What Bear Grylls Can’t Do: Survivalist Mediascapes in Austerity Britain

Curator's Note

Co-authored with Aaron Winter Although usually associated with so-called ‘fringe’ movements, we have recently witnessed a proliferation of survivalist phenomena both in the margins and mainstream. In 2008 MSNBC reported that 'in hard times, some flirt with survivalism: Economic Angst has some Americans stockpiling “beans, bullets and Band-Aids”'. A virtual explosion of survivalist film and TV has followed, from The Walking Dead to Bear Grylls’ Running Wild and Mission Survive. With a fully mediatised survivalism as its context, British satirical periodical The Daily Mash recently published an article claiming that: ‘Bear Grylls’ latest challenge is to live in London while earning £12.50 an hour’. While a spoof, the piece places both Grylls and survivalism as entertainment back in the context of the economic crisis and austerity, which in turn sparked the proliferation and popularity of survivalist trends. Furthermore, it juxtaposes survivalism with the often desperate conditions of survival under which a growing number of British people live. While Grylls’ survival skills are performed for our entertainment and are celebrated, those who really must survive in poverty under austerity receive no recognition for their considerable resourcefulness and resilience. So-called ‘poverty porn’ reality shows portray real people struggling for survival while living off benefits (social security) or being perpetually under-employed. The subjects of this reality TV genre are demonised as ‘scroungers’ in media representations and threatened with ever-greater cuts in real life, since ‘poverty porn’ has arguably emerged as an ideological tool that smooths the way for increased austerity, consistently affecting the most vulnerable. While Bear Grylls’ survival in the wild inspires awe, economic survival closer to home makes for an abject spectacle, further deepening the social divide that caused it in the first place. They each constitute different aspects of survivalist media entertainment. This PowerPoint presentation takes The Daily Mash piece as a starting point and explores the role of increased economic and political insecurity and disenfranchisement, the neo-liberal rejection of the social and promotion of individualism, in the expansion and diversification of survivalist phenomena and media. We use images and stills from journalistic representations of the economic crisis, survivalist fictional and reality TV genres, as well as data about the effects of austerity, unemployment, homelessness, urban degeneration and gentrification. We aim to complicate and enrich common conceptions of survivalism and survivalist media with a reflection on poverty and economic survival.


This is a wonderful thing to think on, and I can't help but think about the proliferation of survivalist narratives in the US as well, which makes me wonder where race might fit into your argument. Specifically thinking back to your statement: "While Grylls’ survival skills are performed for our entertainment and are celebrated, those who really must survive in poverty under austerity receive no recognition for their considerable resourcefulness and resilience." We know that folks of color are disproportionately living in poverty. So, then, it seems like the logical question becomes how whiteness factors into the celebration of survival skills. What are the intersections of genealogies of racism, poverty, and the commodification of entertainment that erase survival narratives of folks of color? I'm just wondering how race and racism more specifically factor into this.

Thanks for the fascinating connections drawn here. Just to jump in on Teter's point regarding race - in the research I've done, I've been struck by the ways in which survival skills (and martial skills in particular) are mapped onto notions of heritage, lineage and ethnicity. In a show like BBC's Last Man Standing, survival skills are shown as almost a natural expression of race, something that the middle class white person must learn or something they must tap into through their own ethicity. There's some uncomfortable lessons being taught alongside the survival skills. Could there be something similar going on in the 'poverty porn' shows identified here?

Thank you for your comments and questions, they are very interesting and important. This piece was very short and focused on the Daily Mash item and issues it raised, so we did not fully examine or unpack issues of race/ethnicity or gender, although this was pointed to in the slide about 'Benefits Street' (see 'White Dee', 'Black Dee' and 'Orange Dee'). There is a lot to discuss and examine in these areas, including the fact that survival icons like Grylls are traditionally white men and, as Lindsay points out, their skills are seen as a natural extension of race/ethnicity and connected to discourses about heritage. In fact, it could be argued that this can be linked specifically to European colonialism and imperialism (British manifestations) and white settler atavism (American, Canadian and Australian manifestations). The white settler discourse is engaged with in films such as Jeremiah Johnson, Crocodile Dundee, Mosquito Coast and, in terms of race/racism explicitly, Surviving the Game. The other issue that is worth discussing and examining is - linked to Teter's point - the fact that people of colour have been disproportionately affected by the economic crisis and austerity, but this has not been recognized in survivalist media (as we define it, including 'poverty porn'). We do argue that the skills of those for whom survival is difficult and necessary are not represented as such, but on top of this, 'poverty porn' in the UK at least, has mostly focused on the so-called 'white underclass'. Benefits Street is an exception to this. There are many possible reasons for this, including the fact class is racialized as 'white' here and the 'white underclass' is the prime target of austerity welfare cuts demonization on British reality TV. Where race/ethnicity and racism come to this is not only in the racialization of class, but the specific targeting and demonization of white single mothers with 'mixed race' children. This is something we have touched on in a paper on gender, biopolitical labour and austerity: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0740770X.2015.1057015?journal... http://www.academia.edu/12753018/What_a_girl_s_gotta_do_The_labour_of_th... We also see the targeting and demonization of Black single mothers (and the pathologization of the Black family, particularly in the context of the 2011 English Riots) and immigrants and asylum seekers in terms of benefits/welfare, but they are not represented very much within British 'poverty porn' and in relation to 'survival' as we have defined it. This is why we did not explore the issues in this short piece, but the relative lack of representation in British 'poverty porn' (despite effects of austerity on Black and Minority Ethnic communities) and presence of alternative discourses - such as around crime and welfare - in the wider media and political debates, are of great interest and worth examining. It is worth noting that the representations may be different in the US because of different politics/history of race and class, a different welfare system, absence of a national austerity policy and different types/functions of what we term 'poverty porn' if any. We are currently working on a larger project on survivalism that looks specifically at race/ethnicity and gender in Britain, as well as the US in terms of race/ethnicity. Once we have some of this work in the publication stage, we would be happy to share it with you, if interested.

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