Blood Sweat + Tears: Survival Chic and the Devolution of Humanity

Basic survival is now uber-chic. Human sustainability is now what matters ... even if it's more devolution than evolution.

There is a collective desire for something stripped back and stripped down; a push towards the pared-down parts rather than the complex whole; the core, rather than the skin or flesh; the essential elements of our humanity;  bare with us as we talk this through…

At Stancombe, we have previously detected the not-so-subtle undercurrent of a return to basics. Primarily a ‘devolution’ of life experience, this cultural drive encourages us to strip back our lives and embrace the pure, primal elements of life rather than the excess of its disposable trappings. 

Now we’re not just happy with making our environment a testament to simplicity and austerity, we are turning inward, focusing on our sense of being human and asking a lot of the same questions. 

What are the basic elements of humanity? What lies at the stripped back core beneath our skin and flesh? What is excess and disposable versus what is enduring, elemental and sustainable?

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Helen Macdonald’s falconry-and-grief-driven memoir, H Is For Hawk taps into this phenomenon. The commercial success of television such as Man vs. WildNaked and Afraid, the prevalence of 'survivalist' fitness trends such as Tough Mudder, as well as blockbuster films such as Gravity127 hours, All Is LostWild and the delirious, non-verbal, visceral reboot of the Mad Max franchise, Mad Max Fury Road, are all testament to the fact that there is a growing curiosity around skills & attributes we’ve all but left behind in our specialised modern existence. 

All have popularised the allure of getting back to basics as humans, ridding ourselves of all the superficial/artificial trappings of our more evolved selves and focusing on lower order, base needs – such as food, warmth, shelter, security, safety, as well as instinctive emotions and behaviours. In a sense we’re flipping the Maslow hierarchy. Culturally, we’ve reverted to a more devolved sense of who we are. 

Basic survival is now uber-chic. We’re no longer just chasing the best things in life, preferring instead to dig deep for the primal things that ensure our sustainability as human beings.

Fair Go Mate, We’ve All Been On Struggle Street

We're certain that much of the criticism and negativity directed at the SBS series Struggle Street was predictable - the producers and senior executives at the broadcaster must have seen it coming, perhaps they even counted on it to give the show some 'buzz' and cut-through that it might not have otherwise had. The (English) production studio - Keo - had already seen similar 'outrage' when their previous effort, Skint, aired on the UK's Channel 4 in 2013. It's likely that they and Helen Kellie, the British-born SBS content executive had also closely watched the reactions (and success) of last year's Benefits Street, also aired on Channel 4.

We're also certain that the British heritage of both the production company and the SBS executive who sanctioned it can be seen as an interesting dimension to the Struggle Street furore. The English love and devour class-based drama / comedy / reality TV; the opportunity to judge, to laugh at, and to throw hands up in horror at those who they consider beneath them is an age-old practice. The English have a particular penchant for mocking and demonising the 'lower' classes - reinforcing the idea that everyone has their correct place and the natural order of things (class) is still in place. They also love to mock the upper-classes in popular culture, but this is usually more along the lines of, "look at these eccentric rich people and their follies" - reinforcing the right of the privileged at the top of the tree by swathing them in a benign and affectionate glow - see Grand Designs and Downton Abbey for starters.

And this is what we think SBS and its producers have missed in the (predictable) reaction to Struggle Street. Australians are still egalitarian at heart and essentially 'classless' in mindset (although the reality may be different when it comes to actual opportunity and wealth). We want to see everyone getting a 'fair go', everyone getting the same opportunities, and hence we're not so interested in separating out groups of people or excluding them on the basis of something akin to 'class'. It's not our way.

Kath and Kim

wasn't about laughing at or judging others, it was about sharing the joke that we all got around our collective suburban aspirations and foibles. We laughed at ourselves or parts of ourselves, not at others.

The hard-working folk of Mt Druitt and Blacktown are rightfully appalled at a perceived lack of respect and recognition for all the 'heavy lifting' they've been doing over the last few years to contribute to the success of contemporary Australia; and they've been doing it from the heart of the most diverse, dynamic and growth-oriented region in Australia - Western Sydney. Struggle Street plays to old stereotypes and media tropes that can be found in the backwaters of Western societies anywhere in the world, and they are fundamentally class-based and narrow-minded. The reaction to Struggle Street suggests that universal as they may be, they just don't seem to play out so well in relatively fair-minded Australia.

Reality TV or stress pornography?

At one point or another we’ve all had some interaction with the pervasive reality television series Masterchef. Some of us follow it religiously, some occasionally while others simply chime in occasionally to comment on the ridiculousness of it all. It’s inescapable, and after 6 seasons of hopping between all three we’ve noticed some gradual changes in the nature, or rather, focus of the series.

It seems that every season the challenges become slightly more difficult, the time constraints slightly less realistic and the resulting tears more frequent. But more importantly it seems an increasing proportion of the show focuses on the stress, panic and anxiety of the contestants…and we’re choosing to ignore the ever-present sob story. With the recent announcement that the show will be back for a seventh season in 2015 with an average of around 900,000 viewers per episode, the gradual evolution of the show seems to be well received.

So what compels us to watch the inevitable crisis moments, the failure and the misery? Why do we enjoy watching the contestants suffer? Could it be a very mild form of sadism? Perhaps there is something cathartic about coming home from a long day at work to watch others flailing about in a state of panic. Unlike some other reality television shows in the last decade Masterchef isn’t overtly mean. Yes the judges can be unbearably smug and a little snide at times but that’s not where the cruelty lies. Contestants are simply set up to crack and fail through the design of the challenges and when they do, the cameras don’t miss a beat.

Former 2013 series contestant Jules Allen recently spoke out about how contestants were encouraged to crack open for the cameras. It’s no secret that the immersive nature of the show is designed to produce high emotion but is this level of drama-come-stress-pornography necessary to maintain an emotional connection with the viewer?

Sadly we’re not above it all either. Lunchtime conversation in the office reveals that we’re all somehow fairly up to date considering no one claims to be a regular viewer. We’re reminded of a clever skit by English comedians Robert Mitchell and David Webb.  Whether you’re watching ironically or watching sincerely, you’re still watching.