Is Australian Television Racist?
Lessons from Davis' success
Viola Davis was the first African American woman to have won a major award in the prestigious American Emmy wards. She received her trophy as the first black woman to be honored as best actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal as a lead in 'How to Get Away in Murder'. She spoke confidently and she gratefully acknowledged her producer, director and co-actors in the series, but what really caused a people about her speech were her words.
Davis firstly quoted a 19th century African American civil rights activist Harriet Tubman to talk about the notion of 'crossing over a line', to mean getting over to the part of life where opportunities exist for all, especially for people of color. "In my mind I see a line, and over that line I seen green fields, and lovely flowers, and beautiful white women, with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but can't seem to get there know how. I can't seem to get over that line" (Harriet Tubman 1822-1913).
Davis' voice quivered as she voiced out concern for the opportunities lost, for the chances that black women and actors been denied of compared to their white counterparts. "Let me tell you something," Davis continues, "the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You can not win an Emmy for the roles that are simply not there."
Davis words raised some hairs of some people in the audience that night and it did shed some awakening to the entertainment and television industry in the. Her words re-echoed the century-long resounding message of cultural diversity in our screens, particularly the small screen where the world's eyes are glued to during prime time. The resounding message of inclusiveness is posed to television producers, writers and directors: have we gone out of our comfort zone to represent the true mix of our communities? Have we been afraid to use people-of-color in our shows or series? What efforts have we done to challenge racism in our profession?
Diversity in Australian television
Viola Davis' message of cultural diversity in the television industry also sends a resounding self-check for television industry in Australia: how have we applied the message of inclusivity in script-writing, casting and story-telling? How diverse Australian television industry really is?
Australia is a largely diverse society, but television simply does not project such reality. Andrew Mercado, Australian Film and TV historian and founder of The Backdoor Cinema, during an interview with ABC Radio National's Natasha Mitchell, confirms that Australia is not as diverse on TV as its neighboring country New Zealand is. Mercado cites the new New Zealand Drama '800 Words' as an example how NZ Television portrays multiculturalism on the screen. He describes character Erik Thomson moves to a new town and people from different culture such as the Maoris are featured on screen straightaway. He says that this is just a given with any New Zealand drama.
"That same thing doesn't work in Australia," Mercado, says. "If you make any Australian drama, you might have seen an Indigenous character in 'Love Child', but where are they for the rest of them?" Mercado also mentions 'Neighbours' that has an Aboriginal character but laughs at the way the production gives that character a 'triple effect' with identities as not only being an Aboriginal, but also gay and an ex-soldier who had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.
More importantly, Mercado recognizes the predominance of representations of the white race in Australian television and expresses his disappointment at this situation. "If you are watching 'Home and Away' or 'Neighbours' which are two very important shows seen around the world, you would walk away with the impression that Australian suburbs are full of white people... We are talking about white Australians that predominate these shows and I think that is a real shame," he says.
Diversity in television is demonstrated by the presence of people from another culture, race or linguistic background, other than European, white, English characters. It should also include stories and narratives from non-white backgrounds, exploring and showcasing their human existence, tendencies and dynamics that are similar to that of the white population. In producing a culturally-diverse television show, the use of non-white characters should not be depicted with an off-putting and heavy focus on ethnicity and differences. We are all human despite our background; human experiences of loss, fear, happiness, longing, etc are universal.
Miranda Tapsell, the Aboriginal Australian Logie award-winning actress and star of 'Love Child' and 'The Saffires', during the interview with Natasha Mitchell from ABC Radio National, also discusses the process upon which the depiction of non-Caucasian characters take place in a mainstream show. She notices the roles played such as that of Kerry Washington from 'Scandal' in the Shonda Rhimes series that they are placed in the milieu of normalising people. They don't have to act out their race overtly in their characters. In a sense, as Natasha Mitchell says, "They are just living their characters."
Tapsell furthermore more comments, "It's a big part of their identity, but it doesn't drag the story line. They are dealing with love and loss - things that are universal to everyone. So when they see the non-white characters how flawed they can be and how they have needs and desires just like any other person in the show, really challenges the gender and racial stereotypes; and, they look them and say 'wow they are just like me." The ordinariness and the humanity of the person of colour is brought up in the open and universalised and normalised their personality and identity. Tapsell continues, "Shonda Rhimes makes a big point in saying: 'Well, what's what America is - full of people from different backgrounds. So why are they not represented on television."
Tapsell connects this idea with the Australian experience, highlighting its significance with regards to the multicultural nature of Australian streets and suburbs, yet most of Australian television shows are predominantly white. To satirise this current screenscape in Australian television, Tapsell quotes Nazeem Hussain, an Australian comedian and actor, saying that if the famous reality TV show 'The Great Australian Spelling Bee' was a drama, all kids spellers would be Caucasians.
When she won the Logie award, Tapsell was also heard voicing out her passion on cultural diversity. She explains that her purpose was to attain visibility. "I wanted people who didn't share my heritage to be on the same page as me.The key point I wanted to make was visibility. You could not have a story of love child and not have an indigenous character in it because forced removal affected so many indigenous women so we needed to be part of that conversation. I am so glad to be a part of that conversation."
Benefits of promoting diversity on screen
TV historian Andrew Mercado acknowledges the success of this exercise in American television. "American television are absolutely booming in this area now," Mercado says. He explains that shows such as 'Grey's Anatomy', 'Scandal', and 'How to Get Away with Murder' use Asian and African American women at the center of the action. Viola Davis' success in 'How to Get Away with Murder' is a testament to social ethos and values surrounding this issue. The world supports cultural diversity, not to mention the soaring ratings of those shows.
Another interesting comment that Mercado mentions is the puzzling decline of Australian television in adhering to cultural diversity principles over the years. He says that in that the early days of Australian television, it tended to be more culturally diverse than the present times. He says: "In the late 60s and early 70s, there were unfortunate circumstances of white actors playing black actors." He also states that the 'Home and Away' and 'Neighbours' of the time, they were vastly more multicultural. Other shows include 'Bell Bird' produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Another is 'Country Town' directed by Peter Maxwell which had a Chinese character, an Italian family, a German family, a Vietnam soldier on leave who comes through the town and Bob Maza played by an Aboriginal lawyer married to a white girl."
Mercado laments on the loss of this diversity on Australian television. "When was the last time we saw that on TV. I can't think of ever seeing that on TV since late 60s." He also adds that those multicultural characters appearing on the show were not playing cultural stereotypes. "These were fully integrated characters, regular characters in the show. In the Country Town they were friends were everybody. Sometimes the race card were played as part of the story as indeed it would have been." He also mentions the Australia TV Drama series 'Number 96' by the Cash Harmon Production which depicted a Sydney apartmet block with a Jewish family runnning the delicatessen, African dress designer and an Indian doctor. Mercado says: "They were trying really, really hard to show that Australia was a multicultural place."
The most interesting thing that Mercado comments is the fact that even though they were culturally diverse back then, he says, "Australia was nowhere near as multicultural as it is now!"
When asked why Australian television seems to be shying away from cultural diversity, Mercado suspects the industry is catching up with the trend of advertisement where white young Australian demographic becomes the attractive target market. However, Mitchell poses the question: may it be that white, anglo, male, middle-aged television producers are creating a mirror image of themselves. She also asks if Australian consciousness may have been tired of racism issues and the issues surrounding them. Mercado responds that it might just be laziness. "Television executives play it too safe," Mercado says. "They play it too safe for what they think rates and for themselves," he adds. Mercado is adamant that this is caused by the desire of television executives to have an image they only want for themselves.
Having this noted by Mercado, could it be attributed to the myth or ideology that is perpetuated in society, and what an unfortunate cycle of perpetuation when media acts as the large producer and distributor of its own making.
Viola Davis' Acceptance speech in Emmys 2015
Remembering Number 96 TV Series on Australian Channel 10
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