-morbidities stack up somewhat more ominously in the case of some Mt Druitt residents. Cheryl, for example, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, multiple personality disorder, borderline schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Her son Chris, however, is clear-eyed in his assessment of the handicap effect of his genes, and is wary of a dependence on drugs and alcohol. He is determined that these factors will not impair his efforts to live as a fully-functioning member of society.
Remarkably, many of the subjects of Struggle Street have internalised the rhetoric of ‘individual responsibility’ for the trajectory of their lives. This is surprising to see among those we expect to harbour a heightened awareness of the forces arrayed against them. “All my own fault”, claims young mum Erin: “when I was 15 I was hangin’ out with the wrong people, doing the wrong thing, wagging school…that’s why I learnt that nothing ever comes easy and if you want something you have to work for it”. Chris, who grew up in foster care, displays a keenness to lift himself out of the cycle of poverty: “I know I’ve got mental illness, but…I don’t believe it should entitle me to supplements or benefits”.
Even William, who is disenfranchised not only by his homelessness, but by the fact of his Aboriginality, reflects that, “Things are going pretty bad for me now. But they’re only going bad because of the way I’m making it go. If I want it to come good then I’ve got to step up a bit”. Yet he is realistic about the likely outcome of a lone individual taking out his rage on the system that oppresses him: “It’s killing me. Do I want to show it? No, I don’t want to f**king show it. If I really wanted to show how tired and f**king angered I was…I’d get the big house –free electricity and everything then – with 23-, 15-hour lockdowns”.
In fortuitous timing, the broadcast of Struggle Street happened to coincide with my immersion in the lives of some of Baltimore’s underclass. Written by the creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, The Corner was published five years before the acclaimed HBO television series first aired, and is a 609-page epic that provided inspiration for many of the street-level characters in that series. Practising their “stand-around-and-watch journalism”, over the course of more than three years, Simon and Burns became acquainted with the rhythms and personalities of the open-air drug market at the corner of Mount and Fayette Streets in West Baltimore.
In both Struggle Street and The Corner, the major contours of life below the poverty line are the same. Both works speak of public housing grown decrepit, the decline of manufacturing and with it, the potential for reliable employment, and the alienating experience of dealing with welfare bureaucracies that are labyrinthine and seemingly obstinate. The subjects are regarded by society as passive victims of their disadvantage, or wilfully deviant, and often both at once. Many succumb to addiction; getting high is often the only reliable salve for the pain and despair of subsisting on the margins of an indifferent world. Creativity and lateral thinking are often required in order to make ends meet. The subjects of Struggle Street and The Corner are seen scavenging for scrap metal, with the goal of bringing in a few extra bucks. With the modest takings, Mt Druitt’s Ashley and Tony splurge on some sandwiches at the servo, whereas in the world of the Corner, Gary and his co-conspirators reward themselves with a ‘blast’.
As would be expected, however, there are also significant differences. The Corner follows its subjects over the course of a full year; Struggle Street has been packaged in a much more abbreviated, selectively-edited form, with free-to-air audiences in mind. The Corner, like The Wire after it, is set in the heart of one of the US’ biggest cities, and is an indictment of the deeply problematic “War on Drugs” law enforcement policy, which by the 1990s was entering its third decade. Most, if not all, of the characters are black, and must grapple additionally with entrenched racial disadvantage. The setting of Struggle Street, on the other hand, is present-day Mt Druitt, in the suburban sprawl of Western Sydney; there are no larger-than-life drug lords or heroic police.
In April of this year, 25-year-old black Baltimorean Freddie Gray became yet another victim of US police brutality. While the community took to the streets to express their grief and outrage at another senseless death, the incisiveness of David Simon’s social analysis was called into question, when he dismissed the protests as an “affront” to the young man’s memory. He wrote:
But now—in this moment—the anger and the selfishness and the brutality of those claiming the right to violence in Freddie Gray’s name needs to cease … If you can’t seek redress and demand reform without a brick in your hand, you risk losing this moment for all of us in Baltimore. Turn around. Go home. Please.
What was so refreshing about The Wire was that it rejected all of the well-worn tropes of television drama in favour of intricate storylines that gripped you as they made you think. Not only that, but it tackled the normally off-limits themes of class and race in modern-day America. Dave Zirin, once a staunch champion of The Wire’s “bracingly original political message”, wrote in The Nation:
The idea that David Simon, praised as someone with an ear to these Charm City streets like no one since H.L. Mencken, could look at what was happening in the Baltimore of 2015 and not see the social movements and organization beneath the anger, makes me wonder how much he truly “saw” when producing the show. That David Simon could tell people with bricks in their hand to “go home,” and have no direct words of condemnation for the violence displayed by the police made me remember my friend Dashon—from Baltimore—who told me he would never watch The Wire because he believed it to be “copaganda,” since it was created not only by Simon but by longtime Baltimore police officer Ed Burns.
Although The Wire arguably stands as some of the best television produced in recent history, the relative strength of The Corner as a piece of social commentary perhaps lies in its lack of an aggressively pro-police angle.
Commentators of a progressive political persuasion have been some of the most vocal critics of the particular slant taken by Struggle Street. They have suggested the program constitutes “class racism” and “middle-class voyeurism”. Struggle Street is on a par with parodies and reality TV, suggests Steven Threadgold on The Conversation, “denigrating the ‘undeserving poor’, scapegoating and even pathologising them as figures of loathing, while completely ignoring the harsh structural economic realities that create such poverty in the first place”. El Gibbs, writing for Overland, expresses a similar sentiment: “by looking at people in isolation from the structures that lead to poverty, Struggle Street misses the chance to challenge the idea that poverty is a personal failing rather than an outcome of policy and economic factors”.
Before the series went to air, the Mayor of Blacktown, Stephen Bali, dismissed Struggle Street as “publicly-funded poverty porn”. Bali has a vested interest in obscuring the harsh reality of the lives of some Mt Druitt residents, just as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn’t hesitate to label those protesting police violence as “senseless thugs”. Ever mindful of public perceptions, both Bali and Rawlings-Blake are eager to imply that these are the actions of a deviant ‘other’ who are not representative of the citizens of their pleasant, orderly town.
(I’m reminded of the mayor of my hometown. The ‘flamboyant’ Darryn Lyons took the helm at a time when Geelong was reeling from massive job losses with the retreat of manufacturing from the region. Previous generations of Geelongites could be assured of a job in the local manufacturing industry upon leaving school at 14. There are now no substantial pathways for those newly-graduated from high school and tertiary education, and this is a state of affairs that threatens to become entrenched for generations to come. Lyons’ solution thus far has been to splurge on a giant, million-dollar floating Christmas tree for the waterfront, reasoning that the tourism dollar will somehow trickle down. What more could we expect than another piece of surface gimmickry from a mayor who was formerly a paparazzi. )
These criticisms of Struggle Street are legitimate insofar as they tap into concerns about the risk of exploiting and sensationalising the lives of the downtrodden for the sake of entertainment. However, as Sarah Attfield, writing for the blog Working Class Perspectives, points out, “In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that”.
And when it is the rich exploiting the reality TV genre to further their notoriety, where are the angry voices of the Left, demanding a context for the scenes of bloated wealth and extravagant frippery? Paris Hilton and the Kardashians are ‘famous for being famous’; their reputation is carried by nothing more substantial than an ostentatious public persona. We are supposed to laugh at their shameless vapidity, but not for one moment relate it to an economic system which makes such extremes of wealth possible.
In fact, it could be argued that Struggle Street’s focus on a small number of lives is both intentional and effective. An investigative-reportage, Four Corners-style program would be just another exercise in quoting the statistics, marshalling talking heads; an exercise in abstracting from the actual lived experience. No, that is not what we need.
The hardscrabble stories of what it takes to survive from one day to the next often make for uncomfortable viewing (or listening or reading), yet in their gritty detail, they lend a quotidian realism to the lives of the have-nots that a disembodied listing of the statistics could never achieve. For me, the victims of the Gillard government’s welfare reform were given a human face when Anwen Crawford, writing in Meanjin, profiled some of the single mothers affected. These women had been forced onto Newstart allowance and thereby, pushed further below the poverty line, when eligibility for the Parenting Payment was tightened in 2012.
A postgraduate-educated woman, with a daughter suffering from recurrent tonsillitis, had no choice but to put her school-aged child in an old pram and brave the pouring rain in search of some medicine to bring down her fever. A mother of four had fled with her children from an abusive partner, and was at one time, working seven days a week. That she could not even scrape together the coins for a cup of coffee every now and then struck a particularly poignant tone: “I can’t afford to buy a cup of coffee. I’d love to be able to buy a coffee.”
Context is essential, yes, but arguably, so is the ‘human dimension’; something that we, the audience, connect with, something that kicks us in the guts with a sudden flaring of empathy. Catching a glimmer of lives lived hand-to-mouth amongst all this supposed affluence might just provoke a questioning of some of our core assumptions. For those for whom these scenes of desperation are yet another illustration of the inexorable logic of some overarching apparatus, it raises our indignance and strengthens our resolve.
There is an underclass eking out an existence on the margins of our society that often does not conform to the neat categories of welfare bludger, criminal, hopeless addict. For however brief a time, Struggle Street and The Corner flick a light on an existence that is ordinarily so well-hidden.
As Simon and Burns eloquently put it,
Empathy demands that we recognise ourselves in the faces at Mount and Fayette, that we acknowledge the addictive impulse as something more than simple lawlessness, that we begin to see the corner as the last refuge of the truly disowned. Charity asks that we no longer begrudge the treasure already lost. And connectedness admits that between their world and ours, the distance, in human terms at least, is never as great as we make it seem.