Benefits Street: how austerity transformed makeover TV

Benefits Street was born from coalition government rhetoric: no one should receive 'anything for nothing'. The failure to transform is always personal. Nobody should be helped.

Mary Evans
12 March 2014

White Dee, one of the main James Turner Street residents profiled on Benefits Street. Credit: Youtube.

It was once impossible to watch television without encountering the idea that we all need improvement.

Fat, badly dressed people with horrible houses and appallingly behaved children were all taken to task, shown the error of their ways and then allowed to re-appear as groomed, beautifully dressed individuals. Our bodies, our ways of life, our attitutudes to food, the décor of our houses: all were up for critique. Watching these programmes suggested that we live lives of squalor and all forms of misbehaviour. 

If only Super Nanny could sit the nation's children on the Naughty Step, delinquency would disappear for ever. Gok Wan and Trinny and Susannah, having shattered our self esteem in front of mirrors, would present us to our admiring friends and families as veritable Cinderellas. 

Even our homes would be transformed through the combined efforts of How Clean is Your House duo Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie. 

But the magic wands, once at hand, have disappeared. Those triumphant transformed conclusions have gone and it would seem that television, in common with the coalition government, has decided that the reality of the human condition is not the possibility of transformation but a fixed and unalterable state of feckless incompetence which can only be met with public disgrace via television. 

No longer is there to be a moment of reckoning - your germs are numerous, your taste execrable - which is accompanied by salvation. Now, deviations from conventional expectations and standards are to be presented as a fixed state.

Of course, the 'transforming' programmes were, in a sense, about 'magic' and the endless repetition of the Cinderella story. But they did show, however condescending the advice might sometimes have been, that people need help and support to change aspects of their lives.

Many of the programmes spoke of people being 'overwhelmed' by their situation. The rhetoric of punishment was entirely absent.

But times – and politics – changed. Benefits Street was born.

Presented to the world by Channel 4, the programme chronicled the lives of people living on one street in Birmingham, some of whom were dependent on welfare benefits. 

It was immediately contentious; 'turning against the poor', wrote Owen Jones. The people who actually lived on the street protested about the way in which they had been portrayed and the implication that all of them were in some sense 'benefit scroungers'.

Benefits Street has now attracted a great deal of controversy about the presentation of the people concerned, some of which was voiced in a studio discussion between various inhabitants of the Street itself and others. The exchanges were heated. 

Yet the series is also perhaps about collective exhaustion with the idea that people can be transformed; the unconscious voicing of the suspicion that as soon as the camera turns its back the subjects revert to fast food/track suit bottoms or whatever else has been banned.

When ‘transforming’ programmes were in their heyday, a very clear link was made between the goal of transformation and money. All the subjects were given money to buy the new clothes and in other programmes, whether about food or children or homes, it was made plain that some kind of resource-based assistance was necessary to bring about the desired transformation. 

In other words, no-one was expected to be transformed without some help.

But harsher, more austere times brought new expectations. Predictably, the UK’s coalition government resorted to the kind of 'we're all in this together' Second World War rhetoric which seems to be part of the standard guidebook issued to Tory MPs.

But nobody quite dared to suggest to the British public that those austere practices of transformation suggested about clothes, food, décor during the 1940s should be rolled out as well.

For those without any exposure to that kind of advice, the suggestion that you transform your wardrobe by switching the sleeves of your dresses or unravelling one of your sweaters to re-knit it provides the flavour. Nobody could go that far and anyway it is essential, if dividends are going to continue to be maintained, that people should continue to buy things.

However, in the context of austerity politics it has become increasingly unacceptable to suggest that people should be given what were condescendingly called ‘handouts’ in order for them to maintain themselves and their families.

The very considerable evidence which suggests that access to ‘handouts’ is often difficult and unreliable, and that considerable sums of benefits are not claimed, receives little attention.

Nobody, the commanding voices of austerity politics state, should receive ‘anything for nothing’.

Without exploring the issue of the various forms of silver spoons received by that section of the population supportive of public austerity, this new policy diktat clearly left makers of television programmes in something of a dilemma.

Suddenly, individuals needing help to change aspects of their lives, the discovery that many people had experienced significant forms of difficulty and most of all that various forms of mental disorder could paralyse agency: in short, the various ideas which sustained makeover programmes, were out of favour.

We needed, in fact, more stick and less carrot. Adults, quite as much as children, were to put on their metaphorical blazers and turn their attention to doing their prep and helping themselves. 

In this understanding of how to transform a life it is assumed that individuals make conscious, explicit choices about staying in a particular situation: precisely the kind of assumption that was implicit in Benefits Street.

But this assumption did not get there by magic, it arrived through an unspoken shift in perceptions about transformations, namely towards the consensus that the failure to ‘transform’ is always and only personal and will inevitably lead to maintaining various forms of squalor.

It is worth remembering that Cinderella was doing a lot of the dirty work that no-one else cared for. The story rightfully does not suggest for one moment that she could have effected her own transformation. We may well have to abandon our belief in magic, but gain a stronger sense of our mutual capacities for support.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData