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No country for the urban poor

Here come the tragedy hipsters with lots of stats and zero compassion

Urban poor landing

A couple of days ago, a Buzzfeed article by Gayatri Jayaraman about young people living beyond their means, a tribe she termed the new ‘urban poor’, went viral and people shared it saying some variation of ‘Hallelujah!’, ‘Me too! or ‘OMG yes’. Soon enough, other websites started to mock it, saying some variation of ‘This is not poverty, I’ll take you to Dharavi’. Some used “humour” to counter the article, others used condescension. Now it’s reached that stage of the news cycle where the Twitter wits have discovered it, yay.

It’s too bad because Jayaraman makes a point that resonates with so many young, urban people who have felt echoes of the pressure she’s referring to. Particularly journalists, PR professionals and those who represent brands in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle segments will confirm that this horrible, pervasive judgement exists—and it does weigh you down till you locate your self-worth and discover that it doesn’t reside in an LV bag. (It doesn’t reside in a jhola and kohlapuris, either.) We asked around in the ELLE India office for reactions to the story, and we’ll share those with you in a minute. But can we first talk about why so many are getting such a kick out of wilfully misinterpreting Jayaraman’s piece? 

Enter, the tragedy hipster. No, it’s not that bearded guy nursing a mason jar of tears. The tragedy hipster lurks on social media till something terrible happens that results in a public outpouring of grief. Then he pounces to comment on your #PrayForParis status update to ask: Why don’t you pray for Baghdad, you phony? Why don’t you pray for Lebanon, you Euro-centric worm? Why don’t you pray for Syria, you ignorant jerk? He’s doing this ostensibly to inform you that there are other, bigger misfortunes in the world—but really, he’s doing it to let you know that his feelings are better, more authentic and more biodegradable than your tacky, mass-produced feelings.

This strategy as applied here reduces everything in Jayaraman’s piece to the words ‘urban poor’. Never mind that she qualifies the ‘poor’, or that she didn’t once suggest that there aren’t bigger tragedies in the world, and isn’t asking you to donate to the cause by clicking this button. All she’s saying is that maybe we should be kind to young people who struggle with this particular kind of pressure, and who we may not have noticed around us. 

But it’s so much more fun to laugh at people than to empathise with them. Especially if they’re young, upwardly mobile and care about their appearance. Or if they’re better off than us in any way at all. We saw this in the comments on Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy a few years ago: ‘She has the money for surgery and implants, what about the women who can’t afford treatment?’ Or when Deepika Padukone spoke about her depression: ‘What does she have to be sad about? What about farmers who kill themselves out of desperation?’ Well, what about them?

How does acknowledging one person’s struggle diminish our capacity to acknowledge another’s? Why are we so stingy with our compassion that we can only spare it for the most wretched? Before we dole out any spontaneous kindness, let’s do a quick mental inventory of misfortunes to see if this one matches up. ‘Sorry, I can’t feel any empathy for your 22-year-old daughter today because I already used up my quota on a beggar at the traffic light.’

Some issues will always speak to your compassion louder than others. If a particular issue or tragedy doesn’t move or affect you, let it go. Move on. But it’s a cruel kind of tone-deafness to suggest that the music you can’t hear is not worth hearing at all.

In Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, there’s a dialogue between two men that illustrates perfectly the moral myopia of the tragedy hipster. It’s between Gitanes, a Lithuanian businessman whose arm is covered in cigarette burns from being a political prisoner, and Chip, a 30-something American who self-harms.

 “So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?” Gitanes said.

Chip showed his palm, “It’s nothing.”

“Self-inflicted. You pathetic American.”

“Different kind of prison,” Chip said.


Reactions to the Buzzfeed story from the ELLE India team. 

“I think the fashion industry is particularly ruthless and unforgiving, and you kind of have to look the part and walk the talk even when you don’t already have the money—or get paid enough—to do it. It landed me deep in debt and with so many new insecurities. I’m better at dealing with stuff like this now because i’m growing up maybe, but I still try and do and wear and carry the things that are expected of me as a representative of the brand.”

“Throughout school I wore a uniform so it didn’t matter who I was sitting with or what their monetary status was. But college was a different ball game. You don’t have a uniform and you just feel so pressured to look good and want to be accepted. I think it never really stops after that.”

“I used to buy kilos and kilos of soybean chunks and douse them with hot sauce, and patiently wait for my roommate (who totally had her act together) to feel bad for me and offer her food. With the money I saved, I bought shoes.”

“In this particular industry, what you wear—and more importantly, who you’re wearing—is a large part of how you keep interest. On social media and at events, how you look and what you have becomes much more important.”

“For my first event at a fashion job, I bought an Armani dress I could not afford at a press sale because everyone was wearing labels. It had some backless stuff going on…and I never wore it again.”


-Deepa Menon