POVERTY PORN TURNS US INTO VOYEURS
Say what you like about Benefits Street; it pulls in the viewers — over five million of us. Monday’s final episode will probably gather even more to the tv screens. So, while people pontificate about the morality of the show, remind yourself of one thing: this is entertainment, not sociology. Just like Shameless, the comedy, and soaps, this is made to amuse rather than educate us. Not that tv shows intended to entertain can’t also enlighten us: quality dramas and comedies do both. But first and foremost, Benefits Street is designed to distract us in an agreeable way. This is not a slice of life: more of a sliver — a very narrow and entirely unrepresentative sample of a handful of people who live in a street of about a hundred dwellings, the residents of which are no doubt the least amused viewers in the country. This is good television, but terrible social science: if you think it offers a scope on the country’s lumpen proletariat, you’re hopelessly misled. The stars of this show are a minority of a minority of a minority, a highly skewed sample (notice how few British Asians appear in the show). The people are uninhibited, unafraid and take a certain pride in their deprivation. And we love watching them. They afford us the opportunity to tut-tut, express our disapproval and apportion blame for the decline of modern Britain. And there is pleasure in this. How we love to judge others. Call it “poverty porn” if you like. We’re all guilt-free voyeurs.