Poor By Choice
The Florida Project (2017), a slice-of-life movie on American poverty, was an acclaimed and oscar nominated film that broke box-office and digital streaming records in 2018, and is now making a resurgence on Netflix. The Florida Projects’ simplistic aesthetic and amazing cinematography gave it a quick following, especially among younger and impressionable teenagers.
Yet, the film’s sudden fame didn’t inspire audiences to help the communities the movie actively tried to promote, instead, the film actually did the opposite.
The Florida Project follows the life of a single mother living in squalor with her young daughter in Kissimmee, Florida, resting outside of Orlando and all the wealthy tourism Walt Disney World enjoys. Instead, the pair live in a purple motel called the “Magic Castle,” where they spend the movie trying to make ends meet and fend off the ever-looming threat of homelessness.
Then teen viewers caught wind of the fact that the motel in Kissimmee really existed. The response was not to usher in funding or sympathies, but rather, to take photos, videos, and most notably, Tik Toks posing as the impoverished characters from the movie. The fans participating were usually not actually poor, and were often white young teenagers on their way to Disney World for the weekend. In other words, the response was not to assist the poor or provide opportunity, but rather, to become selectively poor oneself. Poor for a day.
The Florida Project’s receival is one example of a larger epidemic in America: the fetishization of poverty.
Glorifying poverty has been a trend amongst the upper crust of American society since its founding. The “poor farmer” aesthetic was adopted by Thomas Jefferson to garner votes from democratic-republican farmers and frontiersmen. The 3rd president was born into the lap of luxury. He inherited a massive wealth, attending one of the best universities of his time, and owned over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life, all of which were responsible for the agricultural successes on his property. He probably never so much as planted a tree in his own home, yet that didn’t stop him from attending his inaugural address dressed as a “plain citizen” and making the very public decision to walk to the address rather than take a ceremonial carriage. This was all in an effort to come across as a farmer, and a plain frontiersman of the people, elected by the people. It garnered a sense of artificial relatability that other, truly impoverished Americans, could relate to. Poverty as a persuasive tactic worked. Thomas Jefferson’s image of the “simple farmer philosopher” reigns on. The tradition of “poverty by choice” has always been alive and well in the American conscience.
Even today, magazines like National Geographic and TIMES grant award-winning prizes to photographs of children in developed nations crying, or a mother breastfeeding her child “bravely” on the streets of an urban slum. There is nothing more exotic than poverty.
So then, we have to ask ourselves, why this obsession with the have nots? From a political perspective, the answer is simple: it makes the politician one of us. As of 2018, 38.1 million Americans lived in poverty, and as of 2019, 78% of Americans reported they were living paycheck to paycheck. In contrast, millionaires make up less than 3% of the general public, but “have a unified majority over all three branches of the federal government.” In fact, “between 1995 and 2011, [the working class] made up just 4% of the candidates running for county and local office.” Now, no one is saying that a janitor or waitress has the qualifications to run for governor, but there is a pretty clear trend that those born into wealth, stay in wealth, and often go into politics, where they have the final call on issues that they have no first hand experience with. There is a pretty clear gap between the lifestyle of the average millionaire and the average voter, and “play poverty” is just one of the ways to bridge that gap. Rather than assist our communities or advocate for consistent funding for the programs we rely on, instead, it is cheaper and more convenient to be “poor by choice,” and become one of the public for the Photo Ops, interviews, and campaign ads.
Socially though, the problem continues to permeate. As The Florida Project phenomenon demonstrates, this “poverty porn” isn’t only the indulgent sin of politicians, but also of the everyday teenage girl on Tik Tok. So what is the allure of poverty? For many, it's the same thing as wanting to be Batman from the Justice League, or Nico di Angelo from the Percy Jackson Series, or even Alexander Hamilton from the hit broadway musical. We know these characters have tragic lives and stories, yet we still want to be them. Everyone, deep down, wants to be nuanced, interesting, mysterious. And for many who have never actually struggled with poverty, that’s exactly what being poor is. It’s another aesthetic or trend that makes us appear cooler or more developed than our “boring” lives actually are. Culturally, we’re told being “simple” or being “down-and-out” makes us sympathetic and more interesting. Albeit selectively. Become actually poor, or actually cyclically poor, and that’s when you become lazy, untalented, ungrateful in the eyes of American society. You can be poor, but never for long.
Socially, “poverty by choice” also gives many a sense of appreciation for what they have. Yet this feeling is often incredibly counterproductive. Just like those “harmless” Tik Toks, the story, The Florida Project, is not about you. While it’s good to acknowledge the wealth gap and feel a deep sense of appreciation for what you have, it makes the “poor experience” all about what the customer, the privileged, has learned. Not about who needs help.
In the same way that a character of color should not be “saved” on screen so the white counterpart can “learn” from their friend’s oppression, poverty is not a plot device, nor should it be a tool for your journey of self-discovery. It’s good that films like The Florida Project reach a wealthy audience that feels impacted by its message. It is. But the narrative needs to shift to being less about what the rich “can learn about themselves” and more about places of actual, altruistic help and genuine representation. Or at least don’t shame those of us that can’t move up and out from cyclical poverty. Poverty may be a trend, and it may be “aesthetic” to some, but it is never a choice.
Example Tik Toks & Criticisms
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