I’ve never liked the term “poverty porn.” I first encountered the idea in college while reading Philippe Bourgois’ incredible In Search of Respect, an anthropological study of Puerto Rican crack dealers in 1980s New York City. Bourgois notes that he wants to be careful not to let his writing on the subject devolve into pornography, a source of perverse titillation for the book’s largely college-educated, upper-middle class readers. His concern is reasonable, though if we dismiss the voyeurism inherent to any ethnographic study as pornographic, I’m afraid there won’t be anything of interest left in the field.
It’s possible that I take some exception with the term because I’ve seen it used to attack works that I believe are vital, like Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Mary Ellen Mark’s photos of Erin Blackwell, aka Tiny. Tiny was one of the main subjects of Streetwise, a documentary Mark made with her husband Martin Bell. I’ve no deeper emotional connection to a film than this one, which I first saw when I was 15. Is there a part of me that enjoys watching the scenes with Tiny, whose natural presence in front of a camera is almost unparalleled in documentary subjects? Absolutely. Do I think that makes the film pornographic? Of course not, because whatever vicarious poverty tourism I might admittedly experience is complicated by a host of other feelings—sorrow, anger, guilt, to name a few—which pornography, by definition of the word, doesn’t typically provoke.
When I logged Bell’s follow-up Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell in Letterboxd, something I do with any movie I watch, I noticed the second most popular review called it poverty porn. I can’t imagine being Martin Bell or Erin Blackwell (Mark died before the documentary was complete), devoting years of my life to this project, and then seeing people dismiss it as porn. That’s not a legitimate, good-faith criticism; it’s a scarlet letter for anything that makes us educated liberals think about the wealth inequality we benefit from—artistic concern-trolling that disguises abject disgust with the poor as some sort of humanitarian virtue.
But watching The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, it occurs to me that poverty porn does exist. How else does one describe attempts by television producers to exploit a mentally-ill homeless man for must-see TV? Caleb McGillvary, aka Kai, gained national attention when he saved two people from a crazed motorist by striking him in the head with a hatchet. (The documentary sheds light on the fact that Kai smoked a joint with the driver before the attack that may have been laced, possibly inciting the attack.) The interview Kai gave to a Fresno news channel became a viral sensation (“Smash, smash, SUH-MASH”), landing him a Jimmy Kimmel appearance and almost his own reality show. Months later, Kai was wanted for beating 73-year-old Joseph Galfy to death in New Jersey, for which he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to 57 years in prison.
The documentary does a decent job of offering a behind-the-curtain look at Kai’s media handling, documented in interviews with a bunch of vultures. To be fair, it’s a pretty wild story: the original reporter had no idea where Kai was, as he had no address or phone, and was forced to drive around looking for him in upstate California, eventually locating him in Stockton. The reporter tells Kai he’s famous and that his options are wide-ranging. Kai’s response? “I kind of just want to skate around the Bay Area and smoke weed.” (Kai is never more relatable to me than in this scene.)
When Kai finally agrees to do Kimmel, he makes a spectacle just about everywhere he goes. He’s kicked out of the Roosevelt Hotel instantly for skateboarding through the lobby and urinating on Julio Iglesias’ Walk of Fame star. He’s almost kicked off Kimmel before he enters the building, also for urinating publicly. He brandishes a knife in the street. He drinks uncontrollably. It’s clear to all his caretakers that he has severe mental problems, but no one’s willing to get him help, or at least rein him in. The content is too good.
When Kai finally kills someone, his media handlers are shocked, which feels disingenuous when you recall that he became famous by bragging on TV about splitting open a man’s head with a hatchet. The shock they describe is what most people would call shame or guilt, about the ways in which their treatment of Kai and his resulting viral popularity may have validated his most violent impulses and enabled him to commit such a crime. Or at least it would be, were they not shameless husks. The Kimmel “human interest” scout pays lip service to being wrong about Kai while insisting that it was important to put him on TV. A Kardashians producer discusses the opportunity to show the world someone who lives on the street “and likes it!” without a hint of irony. The only one who acknowledges any culpability is the local Fox reporter who first interviewed Kai, admitting that his original good intentions—to document the life of someone living on the fringes of society—led to a predictably destructive end.
What makes the media treatment of Kai poverty porn is the way in which it flattened his life into something cute that could be shared around the office. The original extended interviews, in which Kai discusses what led him to homelessness, make it clear that Kai’s mental illness didn’t materialize out of nowhere; it was the result of repeated trauma, including being locked in a room as a child and raped as a teenager. (He says he killed Galfy in self-defense during an attempted rape, a claim largely contradicted by physical evidence.) When the destitution of a fellow human exists as nothing more than a saccharine human interest piece or a punchline for Kimmel, what do you call it, if not porn?
The real question: does The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker avoid the pitfalls of pornographic exploitation? To some extent. By putting the Kai phenomenon in the proper historical and cultural context, the interviews, TV appearances and GIFs appear a lot more ghoulish and cruel than they once did, and therefore a lot harder to enjoy. But I can’t shake the feeling that documentaries like this are just a newer, more socially acceptable form of poverty porn, whereby we continue to gawk at poor people like Kai and, much like the first reporter to interview him, convince ourselves it’s a learning experience. Say what you want about actual porn, but I’ve never closed an incognito window with any such delusions.