Tuesday, June 3, 2008


As expressed repetitively here, the two last taboos in our society are classism and ableism. Classism really comes to light when policy discussions around poverty take place. On mainstream chatlines, we hear about how 90% of those collecting "disability pensions" are not really disabled, how "welfare fraud" is so rampant and how people on social assistance shouldn't be allowed to smoke, own pets or have an occasional beer. Successive governments since the 1980's made it okay to pick on the poor. Well, shouldn't they all just "get a job"?

In addition to hearing these comments, low-income people do not see themselves in popular culture. Low-income people are not the heroes or heroines in the movies, nor are they the positive protagonists in popular novels. If poor people are portrayed, they are depicted as dirty, unhygienic and leaches at best; criminals at worst. The hit television series Trailer Park Boys, though portraying its main characters in many ways as lovable and sometimes deserving of our sympathies, they are also portrayed as small time criminals and irresponsible. "Ricky" is seen as a high school drop-out, a petty thief, a marijuana user and irresponsible, living full time in an old beat up vehicle. "Bubbles", bearing Coke-bottle glasses, lives in a make-shift shack built out of plywood among dozens of cats. "Julian" is portrayed as the smarter one, who has a real home in Sunnyvale Trailer Park, but nevertheless, gets involved in Ricky's schemes and he too, is a small time criminal.

Years ago, a comedy series called Good Times portrayed a black family living in the ghetto. MAD Magazine had no trouble producing a spoof of the series by poking fun at the poverty of this family. One example given was when the kids asked their mother what was for breakfast, she responded "a box of Corn Flakes". The kids then pointed out to her that there were no corn flakes in the box, then she repeated, "That's what I said, the box of corn flakes!" Poor families in movies were always portrayed as families with too many children, most of which were never properly dressed or fed, usually clinging to a stay-at-home mother that collects a big welfare cheque. These stereotypes have borne well over time and have translated into social policy with limits on how many children a family can receive welfare for, almost implying that the first thing a woman does when she qualifies is to go have more kids.

What about the news media? While there appears to be a lot more discussion on poverty in certain print media, such as the Toronto Star, low-income people are still portrayed as somebody to be pitied, usually under-educated, poor English, or if homeless, riddled with addictions. Those that give to charities, especially 'band aid' organizations like food banks, are portrayed as heroes and given positive press coverage, while those that must rely on food banks are either portrayed pitifully or somehow incapable of competing in our "fair society". However, in these same newpapers, even in the same editions where stories about poverty are published, three full sections of the paper depict luxury cars, while another depicts travel to faraway places and around the end of February, numerous articles about investments are published. If low-income readers are still reading the paper, they certainly do not find themselves in it.

This is only part of the onslaught that low-income families face on a regular basis from the mass media. Low-income families are said to spend more time watching television than middle and upper income families, because outside activities are out of reach for many of them. However, the television only serves as yet another reminder that they do not belong. Actors portray roles in sit-coms, movies and documentaries that perpetuate the myth that everybody's "middle class". Actors always seem to have fancy late model vehicles, or live in spacious homes. During the 1970's, the Brady Bunch, while trying to introduce the concept of a blended family, only served to 'normalize' middle class privilege. Despite this "intact" family having six children to support, Mike Brady (the father) was a sole earner and was able to afford a spacious family home, regular family vacations and keep "Alice", their maid, on the household's payroll. Later versions like The Cosbys, Married with Children, Family Ties, and even Friends (though this is about young urban professionals) and Sex and the City adhere to a middle to upper-middle class standard as the 'norm'. Even with Sex and the City making itself a movie hit on the big screen, popular fashion and jewellery associated with the characters in the show are now becoming a "fad". Yeah, must be nice.

Though many people do not watch television commercials that are supposed to give us a break from this steady diet from this salacious consumerism and class-biased assumptions, commercials apparently do sell to many people ... how often do you watch late night shows only to be bombarded with zoom, zoom, zoom (Mazda commercials), encouraging you to "discover Ireland" or to invest with Fidelity. Low-income people don't care about these commercials and don't have the resources to purchase these products, yet they are bombarded all the time with the culture-think that "everybody else" can buy these things. Regardless of how true that is, low-income people continue to not see themselves in these commercials. The poor are isolated, have no voice.

Once in awhile, however, a commercial for a public service or charitable organization comes online whereas we see children running around bone thin with fat stomachs and tons of flies around them, as we are persuaded to give a monthly donation to a "child like ____________". These 'sponsor a child' advertisements thwart the middle class perception of what poverty is about in their own backyard. Poverty in developing countries, while certainly an international disgrace, that is certainly a planned misadventure on the part of irresponsible governments and greedy world organizations that act as "lenders", cannot overshadow the poverty that is amongst us. We cannot become a country of hypocrites, although this is what we seem to want to be. We can't cry to the press about how we got to give more and more money and resources to "children in Africa", while our neighbours continue to go without and suffer irreparably as a result of constant financial pressures and food insecurity. We can't as businesses give huge charitable donations to food banks, while we pay our employees low wages, which only set them up to go to the food banks the boss just wrote a big cheque to.

We have to stop keeping our own poverty as an invisible vice of our society. Instead of going to demonstrations and throwing water bombs at politicians, it might be an avenue for some creative organizations to develop cultural initiatives that include people living in poverty, to give them a voice. Musicians can write songs that include what life is like for low-income people. Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Grant, among others, already have ... make culture accessible to people on low-incomes, make it include them and who they are. Commercials may wish to include low-income people using a relatively inexpensive cleaning product, saving a LOT of money at a sale at Wal-Mart or using a no-charge banking service. Bank of America ran a few ads a few years ago that included people with disabilities and how the bank has made its services accessible. These persons were not portrayed as "pathetic" persons, but as ordinary people living ordinary lives who at some point needed to visit a bank. Inclusive design in cultural initiatives is going to be a tough go, but it is not impossible.

Movies showing a low-income protagonist living an ordinary life, somebody who is not illiterate, not a criminal and not a "mental patient" would also be nice to watch. The movie doesn't have to be about poverty issues, but it can show that the protagonist is informed, self-aware and capable of being something more. They do not need to run off with a handsome prince in the end, but a message can be shown that low-income people have some capacity and can be fully participating citizens. Perhaps, the protagonist does not have a car, but it shows her walk her children to school and watch them in their school plays. Perhaps, the protagonist does not live in a spacious house, but has a small, but clean apartment. The message is not only in the struggle, but in the possibilities. Perhaps, a story about a single parent on welfare struggling for custody of her disabled child against all odds, but in the end, love wins out. The movie I am Sam kind of mixed both the poverty and the disability issues quite well, leaving the protagonist somebody that anybody can love.

The movie 8 Mile also portrayed a character raised on the 'other side of the tracks' in Detroit, Michigan. He was white, lived with his mother who was hooked up with an alcoholic man who apparently abused her. His growing intolerance of the situation at home grew as his ambition developed into becoming a white rap artist that won the hearts and souls of Detroit's black community. This movie, starring Eminem himself, portrays the part of "rabbit", whose life played along pretty much like his did. Amazingly at the end, those watching saw how talented this man actually became. The most poignant part came at the end after he won a hip-hop contest against a group of blacks, his friend who encouraged him to join asked him to come back and play, as doesn't he want to see everybody look up to him? "Rabbit" turned around and told him, "I have to go to work. I'm probably going to do it my own way". Nevertheless, Eminem became quite wealthy with hit records, his own line of clothing and many appearances. While I am not a big hip-hop fan, I listened and learned that this man does have considerable talent.

Popular culture needs to show more of these types of movies, not only portraying the rags to riches story of Eminem, the fabled Matthew Mathers from the ghettos of Detroit, but low-income people just living out their lives, earning the little victories. The movie Nobody's Child, based on the life story of Marie Balter was such a story ... her life as a youngster, severely "mentally ill" and institutionalized as schizophrenic and highly phobic, ends the movie by speaking at a meeting held by the very institution she was in. She started her speech by telling everybody there, many of the same doctors and nurses who were there when she was hospitalized, that, "When I left this place, many of you shook your head and said to me that I'll be back. Well, today I am back" (she was appointed to an executive position at this same facility many years later).

Using popular culture as a way to "educate" the public is an effective tool. I once met a man when I went to college who used to meet up with my husband and I, who were then attending different courses at the same college, for lunch. He often joked around about how problems can be solved, make a movie about it ... to some extent, this is a very strong part of what I believe in regarding the way popular culture can be developed as a tool of sorts, in addition to all the other work we do. When we see people with mental health issues that do not end taking a saw and hacking people to death, or a Middle-Eastern man that does not board planes and hijack them, we begin to learn that people with differences are more like us than different from us. This is especially true if we have a chance to "meet" their families, their children and follow them through their day ... but, unfortunately, popular culture still promotes many stereotypes that do not help our work.

Part of the exclusion people in low-income communities feel is because they do not see themselves portrayed in popular culture in a positive way. As a human community, we tend to relate to many of the characters we see on TV or those that sing about their sorrows on the radio. We all want to be liked. We all want to have friends. We all want to belong. Portrayal of poverty under its stereotypes or not at all makes it feel like one doesn't belong; promoting products and services during evening hours on television that only upper middle class can afford makes the low-income feel they don't belong; and certainly, writing about poverty by giving admiration and adulation to those that give thousands of dollars to the charities that should be put out of necessity (as opposed to becoming a growth industry) makes those that rely on those charities feel like a burden, and many also tend to view themselves in the same ways that mainstream Internet chat groups do: that they are not working hard enough, that they are not giving enough to their children, that they are not a good parent, that they are not a good provider, etc. Let's start lifting the burden and empowering them to help themselves and to portray themselves as yet another colourful part of our multicultural social fabric.

By normalizing their experiences, people will feel less bad about what they are going through, as well as develop a sense of hope for the future. By further portraying realistic figures into popular culture, perhaps less people will be so eager to bash the poor and understand that deep inside, we are all the same.

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