The Misery Pimp

One of these days I’m going to have to tell the complete story of the Two Thumbs Up Massacre and Jamboree, which happened years ago before I had ever heard of Romania. I believe that only a handful of people reading this blog even know that story.

But the conclusion of that story is that I watch very few movies anymore. In fact, someone asked me the other day why that is so and my response was, “I don’t watch films – I make them,” which is true. But there is one rare exception to my lack of film watching and that is documentaries. About the only thing I have patience for anymore are documentaries, partly because sometimes you can see something really amazing and fascinating and partly because I’m in the process of making one myself and want to see what others have done before.

The other night I sat through a documentary. I won’t say the name here but a few of you reading this blog were with me and know what I am referring to. It was a big budget Hollywood-produced documentary and it was all about Romania, so I had high expectations. Instead, it was one of the worst cases of misery pimping that I’d ever seen.

In noting both conversations that I’ve had with people as well as a lack of a Wikipedia page for this term misery pimping, I realize it deserves an explanation. On my blog I categorize certain posts under the rubric Poor Widdle Romania, which is another way to refer to misery pimping.

Essentially, some people are in an unfortunate situation. It could be poor people, or people with medical needs, or people who are orphans, or refugees from war or civil unrest. Whatever the cause, a certain group of people is genuinely suffering and in need of some aid. An organization then responds to this genuine need and offers help, money, care, medical treatment or whatever is needed. Assuming the organization is “legitimate”, all is well.

The problem that arises is that these aid groups nearly always derive their income from fundraising as they are usually not-for-profit organizations. So the fine line they have to walk is between describing the (again, legitimate) plight of the people they are trying to help and over dramatizing the suffering of these people in order to play on (potential) donors’ heart strings to induce them to give.

The term “pimping” that I use is a rather harsh one but it’s one I feel is accurate when it becomes less about describing the genuine needs of the people in question and more about patting oneself on the back about what a hero one is for helping these people.

The documentary I saw the other night was a perfect example of this. It began by describing the horrific situation in Romania’s orphanages just after the 1989 revolution. This was certainly an awful and tragic situation and those children were in genuine need of assistance.

However the rest of the documentary was largely focused on how brave certain Americans were in going to the savage backwaters of Romania, and how they sacrificed “so much” and spent so much of their precious time and put so much strain on their families back home in America, all in order to save the children of Romania so let’s all shed a tear for how hard the Americans have it. There was even an extended scene showing the American in bed (in Romania) with dialogue about how exhausting all his charity work in Romania made him. Cry me a fucking river, eh?

Again, it’s difficult to separate misery pimps from people doing extraordinarily good works because both are genuinely helping people in need. I am in no way disparaging the good work that charities and aid organizations do nor am I downplaying the suffering and legitimate need for help that some people have. But when it becomes more about patting yourself on the back for all the hard work you’re doing and less about the people you’re actually helping, you have become a misery pimp. Just as a real pimp profits off of the prostitutes in his employ, so does the misery pimp profit from the generosity of people affected by the suffering of the people he’s helping, and the misery pimp uses this generosity to inflate his own ego.

And lastly, the “hero” of this documentary has now spent 20 years in Romania, as detailed at length in this documentary, and yet he cannot speak two words of the language. He can’t even pronounce the names of the cities he’s visiting to help those poor widdle Romanians, and that to me is a fundamental lack of respect. I understand not everyone is a cunning linguist but at least learn how to pronounce the cities.

If you know who I am referring to and the organization he helped start, please know that I do support the good works that they do. My “beef” (dispute) is not with them. Not mentioned whatsoever in the documentary but mentioned afterwards by the “hero” himself is the fact that this organization, founded by Americans, is now almost entirely a Romanian organization. Not only are most of the staff Romanians but most of the funds raised by this organization to help needy people comes from Romanians as well.

That, to me, was the wonderful part. Romanians are now actively helping themselves and that is a very, very good thing indeed. And they don’t need to spend a million dollars on a documentary to congratulate themselves for doing it either.