Phoebe: Wow! This reminds me of the time when I was umm, living on the street and this guy offered to buy me food if I slept with him.
Rachel: Well, h-how is this like that?
Well, let’s see, it’s not. Really, like that. Because, you see that was an actual problem, and uh, yours is just like, y’know, a bunch of, y’know, high school crap that nobody really gives y’know…
, addressing accusations of this trope in universe.
Some problems are universal and basic: death, torture, disease, hunger, pain, madness, etc. These are part of the human condition and could happen to anybody.
This trope is about other
problems. Minor problems. Problems of the prosperous and comfortable — problems that are only significant if you've already got the basics of food, clothing, shelter, and sanity down. It's not that you can't get food - they took your favorite sandwich off the menu down at the golf club, the best Philly cheese-steak in town, And That's Terrible
. Or maybe your mobile phone service is cheating you on its internet plan — which costs you more money than it should, yes, but thirty years ago there was no such thing as mobile telephone service and twenty years there was no civilian internetwork. Or your $600USD mobile telephone is broken - again, not great, but when you can buy a perfectly good one for $20USD...
Note that some serious problems don't rise to the food, clothing, and shelter level. 'Racist' hatred, spousal abuse, and school bullying usually aren't life-threatening, and may cause no physical injury at all. Still, these problems should probably not be considered First World Problems
—even when they happen to a bonafide rich (or otherwise comfortable) First Worlder.
Mind you, there is a place for First World Problems in fictionnote
. There has to be, as the First World enjoys consuming media that is relevant to them and their interests. Even people who are still struggling with more fundamental problems can, if they have time and access, get some enjoyment out of characters dealing with them - sometimes schadenfreude, sometimes for escapism. Clever writers can make something that looks like a First World Problem tie directly into something more fundamental.
Keep in mind that a key aspect of the Third World is not merely how the majority are impoverished: it's how vast numbers of the the impoverished live in proximity to a small number with outrageous wealth (think Mobutu Sese Seko
for example). While in the US and the like, usually the differences aren't so extreme, whatever your politics it's likely you can at least imagine a few gated communities
buffeted by a ghetto
or a trailer park, and class conflict is a common theme in all fiction
The Trope Namer
is a Twitter
hashtag. Twitter is an excellent platform for short moanings about daily life and our miserable existences by people who are generally well-enough off for this sort of problem, so this was a match made in heaven. The hashtag is still going strong. The trope itself is older than this
, though: an older memetic quote on the same lines is parents responding to children refusing to eat vegetables with, "There are children starving in Africa!"
(or "China" in The Thirties
Examples shall be limited to works that notably concern themselves with Third World themes. If we had to list all the episodes of television shows where the main conflict isn't starvation, we'd be here all day.
Compare Pottery Barn Poor
, Angst Dissonance
, Misery Poker
Becomes the nastiest type of Misery Poker
when used to claim not that a trivial problem only seems serious to someone whose life is basically pretty good—but that any problem suffered by a "First Worlder" is by definition trivial
Notable Works that try to avert First World Thinking
- Post-apocalyptic fiction in general. In situations where people haven't already all died of radiation sickness, the worlds shown are marked by limited resources, with any law in play enforced by brutal warlords.
- City of God, taking place as it does in the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro, and how one of the few chances people have for escape is self-destructive crime. One of the turning points for the main character is how he simultaneously loses his virginity while taking the first hot shower he's ever had.
- Firefly: The technology is there if you can afford it, but Mal and his crew constantly have to deal with basic human needs like food and medicine, the corruption of the Alliance, worlds run by petty despots, and the constant threat of violence.
- The Wire: Taking place in the ghettos of Baltimore, one of the main themes of the series is how institutional dysfunction creates the Third World conditions of the inner city, feeds into criminal organizations, and inevitably aligns consumer culture with addiction culture.
- Invoked Trope by Phoebe on Friends of all places. At first, her mother's suicide and teenage homelessness were occasionally played for Black Comedy, but later became part of her Character Development.
- In The Great Gatsby the carelessness of the rich, who have no fundamental problems, is contrasted to the "hot struggles" of the poor such as George Wilson, who constantly is reminding Tom to sell him a car so he has the money to survive.
- The book Alexandria Of Africa is about Alexandria, a Rich Bitch who regularly steals out of boredom and uses her money and influence to get out of it, until she gets sentenced to community service in Africa and realises some people live far worse than she could ever imagine.
- One of the major themes in The Hunger Games is the stark contrast between the excesses of the Capitol and the hardships in the Districts, where there is a very real chance of starving to death. Katniss and Peeta are horrified during a feast in the Capitol when they learn that it is common there for people to force themselves to throw up just so they can stuff more food in, when Katniss was once inches away from death by starvation and even Peeta's family struggled, despite running a bakery.