Contrary to the lurid previews and loud protests from Blacktown and environs before the show went out, Struggle Street, the first episode of which aired on SBS last night, turned out to be a powerful, often poignant piece.
It was upsetting to see the young kid wandering around the backyard, amusing himself with petrol-driven lawnmowers and the like as dysfunction reigned around him. It made you fear for the wee lad’s future. We saw the resilience of some of the women, young and old, who do indeed struggle to survive in an urban jungle, but are always there to lend support and care for those around them.
We saw the endless tolerance from father Ashley for meth-head Courey’s self-pitying drug abuse and parasitism on his family. The long-suffering clan loyally troop down to Penrith court as he faces yet another drugs bust, and leave with him as he gets off with an A$800 fine.
Predictably, and despite the pledge he has made to the judge to get his act together, Courey immediately goes on a major drug binge, while his long-suffering family (including partner and child, the same one seen earlier poking his fingers in the lawnmower) declare their love for him.
Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades, from Big Brother to the Kardashians. Many of these shows are made for entertainment purposes, and very successful at it they are. This is the age of striptease culture, of letting it all hang out, of making the private public.
But Struggle Street was a different kind of show altogether. This was socially realist fly-on-the-wall documentary, with all the flaws of that genre, in a tradition going back to Cathy Come Home (1966) and The Family (1974). Similar documentaries were produced in the UK last year (and produced similar criticisms).
By flaws I mean that, like all journalism, no matter how “real” it claims to be, the fly-on-the-wall genre is an inevitably mediated, edited, dramatised account of reality. We should expect the producers, and SBS who commissioned it, to treat their subjects with respect and ethical propriety, enabling them to offer informed, dignified consent to the use of their private lives in the cause of documentary journalism.
With that proviso, the producers of this series are doing what public service media are tasked to do – making the marginal visible, including the excluded, putting poverty on the public agenda.
To do that they must cut and trim, select and discard with a view to making television that people will watch. Hopefully, if they do their job well, it will also be television that educates and advocates.
Struggle Street is uncomfortable viewing, but important stuff to know about Australia in 2015. We live in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, accessing historically unprecedented levels of material and lifestyle affluence – and not just the “rich”, as hinted at in the introduction to the program, but the vast majority of working people.
But a large underclass is excluded from this affluence, or excludes itself, or suffers from a combination of both. One oft-heard criticism of mainstream popular culture is the invisibility of socio-economically marginalised groups, or the fact that they are often stereotyped and caricatured.
Struggle Street is an attempt to redress that absence, and it did so with reasonable respect to its subjects.
Just as there is no case for making Australia’s marginal communities invisible, neither is there one for presenting a falsely positive image (though the trailer for next week’s episode indicated a more positive take on efforts within the community to make beneficial changes).
They exist, these families, on the margins of every city in Australia (and Europe – my home town of Glasgow has some of the worst social deprivation in the advanced capitalist world).
The issue which the program asks us to consider is important, and urgent: what can be done by policymakers and the public as a whole to break the vicious cycles of dysfunction and deprivation Struggle Street displays?
The first episode of Struggle Street screened on SBS TV last night. The second episode airs next week. Details here.