June 02, 2014

Poverty = foreign country

Poverty is a "Foreign Country" on the American Screen

Can we admit that poverty is as American as apple pie?

By Lynn Stuart Parramore
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 Louisiana 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!”)
And: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.
Comment:  The lack of minorities in movies and TV is tied to our cultural hatred of poverty. Which comes from our American exceptionalism that began with the Pilgrims.

This belief that we're God's chosen ones means that we don't enslave or kill others. We don't start wars or torture our opponents. And we don't accept poverty, hunger, or illness in our midst.

If any of these problems occur, it's because of a few rotten apples. Better yet, it's because people were weak, greedy, and selfish. We blame the victims so we don't have to blame ourselves.

For more on the subject, see Republicans Hate Government Aid for Minorities and Republicans Want Poor People to Die.

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