Where do we learn that poverty is shameful and dangerous? At the movies.
This week, the well-to-do wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former actress Louise Linton, shared a heated exchange on Instagram over photographs of her wearing (and flaunting) expensive clothing brands, where she appeared to insult another woman for having lesser means. Linton, who once gave an interview about the dozens of diamonds and other jewels she would be wearing to wed Mnuchin, asked the commenter if she had “given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?” and concluded with a final barb: “Your life looks cute.” Linton may not think very much of people who don’t “give” as much to “the economy” as she and her husband. It wouldn’t be any big surprise: After all, Linton and Mnuchin are both creatures of Hollywood, a territory none too friendly to poor people. It’s unusual to see people struggling to get by on the big screen. By my count, in the entirety of American cinema, there are fewer than 300 movies that significantly concern themselves with poverty or homelessness. When they do, the result is predictable, insulting in ways that not only reflect but propagate unfair stereotypes and misleading prejudices about people who live in poverty. Oftentimes, movies that seem to be about poor people are actually about rich people. If you know “My Man Godfrey,” “Oliver Twist” or “My Own Private Idaho,” you may remember them as being about, respectively, a Depression-era hobo, a hungry orphan boy, or two homeless hustlers. But in each instance, the central character is actually a rich man in poor drag: Godfrey is a well-to-do Bostonian hiding away in a Hooverville while recovering from a broken heart; Oliver’s true parentage, and inheritance, is eventually revealed; and Keanu Reeves’s hustler, who comes into his own fortune, is the mayor’s son. I think of these kind of characters (and they abound) as Impostor Tramps. And there’s another way in which movies may care less about poverty than they would have you believe. You may remember “The Soloist” as being about a homeless Juilliard-trained musician played by Jamie Foxx. But the narrative actually centers on the reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) and how he finds new meaning in his work, saves his marriage and repairs his relationship with his son — all thanks to the Important Lessons he learns by helping Foxx. In such films, (think of “The Fisher King” and “Resurrecting the Champ”) poor people are objects, not subjects: They are the means toward someone else’s end. It’s one way in which old doctrines show themselves, counseling us to aid The Poor because it’s a way to achieve our own salvation. When the main characters are genuinely destitute, they are often objects of fear. “C.H.U.D.” is one notorious case, in which homeless men literally rise up from the sewers to slaughter the upper classes. While many horror flicks with “vagrants” as the villain were made in the 1980s, as widespread homelessness emerged for the first time since the 1930s, the bigotry that inspired them endures: Kevin Drum recently insisted that it is “perfectly understandable” to be disgusted by homeless people. When they are not monsters, poor people on film are often irredeemable and irresponsible. Take “Precious,” which purports to care about its characters but nonetheless traffics in the ugliest racist stereotypes about welfare recipients and poor African Americans. Alternately, poor people onscreen are broken and need to be fixed (“The Saint of Fort Washington,” “Being Flynn”), or lost and in need of rescue, as with movies (“Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers”) that feature a Nice White Lady coming to inspire and save black and brown children, who merely need to be motivated to find some reservoir of pluck or grit so that they can improve their lot. These stories are especially insidious because they teach viewers that poverty, as HUD Secretary Ben Carson said recently, is a “state of mind” rather than a condition we create through our politics and public policy. In the movies, poverty is rooted in individual failure (or one dramatic, tragic event), and the larger political and economic forces that constrain people’s opportunities are absent. Indeed, the way to escape poverty in cinema is never public aid or even private charity. Accepting help (or, heaven forbid, demanding it) marks characters as undeserving; refusing aid, by contrast, even if it means your children go hungry, is a sign of moral fiber (see Jeff Bridges in “Hidden in America” or “Cinderella Man,” in which the final heroic act is ostentatiously repaying the public relief that saved the family from ruin). Finally, despite the fact that poverty is higher outside metropolitan areas than in them, and highest in the South, in the movies, it is concentrated in big cities, and especially among African Americans in New York. That gives us a wildly distorted sense of where most poverty is and who experiences it. “The Grapes of Wrath,” still among the best movies about poverty, is an exception, showing audiences rural families in need. So does “The Glass Castle,” along with better films like “Winter’s Bone,” “Frozen River” and “Wendy and Lucy.” But these conform to their own pattern: When movie poverty is rural, it is white (with exceptions, like “Ballast” and “George Washington”). And this white, rural poverty is much more likely to be portrayed sympathetically. As recent events remind us — from the extravagant efforts mainstream media have made to humanize racist, homophobic, and xenophobic white Trump voters, to violent public rallies by neo-Nazis — we still inhabit a white supremacist culture, so this should probably not be surprising, even it we find it troubling. The newly released “The Glass Castle,” based on author Jeanette Walls’s memoirs of growing up poor, offers a fresh opportunity to watch whiteness work, given how much it deviates from the book to make the alcoholic father blameless and the neglectful mother merely eccentric. It softens this family’s poverty in a common way, too. In Walls’s memoir, the children spend much of their time hungry, cold, and dirty. But in Hollywood’s version, they are never too cold, too hungry or too dirty. American movies often pull their punches in this way, avoiding giving filmgoers a realistic sense of what deep poverty is like, thereby making it easier for people like Linton and her husband to dismiss and easier to deny the need for policies to reduce it. “The Glass Castle” takes a brutally unsentimental, clear-eyed accounting of growing up poor and turns it into a maudlin movie about a woman’s troubled relationship with her father and their reconciliation. And another opportunity to show movie audiences something about the reality of poverty in America is squandered.