Diversity On Australian TV Is Still Pretty Terrible. Whose Job Is It To Fix That?
If we switch to something that actually represents Australia, maybe the networks will switch too.
Television has always been thought of as an accessible medium. TV sets made their way into most people’s homes, and the programming has predominately always been free-to-air, but this egalitarian spirit never quite made its way onto the screen itself. People of colour still struggle to get equal representation in more than token roles and — with a few notable exceptions — Australian shows in particular flounder when it comes to diversity.
— Alex Wain (@alexwain) September 8, 2015
This discussion has been happening for decades now, but it’s important to interrogate exactly where and why we’re still failing. Is it the job of production companies to ensure diverse casting? Or do more roles need to be written specifically for people of colour?
How do we actually achieve any change?
The Ghettoization Of Progress
In recent years there have been great strides towards inclusiveness on television, but it rarely finds its way to the mainstream.
Legally Brown (Nazeem Hussain’s sketch comedy focusing on race relations and white perceptions of people of colour) and ABC’s Black Comedy (a show performed and developed by Indigenous comedians) are great examples of this. They were both aired by state-funded broadcasters (SBS and ABC, respectively), they’re both comedies — a genre which is more inclusive than most — and they both aired later than comedies on the same channels (at 9.30-10pm). This presentation of Legally Brown and Black Comedy as niche programming, vastly different from what’s presented to the prime-time audiences of commercial networks, seems to add to a perception that shows should either be aimed at people of colour or white people, not both.
In his review of Legally Brown in 2013, Waleed Aly suggested that “[The show] is confronting because the Australian cultural majority is so unused to hearing minorities speak with such assertiveness.” But shouldn’t the platforms supporting these voices be doing more to bring them to this so-called majority more regularly and more effectively?
The ABC has commissioned a high volume of local scripted comedy and drama in recent years, screening shows such as The Slap, Paper Giants and Utopia, which have found significant commercial and critical success. In the past few months, the ABC’s schedule has been filled with more prestige television: Please Like Me (which is currently in its third season) and The Beautiful Lie (an eight-part series which transplants the plot of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into modern-day Melbourne). But despite the costumes and settings of The Beautiful Lie being wildly different to its Russian counterpart, there’s something decidedly un-modern about this ‘modern-day’ adaptation. In The Beautiful Lie’s version of contemporary Melbourne, there’s none of the racial and ethnic diversity that defines the city today. There is not one non-white actor featured in the nine-person core cast.
On Please Like Me, the case is quite similar. PLM is an important show; created, written by and starring comedian Josh Thomas and partially based around his own experiences, the program provides representation for another minority, the LGBT community, while tactfully addressing issues like abortion and mental health. This aspect of the show — the comedy’s ability to depict difficult issues in a light that is neither precious nor preachy — is one of the many reasons PLM has garnered a wide array of fans, both in Australia and in the US, where the show is loved by big-name critics and has been nominated for an International Emmy.
But Please Like Me has made little attempt to account for a diverse array of ethnicities and races, with just one notable non-white character: Mae (Renee Lim), Josh’s dad’s younger, Thai wife. Lim, born and raised in Australia, is as charismatic and well-spoken as any other member of the show’s cast, but on-screen she’s saddled with an often unbearably cartoonish accent. The unfortunate characterisation of Mae could also be considered a slight on Australia’s Asian community given the fact she is of Chinese-Malaysian ethnicity, not Thai; a move which unwittingly treats all Asian ethnicities as interchangeable.
This isn’t just a critique just for the ABC or Thomas himself. Please Like Me is a reflection of Thomas’ experiences (a lot of the show’s material is taken directly from his stand-up show), in the same way that almost all art (television included) is a reflection of its creator’s experiences, views and values. But, assuming all art should be viewed within that context, do writers such as Thomas have an obligation to serve audiences that they don’t or can’t identify with?
Lena Dunham, creator of HBO series Girls, has also come under fire for not featuring a racially-diverse cast in her show. Responding to criticism that the show was too white, Dunham stated that she wanted to “avoid [what felt like] tokenism in casting” and that the “specificity” of a non-white experience was something that she “wasn’t able to speak to”. Dunham’s comments suggest that it’s up to people of colour to create roles for themselves, rather than the white showrunners and writers who make up the large majority of the industry. Since making these comments, Dunham has gone on to include a few (literally, three of any significance) people of colour on her show, but many argue their portrayal has shown startlingly little awareness of the root of diversity issues.
The Mindy Project creator Mindy Kaling, when asked about the lack of diversity on her show, hit back against the question, arguing that “no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women or of colour, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”
What Can The Industry Do To Help?
While many creatives working in television would acknowledge a need for greater representation, it seems that, as seen in the comments from Kaling and Dunham, the means of achieving it are contentious. When I asked Chinese-Australian producer Tony Ayres — who has worked on high-profile shows such as Glitch and The Slap as well as Maximum Choppage and Nowhere Boys, and is a co-founder of Matchbox Pictures — about the issue, he seemed optimistic.
“There are lots of really fantastic shows being made that are coming to our screens soon,” he said, citing SBS’s The Family Law (based on Benjamin Law’s memoir of the same name, and executive produced by Ayres himself) and ABC’s Barracuda, based on a Christos Tsiolkas novel, as prime examples. “I think [creating diversity] is actually about people of colour making [and] investing in that work themselves, and I think it’s about doing it well enough so that your work becomes part of the cultural conversation … I think that’s what will encourage more work along those lines.”
Ayres’ comments are typical of an industry mentality which views entertainment as a meritocracy, without acknowledgement of potential systemic imbalances. It’s important to make sure the content is good, of course — but even the best stuff isn’t guaranteed to reach mass audiences in an industry with structural biases and imbalances.
Because of this, many creatives are now pushing back at the old model of studio dictatorship that so tightly controls what’s shown on-air. Iranian-American filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, co-creator of The Slope, chose to release her series via Vimeo as opposed to traditional channels, in order to have full creative control and minimise the risk of studio meddling. More recently, Aziz Ansari released a series through Netflix, Master of None, which takes the film industry to task for only creating minor, often stereotyped roles for Indian-Americans. Both shows have been critically lauded, with Master of None in particular bringing forth a discussion about systemic racism in entertainment through its lighthearted but salient episodes surrounding the issue.
Showrunners can certainly play a significant role in rectifying this issue, but systemic imbalance, by nature, requires systemic change. This week, Screen Australia announced a five-point, $5 million plan to address gender imbalances in the Australian screen industry. Focussing on tackling the issue of gender imbalance rather than simply helping individuals, the program provides a strong, distinct and detailed strategy for the next three years which includes the creation of industry infrastructure focused on women, and funding for projects with “significant female content”. A program like this is direly needed for people of colour working in screen industries; a significant push from an organisation with clout such as Screen Australia would help foster diversity.
Hopefully the success of programs such as Master of None and The Slope, as well as international hits such as Fresh Off the Boat and Empire, will encourage Australian networks to take notice of people of colour working in television, too. But ultimately, it may be up to viewers to push for a change. Watch diverse shows like Black Comedy and Legally Brown; show your support for them; tell networks that diversity is essential for a vibrant industry. The aforementioned Family Law, as well as a new comedy from comedian Ronny Chieng, are set to debut in 2016; hopefully these two shows are merely the tip of the iceberg.
In what was undoubtedly one of the most powerful Logies speech in years, Indigenous actress Miranda Tapsell urged networks to “put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race”. The standing ovation she received was indicative of the fact that audiences are ready for a change.
If the mass proliferation of reality shows in recent years has shown us one thing, it’s that if something is successful, the industry will doggedly try and recreate it a hundred times over. Don’t waste your energy watching another bunch of same-y white dudes fall over each other for another white woman on The Bachelorette; switch to something that actually represents Australia, and maybe the networks will switch too.
Shaad D’Souza is an 18-year-old writer from Melbourne, drifting through life and looking for love in all the wrong places. Follow him on Instagram here.