Why Were You Watching Benefits Street?

Paige Southall

In 1953, Paige Southall was scooped up by the TARDIS and dumped into 2005. Since then. she has lived life like a wino Mary Poppins. At present, she's working on her first novel, and becoming Queen of Westeros. @PaigeAndInk

I love Birmingham. Those are words that aren’t very often said. With good reason. It’s not quite a circle of Hell, but it comes close. Yet, as that song goes, Hell isn’t a bad place to be. We have a really nice new library. The nightlife isn’t bad. And, dammit, it’s my home. I defend it like a Republican from Texas defends his right to own guns. It may be awful but it’s mine.

I hate TV shows set in Birmingham. You know pretty much what’s coming. “Look at these miserable bastards. Laugh at their funny accents. Notice their bad teeth. Isn’t this funny?!”

Birmingham is often well represented on the Jeremy Kyle Show. You hear the Brummies before you see them, screaming about how their older boyfriend shagged their mother. Then you have the grating Hotels4U advert. I’m no advocate of violence, but I want to punch that Hawaiian-shirted tool in his Little Miss Perfect teeth. Did we really need another TV show that turned the spotlight on the city, and gave the country as a whole a reason to laugh at us?

Channel 4 thought so.

Enter Benefits Street. Unless you’ve been living in a bubble, you can’t have missed the uproar. Benefits Street takes place on James Turner Street in Birmingham. It could have been anywhere. But everyone on this street is on benefits. That’s the selling point here. Look at these people on benefits. The show has been described as ‘poverty porn’. It created daily headlines in the Birmingham Mail. Miles of column inches have been devoted to debating the show. After the show ended last week, Channel 5 had a debate about it. Politicians all trying to produce the best sound bites. Even now, people are still talking about it.

When I set out to write this article, my main point was to complain about how my beloved city is once again the toilet of the UK. For all the faults, I love my home. And I hate that the spotlight is once again making it into an example of all that is bad with this country. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve got angrier and angrier. What about the people on that show? The ones who are being held up as examples of what you shouldn’t do. They have all stated that the producers manipulated the footage to make them look worse. They all regret ever doing the show.

I’m not here to preach a sermon on how these people have been manipulated. Anyone with any sense knows that reality TV is heavily edited. It’s entertainment, for fuck’s sake. No one would watch if all the people were decent, and little happened. But there is a world of difference between Keeping up with the Kardashians, and Benefits Street. The Kardashians might be tabloid fodder with their antics, but I don’t see them being used as evidence in a political debate that could affect millions of people.

I hate Benefits Street. I hate the producers for creating it, knowing that it would cause debate. They could have easily created a show with balance, and show people who are, in fact, hard workers. People who just fell on difficult times.

Instead, they went with the stereotype. Bad accents! Overweight people! Single parents! A guy named Fungi! This is the stuff readers of the Daily Mail wank over. And they’ll wank over it without watching it properly.

Benefits Street is a freak show. It entices people in, beckoning them to come see the horrors. And people watch it because they want to feel better about themselves. I’m not saying that from any pedestal. I do it with the Jeremy Kyle Show. But it completely ignores that, underneath all the editing, underneath the headlines, some of the people on Benefits Street are actually pretty decent. These people want to better themselves. To get out.

But why focus on that? It doesn’t get headlines. And it doesn’t get viewers. There is no such thing as bad publicity, and controversy gets viewers. Whether we like to admit it or not, we like to feel better about ourselves. Even if it means turning into a Daily Mail reader for an hour.

So, reader, I present you with a simple question. Why were you watching Benefits Street?!