Benefits: What role does privilege play on and off screen?
Not So Popular's Cath Bridgman talks the reality behind benefits, both on screen and off through the lens of 'I, Daniel Blake'. A revealing and honest account of personal privilege, British politics and the media when it comes to today's welfare state. Cath asks, what role does privilege play as cinema spectator and benefits user?
I did not have the same experience as Daniel Blake on benefits. Therein lies the problem.
I finally had to chance to get to the cinema today to see Ken Loach’s much talked about ‘I, Daniel Blake’ – a moving and scathingly honest account of those who live on the support of benefits. Many of you may know of the now infamous account in The Daily Fail by Toby Young (not to be confused with Toby Younge, a fine journalist), which attacks the film for not ringing true because the characters are nothing like those on Channel 4s ‘Benefits Street’. Also Young claims that the idea that any upstanding citizen could ever be on benefits just didn’t ‘ring true’. He couldn’t understand how a person on benefits was never seen smoking, drinking, taking drugs or gambling at any point during the film. As you can imagine, this perspective was shouted down by pretty much everyone with two brain cells to put together. Astonishingly, Young hadn’t even seen the film, which leads anyone to wonder how is qualified to many any kind of commentary at all. As someone who has, incredibly briefly, been on benefits before, I do have first-hand experience of the system. My experience was nothing like the events which unfold in this film – and that’s the problem.
I am a white, educated, middle class woman. I was on JSA for all of two weeks when I came back from university. My advisor was super relaxed and when I asked how many jobs I had to apply to, he basically said there was no number anymore and implied that I was the kind of person who he would trust not to take advantage of the system. In that short time, I even missed an appointment for no other reason than I just forgot about it and was basically given a stern word and let off without sanction. I wasn’t in a desperate situation, like many who are on benefits. I just forgot because I am in a position where I can forget and 'it didn’t matter that much'. Bearing in mind that there are stories of car accident victims who have been sanctioned for being in hospital, women who have gone into labour and even a man who was sanctioned for having a heart attack in the middle of a work capability assessment. You couldn’t make this stuff up. I was excused because of my privilege – a privilege that meant I wasn’t in a desperate situation. Irony abounds.
There are two ways to personalise an issue like this – to show people taking the biscuit, as they seem to on benefits street, or to show ‘upstanding citizens’ like Daniel Blake struggling to stay alive. We’re angered and moved by both angles respectively because that’s what the media does – it triggers an emotional response that makes us veer one way or another on an issue. The truth of the matter lies in both angles. The spectrum of supposed ‘deservedness’ ranges from scroungers to desperate cases. In a sense that I imagine seems cold and detached, I have to say that ‘deservedness’ isn’t that point. The point of the welfare state is to have a functioning society, which includes a safety net. The fact that some people hog the net is not a reason to take it away altogether.