TV

Is All The Controversy Around SBS’s ‘Struggle Street’ Hot Air, Or Is There More To It?

The controversial promo for SBS's fly-on-the-wall doco isn't the only reason people are angry with it.

By now you’re undoubtedly familiar with the ruckus around SBS’s new documentary Struggle Street. Earlier this week the show’s promo went live, triggering a massive backlash from viewers, public figures and even participants who felt it was a disrespectful, inaccurate and exploitative portrayal of the doco’s individual subjects, the suburb of Mount Druitt and western Sydney more broadly. Blacktown Mayor Stephen Bali called it “publicly-funded poverty porn” and yesterday led a garbage-truck blockade of SBS’s headquarters in Sydney’s Artarmon; meanwhile, A Current Affair took a quick break from their constant ‘Neighbours From Hell’ and ‘Australia’s Feral Families’ coverage to rush to the defence of the battlers SBS had supposedly betrayed.

All this without most people having seen the show themselves. SBS responded to the uproar with a mixture of concession and defiance, pulling the trailer as a “gesture of goodwill,” also cutting the now-infamous bloke farting scene from the finished show and fast-tracking the remaining episodes into a two-hour long marathon session to air next week, while defending the show in a series of TV and radio interviews and threatening to sue Blacktown Council for its trouble

The first installment of the three-part series pulled a massive 1.31 million viewers last night, and the mood from many of those who tuned in — even some of its critics — was that the substance of the show was far more balanced and worthwhile than the promo led people to believe.

The show certainly doesn’t shy away from presenting harsh realities in the lives of its subjects. Over the course of an hour, viewers got to know people like Bailee, a 16-year-old girl struggling with severe depression, drug abuse and homelessness; William, an Aboriginal man who lives in a tent in the bush and hunts birds with a slingshot for food; and Ashley, a father of ten with dementia. In its best moments Struggle Street paints a quietly devastating picture by standing back and letting the reality of its subjects’ lives tell the story; Ashley’s fear of losing his son Corey to ice addiction is heartbreaking, as is William’s shock at receiving a Father’s Day phone call from a son he hasn’t seen in over ten years.

The show also matter-of-factly highlights some of the outside factors that can hinder struggling people’s efforts to escape poverty, without getting too heavy-handed. Ashley and his wife Peta each spent a year in jail on a minor marijuana charge that ruined them financially and torched their employment prospects, and William’s endless wait for the cheery Centrelink on-hold music to stop will resonate with anyone who regularly grapples with that particular bureaucratic hell. Multiple people in the episode raise the discrimination they face because of where they live, recounting how they regularly change their postcode on job applications so as not to scare off potential employers.

That’s not to say the show doesn’t have very real flaws, which are worth pointing out for more substantive reasons than people getting het up over a promo. Over at the Australian, Chris Kenny does an excellent job of pointing out how the show’s important and worthwhile aspects are severely undercut by the show’s often-patronising and over-the-top production: the hammy, cliche-riddled voice-over seemingly ripped from an old episode of Frontline; the inexplicable use of subtitles for clearly legible speech. In one particularly idiotic moment, the ocker narrator mentions that seven of Ashley’s ten kids are “mooching off him,” despite many of those kids clearly being small children.

More broadly, poverty in Sydney can’t be understood without tackling the massive stigma people from poorer suburbs often face from their wealthier counterparts, and on that count Struggle Street might have ended up playing more to people’s prejudices than challenging them. Triple M presenter and Mount Druitt native Mark Geyer called the show’s disproportionate focus on a suburb already loaded with outside preconceptions “postcode racism,” and took issue with SBS Head of Content Helen Kellie’s repeated claims that the show isn’t about Mount Druitt at all. “Mount Druitt was front and centre in all the promotions,” Geyer said on Triple M this morning. “If it wasn’t about Mount Druitt, why show the signs? Why not just call it Struggle Street and get families from anywhere in the state?”

He has a point; if you got your first impression of Mount Druitt from Struggle Street, you’d think it was a bomb site. Setting a doco about Australian poverty in Mount Druitt plays to many people’s preconceptions of western Sydney as a vast suburban wasteland, but the show conveniently neglects the fact that poverty is everywhere, not just at the end of the train line. SBS could have just as easily taken a camera down to the semi-permanent tent community in Belmore Park, a stone’s throw from Central Station, and spoken to people with similar experiences to Bailee and Ashley; showing SBS’s upper-middle class viewers the pervasive poverty in their own backyards (and often right before their eyes) might have packed far more of a punch than playing to existing stereotypes about the far-off, conveniently vague “western Sydney” so often talked about and so rarely listened to.

By now the show can’t be divorced from the heated discussions around it, and that might be the biggest problem of all. It’s hard not to think the promo was deliberately tabloided up to get a rise out of people like Bali and Geyer in an attempt to get as much publicity for Struggle Street as possible. SBS knows as well as anyone how important a quick first impression is in the media — that’s why movie trailers and front-page headlines exist, so people can make a quick judgment. The instinct is understandable; there are plenty of thoughtful, earnest documentaries about urban poverty that no one will ever watch, let alone score front-page headlines, and SBS regularly makes important programming that doesn’t get one-tenth of the viewership it deserves. That would be frustrating for anyone.

But there’s no shortage of news and current affairs shows tackling knotty, confronting topics in ways that grab people’s attention without pandering to them or sensationalising the issue at hand. Four Corners on the ABC does it; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver does it like clockwork. Neither of those programs would cut a trailer featuring a man farting on his porch, before turning around and saying they’re helping him.

SBS has claimed the entire reason behind the show was to give people from Australia’s fringes a voice, and sometimes it does. But plenty of people will watch Struggle Street‘s controversial trailer and leave it at that, or else take their cues from the criticisms of Triple M and the Blacktown garbos and avoid it entirely — and the voices SBS claims it’s championing will get lost in all the noise. By talking over the very people they say they’re trying to help, SBS do a disservice to viewers, to the show’s participants, and ultimately to Struggle Street itself. Somehow we’ve taken a thoughtful, important program about poverty in suburbia and made it all about us — everyone’s talking about Struggle Street, but not what it had to show.