Representation of an Issue: Third World PovertyWe have looked at three texts that deal with third world poverty in other contexts but can also usethem to consider what view of third world poverty they offer.The texts are: Slumdog Millionaire Save the Children’s web-page for its East Africa Appeal Self Help Africa’s web-page for its work in MalawiTo start with you need to gain some ideas about poverty and how it is viewed. To do this workthrough the PowerPoint on my AS Blog Issue: Representation of Third World Poverty.Make some notes with answers to the following tasks: Define what poverty means Explain what the Third World is Outline the dominant way the poor are represented in the media – what is the most common image we have of this group?Now think about Slumdog Millionaire and make notes on the following: Which of the characters would you identify as living in poverty? Offer some evidence from the film to illustrate what it means to be poor in the film – think about where the characters live, what facilities and job opportunities they have, what happens to the children… Is the representation as negative as you expected it to be or did anything surprise you/ seem less negative than we might expect? How genuine a representation of poverty do you think this offers us? Consider who filmed it/ wrote the script/ acted the parts/ how the film was researched/ the style of the film? Who or what is seen to be the cause of these people’s poverty? In the film, what answer is suggested to ending poverty? Is the West involved at all in lifting people out of poverty? Do we feel that they are deserving or undeserving poor? Why? What affect should this have on how we see our role towards them? Yet does the film require this response from us? One critic called the film ‘poverty porn’ – what doyou think she meant by this? Do you think this film can be said simply to exploit the poor for our enjoyment rather than use it to prompt us to act? Is it okay to depict poverty in a film simply for our entertainment? Did this film achieve no more than using poverty for our entertainment? (You may want to look at some of the info on the poverty PP slides to help here)
Now look at the Save the Children East Africa web-page: What image of poverty is painted in this web-page – offer some evidence from the images and words presented to us. Do you think this is a realistic picture of poverty in East Africa? Offer reasons/ evidence. What seems to be the cause of the poverty here? You may want to do a bit more research into the East Africa crisis to answer this one. What is suggested as the solution? Again, offer evidence and show how the text positions the western audience. Do you feel this image of the undeserving poor needing western help is a common stereotype of charity appeals? Why do you think they sue this image? Do you think this is a fair ideology – that the poor need the West to act as its rescuers, that they should be totally reliant on our aid? That all we need to do is give money? Can you think of a different way this may be viewed? Is it right to exploit cases like Umi’s?Now look at the Self Help Africa page: The image of third world poverty offered here is an alternative one – in what ways is the way the poor of Africa are shown different? Offer evidence. Are there any ways in which it shares some of the elements of the representation in the Save the Children web page? What is seen as the cause of poverty? What is seen as its solution? Do you feel this is a realistic representation or not? Why do you feel this charity has opted for this image of poverty? Can you see why some people may prefer the ideologies about poverty this page sets up? Identify two groups of people who may respond more positively to this representation and explain why.
Representation of Poverty: Notes Poverty is an issue that is never far from the headlines – the Ethiopian famine of 1985 and Bob Geldof’s LiveAid concert perhaps kickstarted modern use of the media to highlight third world poverty issues. Since then, we have had appeals to help the starving in Niger and, more recently, in the Horn of Africa, as well as campaigns like Make Poverty History. Third world poverty is often described as absolute poverty. This is defined as the lack of sufficient resources with which to keep body and soul together (The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee) It is when a person does not have access to the basic things it needs to survive – food, drink, shelter, care…It is estimated that almost half the world’s children live in such poverty. There is a dominant representation of the poor in western media – they are often shown as being ‘the other’ – they are shown to be different to us, separated from us. This difference makes us feel safe that such poverty cannot happen to us – it is something that happens to other people. Often the third world poor are shown as having a non-white skin colour, being extremely skinny, with raggy clothes, sad eyes and often sitting or lying listlessly. They have poor surroundings, often makeshift shelters made of cardboard or tin or flimsy wood or they live in dry mud huts. They lack basic sanitation like running water and electricity. They lack food and may be the victims of drought or be refugees with little or no possessions or victims of badly run regimes. They almost always have no hope of extracting themselves from this situation. This representation shows them to be the deserving poor – those who have not brought about their plight on themselves and this encourages us to see them as objects worthy of our help. This representation may well sit comfortably with our colonialist past – many third world countries we see in the news are former parts of the British Empire. The fact they have got themselves into a mess since rejecting our rule may well make us feel superior. We may also feel guilty at abandoning or maybe contributing to their plight (by leaving them to corrupt or inept governments) and this may fuel our need to provide aid and support. It reinforces the idea that it is okay for the West to intervene in other countries. In Slumdog Millionaire much of the story focuses on the lives of three slumdogs from the slums of Mumbai – Jamal, Latika and Salim. The slums are shown early on via a chase scene and an aerial shot shows how closely packed the houses are, made of corrugated iron with no greenery to be seen. A man is seen foraging in a sewage-infested river, women wash clothes in a public bath and all have to use public open toilets, seen when Jamal escapes by jumping down the hole of one into the contents below! Chickens and dogs run the streets and houses seem dark and bare. The children run the streets,although, when caught, are frog-marched to school by their mother. There seems to be little official control – a gangster (Khan) offers protection for money and seems untouchable, the police officer chasing the boys leaves their discipline to their
mother, Hindus riot through the slum and kill the local Muslims with little hindrance and, later,we see Jamal being tortured by the police. When the boys are left orphans, they and Latika areleft to scour and live ona rubbish dump, until they are picked up by Maman and taken to his‘orphanage’ where homeless children are forced to act as beggars for him and he even goes asfar as blinding one to enable him to earn more money and later seeks to sell Latika intoprostitution. The picture of poverty ranges from the borderline respectability of the slum to theextreme poverty and vulnerability of the orphans. Poverty is not just a monolithic concept, it hasshades and nuances within it, suggesting the film offers a more complex picture than we usuallyget.Poverty is usually represented in a wholly negative way and this is true for SlumdogMillionairefor most of the time – the place and way of life are not ones we would like to share. However,there are some elements that are surprisingly positive – the children seem happy (lots of smilingfaces), they have energy (seen via the handheld camera work in the chase scene) and they areresourceful (how they fend for themselves after their mother dies). The fact they have a schooland school uniforms shows that they are not just stuck in poverty but are actively seeking a wayout. This may help make the representation seem more balanced and realistic.All in all the representation does feel quite realistic – hardly surprising as two of the child actorswere real life slum dwellers, much of the action is shot on location and Beaufoy (thescreenwriter) undertook research trips before he wrote to try and capture the reality of theslums. This air of realism is enhanced by the media language – desaturated colours and somehandheld camera work make it feel less fantastical than the images of India seen in Bollywoodfilms. However, as this is a drama and a construction and needs to entertain, it may well beselective in what it shows – it may select the most dramatic elements of poverty and exaggeratethem to get the desired emotional impact from the audience.The film does not spell out what is the cause of the poverty but it does show that India is a landof the very poor and the very rich – even in the slums, Javid Khan, the gangster godfather, has awhite limousine. Later we see the new high rise skyscrapers and hotels being built and the luxuryof Khan’s home with its flat screen TV and marble floors. We also see how Khan has got rich byexploiting the poor, exactly as Maman does. For a while, Salim, too, turns to crime to get rich.This may suggest that it is India’s fault that so many of her citizens still live in poverty. Thismakes it a guilt-free watching fest for the western audience it is aimed at. Generally, when wewatch a film, we don’t want to be made to feel bad.In the film, crime is not the only route out of poverty that is offered. Jamal is the mainprotagonist and he escapes poverty by winning a game show – he wins because his life ofpoverty has helped him learn things that offer answers to the question. Poverty is not, therefore,a wholly bad thing – it has the power to redeem a person. There is a strong element of luck inthis but the fairytale ending where he gets enough money to live happily ever after and gets thegirl also stops the western viewer from feeling too guilty or bad about the poverty we see.
The characters definitely come across as deserving poor – they are young children at the startand have not contributed to their poverty and we pity them, as they are left orphans and needto look after themselves. The normal response would be to want to help but the film does notrequire this type of response. In fact, the protagonists sort themselves out and do not needwestern intervention. In fact, it can send us the message that we in the west do not need to doanything to help and this seems counter to the message most charities seek to get across.This raises the question of whether it is legitimate to get pleasure from watching scenes ofpoverty and degradation, when this type of situation is real for many people around the globe.This is what one critic meant by criticising the film as a depiction of ‘poverty porn’. It is the westexploiting the poor for profit that makes the west rich but does nothing for the poor.It is hard to offer a definitive answer to this – Uses and Gratifications teaches that we can getdifferent pleasures from one media product –escapism and surveillance being two. This impliesthat whilst many people watch the film for escapist purposes, they may also pick up someawareness of and ideas about poverty in a low-level way. This may well have more impact byshowing us poverty without the preaching of a more hard-sell approach. Entertainment andsocial action may not be totally separate as Danny Boyle has set up trust funds for the child slumdweller actors he used and the DVD came with a leaflet advertising a charity that works withsuch children.All in all, third world poverty is shown in a generally negative way but as a phenomenon thatdoes not need to involve the west – we can watch it from a distance and choose whether wetake our involvement any further than entertainment. It is not shown to be caused by thewest or to need the west to resolve it. Poverty is also shown as a temporary state rather thana permanent lifestyle, something that, with effort and luck, the poor can escape.We would expect a charity to present a more emotional picture of poverty and this is exactlywhat we see in the save the Children East Africa appeal page on their website.We are offered two pictures of a baby girl called Umi – a before and after shot. Both are highangle shots emphasising her vulnerability and put us, the western viewer, in a position of powertowards her. In the first she is scrawny, her clothes hang off her, her eyes are sunken and she iscradled protectively in her mother’s arms. In the second, she is smiling, plump, wearing brightclothes and waving her arms playfully. The first image offers us the typical starving child imagewe expect and it aims to tug at our heartstrings, as we feel sad and maybe guilty, motivating usto give. The second picture shows what the charity can achieve and she has become a normalhealthy baby who does not look like a stereotypical poverty poster child. This is reinforcedthrough the language – negative connotations attach to Umi in her role as a child of poverty –fragile human features…withered skin….tiny bones. As a child lifted out of poverty, more positivewords are used – healthy, plump and smiling. It is quite common to use such images to elicit astrong emotional reaction in the viewers in order to motivate them to donate.
To some extent this is a realistic picture of poverty – Umi would be a real case but she may wellhave been picked because the contrast is an extreme one. This creates a more dramatictrajectory, showing how effective the charity is and how desperate the need is. There willprobably be many other children who are not as poor looking as Umi to start with and maybemany who look this poor but who do not live or respond as well. In this sense the image may beselective and overly dramatic but many at the charity would say the need is urgent and thisjustifies this exploitation of the poor.The cause of poverty in this area is largely climatic – drought has caused harvest to fail.However, this has been exacerbated by corrupt regimes in places like Somalia, leading to manyleaving Somalia and ending up in refugee camps in Kenya, overwhelming local resources there.The long journeys to Kenya have also taken their toll on people’s health and resources. Thisclearly positions this group as the deserving poor – they are the victims of circumstances beyondtheir control and deserve our help.The solution lies with us in the west – we are able to provide money to provide the food andwater, medical help and shelter that will prevent many of the poor here from dying. This isemphasised throughout by the appeal to donate, especially emphasised in the far right column,where amounts are suggested and a big red donate button prompts us to act now. The charityalso stresses what it has already achieved as a result of public donation – we’ve saved hundredsof thousands of children’s lives… This positions us in the west as the heroic saviour of Africa’spoor, a flattering role and also can make us feel pressured into helping – no one wants to be theone to allow innocent children to die.All in all, this is exactly the stereotype of third world poverty we expect in the west – thestarving helpless victim who is stuck in poverty and can do nothing without westernintervention. It does suggest that poverty can be alleviated by a short-term solution liketransporting in food and medicine.It is an effective stereotype in that it tends to get results but many Africans would not like thehelpless way they are shown nor the fact that it suggests they cannot do anything to helpthemselves. They may also not like the emphasis on immediate short-term solutions like fooddeliveries rather than long-term solutions like agricultural reform and support. Short-termsolutions will make areas like East Africa constantly dependent on the west, rather than helpingthem cope with future droughts on their own with a managed solution. It not only paints apicture of the third world as backwards, it also pushes a view that the west is superior and has allthe power. Such stereotypes can be seen to be demeaning to those who are poor and somewould say it is unfair to exploit people like Umi for such ends. However, others would say it isnecessary or many will die before a long-term solution is offeredSelf Help Africa is another charity with a web page. However, it has a different focus – theprovision of long-term aid – providing different farming methods that cope with drought better,developing new methods of income that do not depend on rain.
The image of Africa is an alternative to what we usually see – the logo shows a map of thecontinent surrounded by a green flower-like graphic suggesting growth and fertility, a place thatcan flourish. The image on the Malawi page has a picture of a farmer and his children smilingbroadly surrounded by healthy looking trees/crops with a mass of glossy green leaves. Thepeople look healthy, proud and happy and standing on their own feet. These do not seemobviously poor but the text assures us that 40 – 60% of rural households face chronic foodinsecurity for between two and five months every year.What the images suggest is that the poorneed not be shown in a negative light but that they can have a bright future. They do not needto be shown to be totally dependent on the west for a secure lifestyle.This is emphasised in the text – the charity is helping people to grow enough food to feed theirfamilies. It works with local partners, suggesting a co-operative rather than a west dominatedapproach to poverty. It focuses on more long-term solutions than short-term food and aid,encouraging the view that the poor can be independent of rather than dependent on theWest, allowing them more dignity.It is not totally divorced from the more common images we see – they are the victims of climateand poor government and still need some element of western help to be lifted out of poverty –hence the presence of the familiar red box with donate on it in the masthead. However, it offersa more positive picture of Africa’s poor and suggests that westerners can play their part to helpalleviate poverty, but that it’s solution is in long-term, less showy projects than the one that tendto grab the headlines.This approach offers a more rational and less emotive approach to poverty – there are nostarving children and the language is more impersonal and fact-laden than emotive. It may wellappeal to people who are cynical about emotional appeals and may well get more resultsbecause of this.Is it more realistic? Like any campaign, the images and choice of content will be selective to fitwith the charity’s aims and intentions. They will be true but may not tell us the whole truth – itmay select success stories and ignore those that have not yielded the desired results, picturesmay be posed and set up to get just the right image.In conclusion, no media text can present an issue objectively because all media products areconstructed and mediated and reflect the views of the people who make them. They are madeto achieve a particular aim. They are made for specific audiences and are often tailored to fulfilthese audiences’ needs and expectations. This is why poverty can be shown in different ways indifferent products and why no one of them is necessarily any more real or genuine than theothers. They do share some common elements – poverty is negative, poverty is something to beescaped from – but, as all these texts are aimed at a western audience and produced mainly bywesterners this is hardly surprising.