Film as Social Tourism: The Voyeurism of Watching the Lower Classes

January 30, 2012 — 17 Comments

A post on a forum has got me thinking about the way I enjoy certain movies. Hitchcock was a director who understood implicitly the voyeuristic nature of film. By watching these stories play out with images and sound we are getting a glimpse into a world we otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to see. Our curiosity is rewarded with drama. But is that voyeurism a good thing? And what happens when the voyeuristic eye is turned to settings of those less fortunate?

That’s the issue that was brought up in a discussion of Andrea Arnold’s film, Fish Tank. As part of a general criticism of the film, the poster on this forum also implied that the reason so many people, particularly non-Brits, loved the film was that it provided a luridly satisfying travelogue of underprivileged people living in a council estate. I immediately found the accusation offensive. Here is a film which I found deeply impacting and emotional. My love of the film stems from my love of the character. The setting is fascinating, but only as a place for this character to live in and deal with. The implication that the main reason I liked the film was to do with some sick satisfaction in watching how poor people live felt like a personal slight.

But while I disagree with the effect of “social tourism” on my enjoyment of Fish Tank specifically, I did get to thinking about whether I’ve ever enjoyed a film for that reason. Just the other day I watched and loved Ken Loach’s Kes, which is set in in a poor neighbourhood in Yorkshire. And as much as I loved the story of the boy and his hawk, maybe I was also brought into the film by seeing just how sad things could get in this lower class community. Or how about Slumdog Millionaire? That film was one of my favourites of 2008. Those energetic scenes in the slums are amazingly entertaining, but was I really just taking pleasure in watching poor people in terrible conditions? Is there an exoticism to the poor?

It’s a valid question. Just as many of us love seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for all the exotic foreign locations, maybe we love watching films like Fish Tank because their settings feel similarly exotic. And if that’s the case, then maybe we should be considering this issue. Is it a problem? Is it exploitative of Fish Tank to focus on the misery and depravity present in council estates? Is the film even an accurate depiction of these places, or is it exaggerating just how bad things are in order to make its story more compelling? And even if it’s doing that, is that inherently bad?

Where Fish Tank might be more problematic in this respect than Slumdog Millionaire, is that the way it’s shot and directed is meant to feel more “realistic” and thus gives the audience an impression of accuracy. Meanwhile, it might be the case that most council estates are better represented in terms of accuracy by the super-stylized Attack the Block.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to this question. I can say that I loved Fish Tank and Kes because they tell engaging stories, and that while the setting is a part of that it isn’t my focus or the main source of my enjoyment. But it might be part of my enjoyment. It is true that I’m now much more interested in watching these British kitchen sink dramas than I was before. Maybe I am getting a weird, subconscious, voyeuristic kick out of Fish Tank even though I’d prefer not to admit it. Maybe I am engaged in social tourism.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you think it’s a serious ethical problem?


17 responses to Film as Social Tourism: The Voyeurism of Watching the Lower Classes


    This is an interesting issue, not one that I would consider in relation to Fish Tank or Kes particularly, but definitely relevant in the case of some films. It could be said that Slumdog Millionaire ‘glamourises’ poverty, yes it’s portrayed as being horrible but it’s also shown to be exciting. It’s a problem I feel most strongly about when I watch City of God, and I’d be interested to know your opinion on it too if you’ve seen it. The film has been acclaimed by many for depicting the horrors of the poverty-stricken slums in Rio de Janeiro, but in my opinion it does sort of glamourise the poverty and violence too due to the way its edited in this quick, snappy style. Also the fact that countless characters are killed in the film sort of causes the viewer to become desensitized to the violence. I feel like British kitchen-sink dramas are a lot more concerned with realism and highlighting real issues than the notion of making movies for entertainment, but that’s just my opinion. Great post either way!


      Thanks for commenting!

      Yeah, I’ve seen City of God, and while its not one of my favourite films I do very much like it. I suppose I was never quite desensitized to the violence. It was always awful, and I was always invested in the horror of the film. At the same time, the energy of the film helps it to be an entertaining and engaging story. I feel like it works on both levels. But then that begs the question, is a film about how horrible it is to live in the slums even allowed to work as “entertainment”? Does the fact of its entertainment make it exploitative? I’m not even sure films like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire even glamourize poverty. It’s not like I watched those films and at any point wished I lived there. Then again, you don’t need to have everything be really sad and depressing to be realistic, do you? Surely even the kids growing up in the slums have fun sometimes.


    You can do movies for so many reasons. If the reason just is to entertain, perhaps social tourism isn’t so horrible. But if that’s the only movies that ever are made from those places, if we never ever get to hear the stories from an inside perspective, I can see there is a problem. We all need a voice, don’t we? And sometimes a film can be that voice. If only middleclass people tell the stories about how they think life is in the underclass, they might miss something maybe.

    I don’t know enough about the environments or about the British directors and their backgrounds to tell the difference between what’s close to the “truth” and what’s just pure fiction.

    Hopefully someone who knows more about it can enlighten me. I’m curious.


      Yeah, I don’t know what Andrea Arnold’s class background is, but her body of work shows she has an interest in council estates and poverty. At the very least she’s also a female director interested in telling stories about women and girls stuck in bad situations. I’m not sure how directly she relates to these issues, but she handles them beautifully in my opinion.


    I’m pretty sure Arnold grew up in a council estate. I remember that coming up in some of the special features on the Fish Tank disc. It would explain why she’s focused on them so much.

    I think it is interesting to turn it around and talk about a focus on the glamourous lives of rich people. That feels far more like tourism to me. I remember Mark Kermode’s review of Sex and the City 2, calling it out for its despicable privileged viewpoint. Or I think of the bulk of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work that puts me off because it is so fascinated by the disgusting isolation of the wealthy from anything that feels real. It feels very much separate from myself.

    In contrast, I don’t feel that level of difference with the setting of Fish Tank, and I say this as someone who grew up in a fairly well off suburb. I connect with the character’s problems because they feel like authentic problems. I guess if you watch a film like Fish Tank and enjoy it for curiosity’s sake, that would be a problem, but it doesn’t seem curious to me.


      I think the criticism of Sex and the City 2 is that they are rich people who actually do engage in social tourism in a really despicable way.

      But I think in this case the criticism isn’t so much about Fish Tank itself, but why we as viewers are drawn to films about lower classes.


    Like most film subjects I think there’s certainly a possibility of exploitation or, on the other end, over-romantization. However, what I’d hope these films would do is make us aware this class of people exist, a class our modern world often tries to hide.


      Yes, I do think Fish Tank does this. It tells a very personal story about a specific character, but at the same time exposes these people in a world of cinema that tends to favour the rich and glamourous.


    I haven’t seen Fish Tank yet, but i thought I’d put in my two cents regardless. I grew up extremely poor and in public housing, so I actually tend to seek out movie depictions of poverty–mostly because the lower class is so rarely represented in film. For me, the more realistic the better. I think it’s important for fortunate folks to get an understanding for how the other half lives. As far as I’m concerned there aren’t enough films that depict poverty.


      Oh I think in that case you really must seek out Fish Tank. It’s a wonderful characterization of a trouble young girl, and the depiction of the public housing setting is interesting. Some might say it’s not very flattering, but I think that has more to do with the unflattering lead characters. For the most part the film displays it as being just a place where people live. It’s not always the most “realistic” story, but it’s certainly a realistic depiction of the setting. It’s a beautiful film. And if you haven’t seen Kes, I highly recommend that one as well.


    Great post, Corey. Really glad you’ve picked up on and continued this topic of discussion. I watched Kes recently myself and absolutely adored it.

    Some things I’ve been thinking about, continuing on from points you all have made: It seems to me that is is extremely important to ask ourselves why we watch what we watch, why we respond in various ways to what we watch, how we might be impacted – even subtly – by what we watch in our perspectives about others.

    But it’s tricky to make a judgment about whether one film or another is morally dubious, whether one film is real and compassionate and another is crass voyeurism. How are we to decide and who gets to decide, and is there such an easily distinct line that we might draw between compassion and voyeurism? I’m thinking not just of film here but other art forms: think of Dickens and his portrayals of the poor. He had a deep compassion for the poor, and his novels were often intended to show us the poor and underprivileged and how they lived so that those who were more privileged might see their humanity and thus become indignant – and work in defense of the under-privileged. And Dickens did, famously, in the case of the novel Nicholas Nickleby, for example, bring about social change – the horrendous conditions of the “Yorkshire schools” as they were called, were stopped specifically because of Dickens’s work and the response it got. And yet, there is definitely a sense of romanticizing of the poor going on in his work – we could easily call it voyeurism. Should Dickens not, then, have written his novels? How am I to decide if and when he crosses some line?

    Or we might consider photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Helen Levitt – all photographers concerned with capturing images of those living in poverty. And the images they give us are often haunting (see Lange’s Migrant Mother, for example: I have to ask myself, why do I stare at it? How does it shape my perception of the world that mother lives in? Should Lange have not taken and published that picture if there’s any hint of voyeurism there? Or should she not have taken it if it does not give us the full and complete facts about the situation?

    No artist, surely, even the documentary filmmaker or non-fiction writer, can give us the full picture of anything. An artist or journalist can only give his or her perception of the world, so how can we demand that either they give us the full, complex picture or give us nothing? How can we accuse them of not being realistic if no one can be fully “realistic”? How can we tell them to avoid any kind of voyeurism is all art, maybe especially films, are voyeurism in some way?

    In the end, I think I need to continue question myself, to question films – or any art, especially that art that seems to be representing those who are in positions of less power. I must be responsible, ultimately, for what I consume and for being aware of how what I consume affects me and my view of the world, of others.

    And I think discussions like this one help me do that. So while I was offended, too, by the original post you reference, Corey, I suppose, ultimately, I’m glad for the challenge it offers me, to continue to think about what I see and why I want to see it.


      Wow! What a wonderful comment! So much to chew on. It really is a difficult, challenging question.

      I think in the case of Dickens and romanticizing the poor, or the conditions of the poor, it’s a tough question. In fact, this is basically the same issue with Slumdog Millionaire, which itself has been described as very Dickensian. I think where that comes into play isn’t so much in the depiction of the setting. God knows I don’t think either the settings in Dickens or Slumdog seem very appealing. But the people within the setting find a way to live, and there is an energy, a lack of refinement that’s actually very appealing.

      For example, I’m watching Downton Abbey at the moment, and it’s interesting that while the servants don’t live lives as nice and pampered as their house, they do seem to have more fun in the moments where they aren’t specifically working. But then, when they are working they need to keep up appearances for the sake of the family they serve. So they get to experience a bit of both. The stateliness that goes along with the good of being rich, but also more carefree fun of not having those kinds of obligations. Unfortunately it’s at the expense of having a good lot in life.

      The kids in Slumdog Millionaire live in a bad place and go through hell. But there’s a reason the scene where he jumps into a pool of shit is so endearing. Here’s a character who is used to his setting and deals with it, but goes through it so that he can get whatever joy he can, in this case a picture of his favourite movie star. There’s an energy and vitality to his life. And in a way, the darker aspects of life highlight those moments when life is great.

      Kes offers this as well, though in a less melodramatic way. You’ve got a boy who basically leads a terrible life where he’s put down upon constantly. Bullied by everybody. He has very little, but he also finds the moments to get away from it all. Flying his hawk outside would be a beautiful thing to do for anyone who loves it, but for him it provides an extra layer of escape. Now, I don’t know how realistic this sort of things is, but it makes for excellent emotional drama. And more than that, it’s something anybody can relate to. Even those well off have stresses. It’s only human.

      When we identify with the struggles of these characters then we also understand them, and I figure that can only be a good thing. And it’s certainly better than some movies where you have middle class or rich people going off to a poor place in a foreign land, but the focus is all still on their problems. (Interestingly, I think Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited actually works because it actually satirizes this conceitedness.) The problems of Mia in Fish Tank are not my problems in terms of her social position, but her wants and desires as a human being resonate deeply with me, and on that level I can understand her and I can better understand the setting around her.

      Maybe it really is that “understanding” that’s key. Understanding breeds compassion.


    Yes, I think, too, that a film (or whatever) driving us to understanding the characters as human, as “like me,” is important because it combats that impulse to think of a whole group as “other” – and I really think that the impulse behind Dickens’s works and Slumdog Millionaire is a good one, the impulse to understand and to then be compassionate.

    I suppose though we still have to be careful that when we are particularly immersed in the experience of a character that we don’t then generalize those experiences or that character and apply them to others within that character’s group. And we have that tendency, don’t you think? We want to generalize because we want to get a handle on something, we want to feel we “get it.” We want to be able to manage what we see or experience, and generalizing or labelling is a way we do that – even when we think we are being compassionate or even when have good impulses, I think we can still make huge interpretive mistakes about others.

    So I suppose, again, my best approach is to try to be self-aware? To constantly question my assumptions? I’m not sure.

    Have you seen The Interrupters? I was struck by the presence of the white, obviously middle-class teacher in the school – I felt almost uncomfortable with her being there. I think, not because I doubted her motives or her compassion, but because I was thinking, how can she possibly have anything to say to these children who are from such a different background and immersed a life she doesn’t share? What right does she have? She stood out from the interrupters themselves – those who had been through the same hell they were trying to help others out of. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, but I guess, it’s just that I was so aware in that moment of the fact that someone from the outside – of any group – is never, truly, going to be able to “get it.” And it’s not that that means we can’t ever try to help – but we have to be damn careful in our interactions and assumptions.


      You’re very right, but at that point I think a lot of the duty is on the audience, as you say, to be self-aware. Unfortunately, I think there are too many who simply aren’t. Too many people go to see a movie like Slumdog Millionaire and come out saying “wow, I never realized what it was like in India, but now I do.” As though that’s it. As though they wouldn’t need to see or learn anything more. Slumdog Millionaire provided enough of an education. I hear the same kind of think regarding other types of films, to be honest. People going to see War Horse and saying “you know, that’s really how it was!” or seeing The Help and saying “this movie is telling the truth.” Now, of course, maybe they simply aren’t elaborating and they do know that there is always more to the reality than any one movie can let on, but I often feel like it isn’t. People go to see a movie like The Help, or Crash, or Slumdog Millionaire and they use it to then feel as though they are sufficiently educated about a serious issue. That’s not a good thing.

      I haven’t seen The Interrupters yet, but I know exactly what you mean. I was watching the documentary Urbanized and at one point you see a similar thing. And upper class white woman helping out the lower classes, mostly minorities. And just on instinct I wasn’t to ask “what could you possibly know? Who are you to try and fix these people?” Of course, that’s silly. If her heart is in the right place, then surely any help is a great thing. Isn’t it?


    Yep, I’m with you there in seeing that the mass response to a film like The Help or Slumdog is an so often the unthinking, “aha, that’s what it’s REALLY like!” And there’s not much, really, we can do about other people’s responses, can we? I suppose I try, in my own very small way in the writing and lit classes I teach, to just try to help students learn to be critical thinkers, writers, and readers – the latter term “readers” meaning “interpreters.” I so much want to help them understand that we are constantly taking things in – a written text or anything else – and interpreting it – and I want to help them towards that metacognitive process, being aware of how they personally are interpretating things and why. That awareness is so important – and so rare, I think. I know I fail so often myself – even though I’m aware of my need for the awareness (!).

    And yes, re: The Interrupters and other docs of the kind – that’s exactly it. What can the privileged group possibly know really or how can they relate? And yet, the response can’t be to do nothing; surely, the privileged have some kind of duty as a fellow human being to help. But how, and in what spirit? That’s so difficult.


      I’m very much in favour of encouraging people to think critically about things around them. I try do do it in subtle ways, but let’s say someone sees The Help and likes it, even though I also liked it I might bring up the controversy over the book and movie. That get them to at least consider that there are other sides and other issues that the movie doesn’t touch on. And thinking critically doesn’t have to be thinking negatively. Clearly I’m thinking critically about Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s still one of my favourite films of the last few years.

      That’s really where the self-awareness comes in. Don’t just pay attention to the story, but know your own relation to it.

      This discussion is really fantastic, Melissa. I don’t get into conversations about film that are this good lately.


    Exactly. Thinking critically is not a negative thing. In the same sense that a film critic or art critic engages with the film or the piece of art and considers what it’s saying, how it’s saying it, what the cultural implications are, what the viewer’s responses are, etc., thinking critically should be thought of as analytical thinking, not negative thinking. And we can be thoughtful and analytical about the things we do like as well as the things we don’t like – just as you express that you can be critical/analytical about Slumdog even while loving it. I love how analysis/critical thinking can move us beyond these agree/disagree or like/dislike reactions and into useful thinking and conversation.

    I like that way of putting self-awareness – “know[ing] your own relation” to something.

    I’ve appreciated the discussion, too! Thanks for posting initially and for being willing to do this back and forth with me. I love it when I can “think together” with someone else.

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