Why is poverty funny to some?

Pop star Justin Timberlake married actress Jessica Biel, and while that got lots of attention from the press, some of that media coverage wasn’t positive. Apparently, at Timberlake’s wedding (which was held at a resort in Fasano, Italy), a buddy played a video which mocked the homeless – the 8-minute video reportedly has homeless people congratulating the couple.

Quickyl, Timberlake apologized and insisted that he was the butt of the joke, not the homeless people. Yeah right. Still, it was good of him to jump in and admit that the video is all kinds of wrong.

But poverty being a source of humor isn’t a new concept, and is a popular object of irony, satire or mirth. Sometimes, when making of fun of poverty, you’re actually making fun of attitudes towards the poor – and in that case, it’s not the poor that are being made fun of, but the circumstances that allow for that kind of poverty to exist – for example, in an episode of Strangers with Candy, Stephen Colbert’s thoughtless highschool teacher is instructing his students to fear poor people, using terms like hobo, tramp and Okie. Now, anyone with a drop of intelligence will understand that the joke is well-constructed and meant to savagely attack the bigoted attitudes of Colbert’s character.

But there are other kinds of stabs of humor at the poor that aren’t as nuanced or insightful – Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, for instance. On the popular reality show, a child beauty pageant contestant lives in rural Georgia with her family. They suffer from severe income inequity that results in lack of access to proper  nutrition, healthcare, education and sex ed. But ratings for the show, and its star – Alana Thompson – have gotten lots of press – much of it positive. Some folks want to wax philosophically that Thompson is a star on her own merits, because of her charm and her pretty looks – Rosie O’Donnell and RuPaul have both given her their stamps of approval – but let’s cut the BS. Most people watch the show to laugh at supposed “red necks” or “country hicks” – it’s condescending, and reductive. But to a lot of people, watching uneducated people struggling with poverty while lacking in the kind of social grace that is arbitrarily set, is entertaining.

When we’re not making fun of poor people on TV or film, we’re doing it in our daily lives. Hipsters like to ape traditionally working class cultural tropes as a way to denote their subculture – but it’s all done with a huge dose of smug irony that comes from a sense of reassurance and stability that isn’t shared among the folks hipsters like to “imitate.” When struggling neighborhoods become hot spots for hipsters it gives them the kind of cool, street cred that has high value among white urban youth, but doesn’t really take into account that residents of these areas aren’t living their because it’s cool, but because it’s affordable.

And when Halloween rolls up this weekend, look around and take a gander at some of the costumes. I don’t mean the kids so much, but the teens and young adults who don fancy dress for parties – lots of “ghetto” drag will be seen, as will the now-ubiquitous “red neck/hillbilly” costume. This kind of poverty blackface still has levels of acceptance, and are rarely examined for what they truly lampoon: a lack of socio-economic income that excludes these folks from achieving behaviours and cultural trappings we in the mainstream deem as “proper” and “socially acceptable.”

If I sound like a scold, well, good, because this kind of “humor” definitely needs to be examined. It’s not just a joke, when we pretend that we’re poor for the merriment of our peers. It’s not merely entertainment when we watch poor people badly reacting to their impoverished social surroundings.

So, why do I think poverty is funny to some? Well, there’s an anxiety to lots of comedy – we often laugh at stuff that makes us uncomfortable, and nothing makes people squirm more than talking about class (well, maybe race or gender). Laughing at poverty – and not going into the mechanics that allow for poverty to exist gives us 2 kinds of outs:

1) We’re not held accountable for our own role in perpetuating a system that regularly disenfranchises groups of people

2) We get to pretend that we’re not vulnerable to that system.

And jumping off my second point, often we’ll watch reality TV or tabloid talk shows to feel better about ourselves. This supplements our anxiety about possibly being poor, too. When we watch poor people who make bad choices in their lives, or who do things that are morally objectionable, it’s easier for us to judge them – we can feel safe in the fact that we’re not like them, so we won’t end up like them.

Of course, that’s just nonsense. Many of us are just a paycheck or two away from being homeless. The current economy is still struggling, and many of our jobs may still be cut. The cost of living has gone up, but the average wage has remained stagnant. And despite rising levels of unemployment, our government is looking to austerity measures that will probably add to more people losing their jobs. So with all this hovering in the background, it can get pretty scary to think about one’s economic health. And no one likes to think of scary things.

So we laugh. We laugh at someone who cannot afford to go to the dentist, and therefore has teeth that are either missing, rotting, yellowed or crooked; we laugh at someone who cannot afford to shop for fresh food, and therefore is obese; we laugh at someone whose education system is a failure, and therefore uses a mutilated, broken English; we laugh at someone who does not have access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health, and is therefore either pregnant as a child, or the parent of a brood of 7 or 8; we laugh at someone who cannot afford to go to designer stores, and is therefore clothes in outfits bought at thrift stores or supermarkets.

This is not to say that poverty does not have a place in humor – it does. But truly subversive and brave comedy is the kind that attacks those in power, not those who are struggling. Kicking an underdog is just another form of bullying. Sharp satire and pointed humor can (and should) expose our deeply flawed society as well as our oft-corrupt government and how the two relate to economic inequity. Making fun of poor people is lazy and easy, but most importantly, it’s cruel and narrow-minded.

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Filed under Comedy, commentary

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