Pretending to be poor
Mary Ward is sick of watching the performance of poverty for popularity
The life of Rebel Wilson has seen more opinion pieces than birthdays, but please indulge me just one more. I promise it references neither her weight, ever-lowering age nor that bad movie she did with the girl from Fifty Shades of Grey.
Earlier this year, Wilson appeared on SBS’s Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery. The show follows Australian celebrities (in the actually a bit famous sense, not the Celebrity Apprentice sense) returning to their childhood neighbourhoods. I am one of its 23 viewers.
Wilson has built her career on a western Sydney personality. She wrote and starred in a show called Bogan Pride, which she promoted by saying she was “proud of [her] bogan heritage”. In 2013, after hitting the big time in the US with roles in Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, Wilson told Ellen DeGeneres she was “from the more ghetto side of Sydney”.
But, it became increasingly apparent while watching Home Delivery that Wilson’s ghetto act was just that, an act. Wilson’s childhood home is in Castle Hill (a place whose “western Sydney” status is maybe geographically merited, but socio-economically dubious). She was educated at the $25000-a-year Tara Anglican School for Girls. Despite Tara being less than 30 minutes drive from Castle Hill, she boarded in years 11 and 12.
Of course, there is no reason to care about where Rebel Wilson went to school (unless you were working for Rotary International in the mid- 2000s, in which case you would have needed that information to approve the “bogan” law student’s South Africa gap year application). She’s a comedian giving interviews to promote movies; she’s hardly under oath in court. However, when some other people perform poverty it has the potential to be much more damaging.
There are stories of socialist student politicians concealing their family’s wealth, trading politically on upbringings spent in state housing when they went to private school in Mosman (two not incongruous facts, but the former should probably be stated with the caveat of the latter).
Middle class student activists rallying behind working class rights is, of course, not new. But, what distinguishes USyd’s position from Act II of Les Miserables is the culture of identity politics, where the person the most qualified to speak about an issue is the person most oppressed by it. The “I personally am not affected by this but recognise it affects others and want to help” argument (rightly or wrongly) is seen as lesser than a personal connection to an issue. But, when it comes to class, the personal connections drawn by student politicians who are able to spend time participating in campus life that others might need to spend working another shift to make rent tend to be quite obtuse.
The result is activism like the ongoing NUS campaign against high textbook costs, which features various Facebook profile picture testimonials from familiar student politics faces. It includes tales of how they feel guilty when going to their parents for textbook money. This sort of disconnect from what an actual financial struggle is devalues any legitimate premise on which the campaign is based. Textbooks cost a lot, but the strongest form of the argument for lower pricing is not the strain your Co-op order puts on daddy’s credit card.
Student politics is dependent on personality, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the “rich, smug bastard” is not very electable. This results in some sort of an identity-fuelled race to the bottom: Who is the most poor? Unfortunately, the kind of poverty projected by student politicians is about 15 years out of date.
The archetypal poor student – living in their Newtown sharehouse, spending long nights on the grass at Hermann’s with stockpiled happy hour schooners with no job to go to and a liveable welfare packet – is heavily romanticised, but on a campus where you’re lucky to find a single room for rent within a 5km radius for less than $250 a week, they no longer correspond with reality.
Nowadays, the poor student is more likely to be like a fly-in, fly-out worker, coming in to university on an hour-long train ride, and going straight to their classes (which have been scheduled to minimise break time) before rushing home for a 4pm shift.
When the USU Board decided to introduce a limited number of $20 ACCESS cards for financially disadvantaged first-year students this year, the $55 discount failed to take into account the myriad other ways in which low-socioeconomic students are excluded from their Clubs and Societies program by considering how much unpaid time goes into a campus production, or comparing some societies’ mid-week, late-night social schedules with a Busways timetable.
Back to Rebel, Bogan Pride was ultimately a derivative dabble in working class stereotype and wasn’t renewed for a second season. As this year’s crop of student politicians emerge for the Board elections, they would do well to realise that, while performing poverty might bring short-term success, self-awareness will probably be more fruitful.