Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Your Prejudice is Showing

Remember when Sex and the City 2 came out, and everyone screamed that it was racist because it showed the citizens of Abu Dhabi in a "bad light"? It was full of "stereotypes" such as women wearing niqabs, and men who disapprove of slutty Americans committing lewd acts in public.

Just as well they didn't go to Saudi Arabia; they'd have 
been driving cars or something. Outrageous!

Of course, calling these depictions of Arabian people "negative" means that actually, you're the one who's racist. Saying that the film is guilty of "characterizing Arab men as religious zealots" assumes that in non-movie reality, citizens of Abu Dhabi are just as liberal as we are. (Apparently it never occurs to us egocentric Westerners that they might be perfectly happy to be portrayed as being strict adherents to Muslim law, and what we call "Islamaphobic stereotyping" might be their idea of a great example for us to follow.)

I can't help thinking that a similar mindset fuelled the rabid mouth-frothing criticism of Benefits Street, which lit up the tabloids as well as the TV schedule with its portrayal of a Birmingham community where work is scarce. People complained that the residents of the street were filmed in an unflattering way, called the show poverty porn and signed a petition to ban any more episodes being shown. If you think Benefits Street was "insulting" to low-income families, then maybe you're the one who's being snobby. An alternative perspective is that it showed a heart-warming sense of community in James Turner Street, as well as the helplessness of people who are desperate to work but just can't catch a break, and the bleakness of life when you're dependent on handouts.

One of the most memorable characters was Fungi, an oddly lovable ex-drug addict and current alcoholic who fitted neatly into the stereotypical "homeless guy" look, which helped when he was scamming the public with fake Big Issues. As well as nicking anything that wasn't nailed down, he lived off odd jobs given to him by his neighbours. Although he's since called White Dee "two faced" they appeared close on the show; she accompanied him to his scary hospital appointment as well as providing comedy gold when she asked him about his first crime. (Armed robbery. Where? McDonalds.)

When his fresh-out-of-prison friend Danny got arrested, Fungi's little face was so sad it was like watching Lady and the Tramp when Lady gets nabbed by the pound.

One thing that passed almost without comment was Fungi's admission that he's been on Diazepan since he was 16 because of childhood abuse. (It later emerged that he'd been raped.) White Dee also mentioned being on anti-depressants, although in the follow-up discussion show Benefits Britain: The Debate, Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson pointed out that Dee's energetic, take-charge attitude was at odds with someone claiming to be clinically depressed. Unlike Fungi, Dee could easily find a job if she wanted one. But you could also argue that taking care of everyone else's appointments, translating government communication and acting as mediator between feuding mothers was a full-time job in itself.

She wasn't the only busy bee on the street; you could see that Fungi and Danny considered shoplifting a legitimate day's work. Morals don't come into it in their world, stealing is just something you have to do to survive. Meanwhile Smoggy showed his entrepreneurial spirit by buying drinks and cleaning products and then distributing the contents across little paper cups to sell for 50p a pop. It was an encouraging reminder that people actually want to earn a crust. As Dostoyevsky said:"Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad."

And that's why I find it so irritating when people accuse the show of being anti-benefits propaganda. Arguing that "it's probably all staged / they've edited it to show the worst bits / most people on benefits are either disabled or pensioners..." is denying the truth: that this depressing, hand-to-mouth existence is the reality for some unfortunate people. And it's for their sake, not the taxpayers', that we need to change the way jobseekers are treated.

The government doesn't care if you're wasting your life away in a routine of Jeremy Kyle marathons and junk food. As long as levels of unemployment don't rise above a certain threshold, it's not their problem. In the "debate" Richard Bacon asked if anyone thought it looked fun to be on benefits obviously expecting the answer to be no, although Dee jumped in with "Of course they will!". It was a "Shall I tell her or will you?" moment  living on benefits looks GRIM. I have no idea why people get all indignant at the idea of anyone "sponging" do they imagine that a life of playing computer games while drinking lager and chain-smoking is a wonderful, joyful existence?

Whether you're a pop singer or a postman, human beings find satisfaction in knowing that they're making a contribution to the world – and no matter what your employment status, you can pitch in to your community. Maybe that's why life on Benefits Street involved leaving your front door ajar for friends to pop in, and socialising, hairdressing and playing all took place out in the street. It was like a 1950s utopia.
The only difference was the fruitiness of the language.

Another bone of contention was that Channel 4 lied to the residents: "They told us it was about living as a community and how we all got along. But the actual programme doesn't show any of that... They tricked us."

As always, lesson one is "Never trust a TV crew". But did they really lie? The show DOES show a close-knit group of neighbours who rally around and help each other through everything from domestic rows to cancer scares. It also showed that some of them indulge in illegal activities, defraud the benefits office or express shock at the idea of getting a job and thus being "different from everyone else". Both sides of the story reflect the reality of life in Britain.

I stopped buying the Big Issue a few years ago when I read an issue which featured interviews with a bunch of sellers. They asked each one how long they'd been selling and the majority of them had answers of ten years or more. (Another question was "Do you think Britain does enough for the homeless?" and several of them answered "Yes".) I had naively believed that selling the Big Issue was a stepping stone to rehabilitation, not an alternative; I now prefer to give my money to the shelters which will help people to get back onto their feet, find a home and get a job. Giving someone just enough money to get them through the day, without making any attempt to help them change their lifestyle, is a rubbish way to treat people, but it's echoed in the benefits system.

The only way we can fix the situation is by acknowledging that we have a problem. Is anyone listening? 

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