Poverty Porn: A Look into the Ways Romance Glorifies the Poor

In 1783 the then Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, tasked Richard Mique with the task of extending the gardens of Versailles. Her list of requests included the construction of a man-made lake and a model village with a working farm. She used this farm both as educational tool for the royal children and as a venue for small parties and relaxing walks.

Images provided by Chateau de Versailles

I start with this anecdote because there’s this idea when people hear titles like Crazy Rich Asians that romances with rich heroes and heroines is all about the spectacle for the audience. I think people think of these stories like they’re about to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, reality shows which center around the lives of the wealthy. And maybe there’s something too that. People fawned over the dresses and sets for the live action Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast movies, and Crazy Rich Asians has many scenes that linger a little more than it needed to on the spectacular displays of wealth. Certainly spectacle is something we want in our movies, but there’s something else these movies do with wealth. Much like Marie Antoinette when she brought a sanitized vision of poverty into her gardens, these movies glorify the humble spaces of the middle and lower classes as much as they show off the palaces of the wealthy.

Don’t Believe me? Well for starters let’s look at the portrayal of the spaces of the poor in Titanic:

Titanic has two parties. The Upper deck party is characterized by rich men mostly using the occasion to talk business with other rich men and showing off their new young wives and mistresses–of which the guests seem aware of and judge each other based on in quiet asides. Though the room is big, the enjoyment is contained, refined, and a tad boring. Party goers are encouraged to lie about their accomplishments, and there is humor in that Jack so easily passes amongst the snobbish rich people, as if the movie is saying they are no better  than anyone else.

While Rose doesn’t seem actively upset at the upper deck party, she is so much happier below desk. They enter the party without so much as an acknowledgement of obvious status her dress and jewels give off. She is not asked to pass as one of them. There are no steps to the dances, and so no one to judge her for getting it wrong, she can . The movie juxtaposes the two parties, by cutting from Rose’s joyous laughter to the men lounging seriously and talking business back to an arm wrestling match happening in the loud unrestrained party below deck. This world is loud and crass and violent, but it is enjoyably so. When someone bumps into them and makes Jack pour beer on Rose, she laughs it off, never not faltering in her beaming enjoyment.  The lower deck is portrayed as a place of freedom, an escape from the stuffy high society in which corruption is not only present, but outwardly known.

Then we can look at the poor love interests who are almost always portrayed as charitable, hard-working, and honest (Paige in The Prince and Me, Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, Belle in The Beauty and the Beast, Josh in Geek Charming, arguably Jessica in Starstruck).Their foils are the rich protagonist pre-transformation, the fake friends standing around them, and the general perceived fake-ness of wealthy people. Poor people have the mothers like like Eudora from Princess and the Frog.

They’re there for them when they need them, and there is never too high an expectation put on them, in fact they encourage them to be happy. They don’t put their child’s dreams down, or say that they can’t do them.

And speaking of Princess and the Frog, she’s working day and night with barely a wink of sleep, but it’s not to make ends meet, it’s to get her dream of opening a restaurant. In a study by Jessi Streib, Miryea Ayala, and Colleen Wixted, found that Tiana was the only primary character that vocally
worries about money, “and her worry is about securing finances for upward mobility rather than for stability. None of the working-class characters worry about shelter, food, or health care” (8). While the poor are undeniably a working class, they’re monetary problems tend not to be too severe, and when they are–like Aladdin–they’re solutions aren’t begging. Aladdin’s monetary problems are summed up in one song number, in which high speed animation and slap-stick humor with the pursuing guards encourages the audience not to think of his stealing to survive as a sad problem. His survival isn’t a war, it’s a game he plays where he isn’t really ever in danger of getting hurt. And this is because Aladdin and movies like it are children’s movies. They don’t show extreme poverty because it’s a bummer and it drags down the story and rags to riches is an easy story to write and relate to. But what does this say about the poor?

Poverty in these stories is a character trait, and with the right romantic partner and enough hard work, you can pull yourself out of it. It doesn’t disproportionately affect minorities, it’s not cycle in which families can spend generations trying to pull themselves out of with less access to the resources that might allow them to do so. In these stories, if you work hard and keep your eyes open for opportunities, you too can rise into financial success. It’s the American dream, and if you’re poor it’s because you are lazy and deserve to be poor.

Poverty in romance is complicated. It relies heavily on the trope that the rich are all corrupted by their power and wealth, and the conditions of the working class generate the hard working, friendly, moral people. However, its sanitized portrayal of poverty and reliance on the American dream “rags-to-riches” story line indicates that poverty is a status that can be over turned by hard work and thus the good poor protagonist is a rare specimen. So one should both, aspire to live as free and honest as the poor, and aspire to work hard until you are recognized as worthy of wealth.

Thus I think romance doesn’t aspire to actual poverty, but the construction of poverty; a liminal space where one can have the benefits of wealth without the baggage of societal expectations and judgments. An Antionette’s Hamlet, if you will, where one can simplify the politics of class into a fight between good and bad.


Works Cited:

Galuppo, Mia. “Disney, Pixar Misrepresent Class Struggle in Children’s Films, Study Finds.” Hollywood Reporter, 11 Mar.2016. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-pixar-misrepresent-class-struggle-874781. Accessed 1 Dec 2018.

Streib, Jessi, et al. “Benign Inequality: Frames of Poverty and Social Class Inequality in Children’s Movies.” Journal of Poverty, Taylor & Francis, 16 Feb 2016. http://perrin.socsci.unc.edu/stuff/streib-benign-poverty-frames.pdf. Accessed 1 Dec 2018.