Whitewashed: Why Does Australian TV Have Such A Race Problem? | Australian TV


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When the Australian soap opera Neighbors featured its first non-white family in 1993 – the Hong Kong Lims – their first major storyline was being accused of eating another neighbor’s dog.

Certainly, the accusing person was Julie Martin, a character known to be obnoxious and described by the official book Neighbors as “unbearable”. Eventually, in a race relations triumph, they were confirmed. After six weeks they were written. The dog, Holly, stayed for five more years.

Members of the Lim family, the first non-white figures on Neighbors.
Members of the Lim family, the first non-white figures on Neighbors. Photography: Network 10

Historically, Australian television – both scripted and unscripted – has been predominantly white and Anglo-Saxon, more so than the populace.

Recently, Indigenous actors Shareena Clanton and Meyne Wyatt revealed that they faced racism and racial slurs on the set of Neighbors. Sharon Johal, a former colleague of Neighbors, told Guardian Australia that she had endured “direct, indirect and occasional racism” on set, including being labeled “black” and imitated with an Indian accent as “Apu from the Simpsons. “.

Former host of longtime variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Daryl Somers, recently apologized to singer Kamahl for repeated and unsolicited jokes about his skin color and race when he made appearances in the 1980s.

A montage of segments, recently released on Twitter, showed a joke that Kamahl’s album would “go black” instead of gold or platinum, with the singer getting punched in the face with white powder and saying “You are a real white man now ”, and a cartoon of him sitting in a pot of stew with a bone in his nose.

Television historian Andrew Mercado said television in Australia is generally whiter and less representative of the general population, compared to the UK and US, although this is changing.

Mercado says he can only find three instances where Indigenous Australian characters have been featured on Neighbors’ main competitor, Channel Seven’s Home and Away, for 32 years.

One of them was a dream sequence in which the character Alf Stewart imagined himself transformed into an Aboriginal man, due to a brain tumor.

“One actor was Wes Patten, who played a college student called Kevin Baker in 1993,” says Mercado. “One was a ghost Alf imagined he was, as he died of a brain tumor on the operating table. Luke Carroll played Dr. Lewis Rigg for seven weeks. It is their last and most recent, in 2007. »

Shareena Clanton described neighbors as a 'toxic' environment, with an 'unhealthy level of silent complicity'
Shareena Clanton described the neighbors as a “toxic” environment, with an “unhealthy level of silent complicity”. Photography: Sam Tabone / WireImage

Alf Stewart’s story, he says, “doesn’t even count. [as representation]. He wasn’t real.

“The setup was that he had a brain tumor and he was imagining things… Alf was walking around the body of an indigenous man, which was played by David Ngoombujarra.

Now, he says, Home and Away includes a Maori family, the Parata family, played by Rob Kipa-Williams, Kawakawa Fox-Reo, and Ethan Browne.

And Neighbors, at least recently, has moved ahead of home and away representation. Current characters include Curtis, a hard of hearing teacher, played by Nathan Borg, and transgender student Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone.

Both were chosen after the cast introduced themselves to the show, and their character’s plots are written in consultation with the cast.

Still, when it comes to racing, Mercado says both – and in particular Channel Seven – have a lot going on.

Meyne Wyatt said he experienced racism while working on the Neighbors set between 2014 and 2016
Meyne Wyatt said he was a victim of racism while working on the Neighbors set between 2014 and 2016. Photograph: Joel Carrett / AAP

He draws comparisons to The Heights, a two-season ABC-commissioned soap opera set in a high-rise public housing, and Shortland Street in New Zealand.

The Heights was screened in the UK during the pandemic last year and averaged a million viewers per day – the same as Neighbors in the UK.

“What I liked about The Heights was not just that they had a family that was Native, it was the fact that there was another man who lived in the building who was also Native, who was not related to them, ”says Mercado. “The native characters had other native friends on the show to talk to… I thought it was extraordinarily well done – and I wish ABC did more.”

The cast of Shortland Street is a third Maori or Polynesian, which frequently goes up to 50% when you include guest roles.

Transgender student Mackenzie, portrayed by Georgie Stone, pictured helped improve portrayal on Neighbors
Transgender student Mackenzie, portrayed by Georgie Stone, pictured helped improve portrayal on Neighbors. Photographie: Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images

“And this is their # 1 commercial TV show,” he says.

In the UK, soaps like EastEnders and Hollyoaks have featured many more non-white faces in years, although Mercado points out that Hollyoaks was criticized by many of its cast last year for similar issues of racism.

And, he says, “Coronation Street, which has been around for 60 years, has only recently brought in a black family.”

In 1989, another mainstream Australian show, A Country Practice, was years ahead of its competition.

Professor Gary Foley, an academic at Victoria University, and Indigenous activist who helped found the Canberra Tent Embassy, ​​played a guest role on the show for four episodes.

Basically, Foley says, he was allowed to write his character himself.

« [Creator] Jim Davern called me and asked if I was interested, ”Foley told Guardian Australia. “I said I was only interested if I could write my own character and my own dialogue. The character I wanted to play was an Aboriginal Christian pastor who defended land rights.

“I didn’t have any of the problems that the people of Neighbors had.”

Kim Lester, who along with Melanie Tait hosts A Country Podcast, said Foley’s appearance was a model that other shows of the time could have used to create a better portrayal.

Gary Foley
Gary Foley starred in a guest role in A Country Practice. Photographie: Darrian Traynor / Getty Images

Lester says A Country Practice was still “not the most multicultural show” and in an interview with Davern he “admitted it was a product of his time.”

But as early as 1982, it featured a script about a gay couple rejected by their community, which Lester said was essentially unprecedented on commercial television.

Foley says, “It has been a productive time for me because the message I was trying to get across about indigenous peoples’ land rights has been conveyed and it has reached the largest audience in my life. He went to 28 different countries. “

Which brings us to the Lim family. Their dog story was meant to be a parable against racism, but the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, Mercado says.

“In their really awkward way, they were the ones trying to say ‘look at the discrimination they’re facing,’” he says. “But if there was any property intended for him, it was lost in the delivery.

“The moment her character saw the error of her habits, she befriended her new neighbors, but they were sent after six weeks.

Mercado says it’s the fear of change that keeps screens so white.

“I think the main structural problem that keeps Australian TV so white is the network executives who are still mostly male, straight and white,” he says. “Until they include more diverse decision-makers and stop doubting their audiences, nothing will change.

Foley tells Guardian Australia the revelations on Neighbors are not new.

Daryl Somers has said Hey Hey It's Saturday could not air today due to `` political correctness. ''
Daryl Somers has stated that Hey Hey It’s Saturday could not be aired today due to “political correctness”. Photography: Channel 9

“It’s not about trying to do something on the Neighbors set, it’s about all of Australia coming together to denounce the elephant in the room – white Australian racism, notions of supremacy white that Australians held until the second half. from the mid-twentieth century ”.

Recently, Somers – now hosting Dancing With the Stars – said Hey Hey It’s Saturday couldn’t air today due to “political correctness.”

Mercado says this argument is “the dumbest thing”.

“People have a sweet memory of what it was,” he says. “I always tell these people to ‘watch an episode of this show from start to finish.’

“There are edgy and dangerous comedies on Australian television all the time. The difference is, if you watch a show like Have You Been Paying Attention, they are making Asian jokes on Sam Pang because he’s on the show with them. Not a guest who comes by every five months. He was on the show to begin with.

“A show like Pizza or Housos is as politically incorrect as it gets. They laugh at everyone because everyone is on the show.

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