‘The Family Law’, Diversity On Aussie TV And #GiveAYellowAGo: A Chat With Benjamin And Michelle Law
Lots of thinking. Lots of shouting.
Ahead of the premiere of SBS’ The Family Law, we asked two of the titular Law siblings — writer, columnist and The Family Law author Benjamin; and fellow writer, co-author of Shit Asian Mothers Say and AWGIE award-winning screenwriter Michelle — to discuss their thoughts on the progress of diversity on Australian TV, the history of Asian representation (or lack thereof) on our screens, and how to cast a Cantonese-speaking family in a very white industry.
They came back at us with anecdotes about pooing in bookstores and eating turtle soup, so there you go.
MICHELLE LAW: We’re supposed to be talking about cultural diversity on Australian screens, but this is actually just a ploy for me to ask you all the intimate details about the show I wanted to ask but never could, so STRAP YOURSELF IN. Just kidding, we are here to talk about cultural diversity and the rest will be settled in court. (Remember when Borders stocked The Family Law, a memoir, in the Law section?)
BENJAMIN LAW: Oh I totally remember that. I like to think my book contributed to the downfall of that wretched empire. (It should be noted that Michelle and I have worked as booksellers for independent bookshops, so this conversation already has an agenda.) I do miss their insane magazine section though. Borders had a GREAT LGBTIQ magazine section. Cocks for days. Okay, we’ve already gotten off topic.
ML: Yeah, also a great place to lay down a massive turd when you couldn’t be arsed going to a public toilet. WAIT. SHUT UP. WE’VE GOT TO HAVE A PROFESSIONAL CONVERSATION. Who were the first Asian Australian characters you remember seeing on television?
BL: I do remember the awesome Annette Shun Wah introducing movies on SBS, as well as hosting Eat Carpet. There was Elizabeth Chong – the precursor to Kylie Kwong – on Good Morning Australia. Lots of people always talk about the Lim Family on Neighbours – the ones who were accused of eating the neighbourhood dog. And then there was the first Asian on Home & Away! I remember this Asian dude arriving at Summer Bay – a Chinese immigrant or something – and I was like, “WHOA. Asians! On television!” In the end though, he was just a prop to teach Alf Flamin’ Stewart about cultural tolerance, and then he basically disappeared.
ML: Were you pretty aware of the Asian stereotypes you’d see on TV? I remember a little while ago Fiona Choi, who plays our mum in The Family Law, was telling me about this character she’d played on Neighbours called Laura Wallace. Toadie had a crush on her, but she ended up dating someone else who dropped her because he couldn’t handle her being a stripper.
BL: Hahahahahaha. I mean, clearly that is based on Fiona’s real life as a stripper, which we should respect and honour. It’s funny: I’ve been talking to a lot of journalists about The Family Law, and from the trailer, they do wonder whether I’ve created a whole new suite of stereotypes. Part of me wants to say, “WAIT, SO YOU’RE SAYING MY FAMILY ARE STEREOTYPES,” and wish they’d go into the bin.
ML: How dare they. *Quietly removes Instagram post of myself drinking bubble tea.*
BL: But I think for me, stereotypes are only stereotypes when they’re side characters, props and one-dimensional clichés. I’m sure even that stripper character Fiona played could’ve been complex and fascinating, if (1) the story was told from her perspective and not Toadie’s; (2), if she was developed into a central character whose stripper life was one element of many; and (3), if there were other Asian characters around her, so no one would need to bear the burden of being the representative of THEIR ENTIRE RACE.
I get mixed feelings. I mean, on one hand, you want visibility. On the other, visibility has historically been so shithouse.
ML: A lot of the time, stereotypes pop up when there is such limited representation of a group. And I think part of that stems from a lack of diverse writers and casting.
BL: There’s this great piece Jon Ronson wrote for GQ about Arab American actors who keep playing terrorists, because that’s the only role they get offered. I think the title was, ‘You may know me from such roles as Terrorist #4‘. [Diversity on screen is] about producers, directors, casting agents and writers [making the effort]. That’s something I think we’ve both learned in our limited time as TV and performance writers.
ML: Can we talk about Black Hermione Granger. Or, THE NOTORIOUS BHG.
BL: Black Hermione is SO INTERESTING. I am VERY interested in Black Hermione.
ML: Rowling did say that nothing in the Harry Potter books ever gave any indication of Hermione’s race. Why do we just assume characters are white?
BL: It’s because there’s what Tony Ayres – The Family Law’s executive producer – calls a default to white. It’s there in Hollywood; it’s definitely there in Australian TV. Which is to say, we see “white” as neutral. We don’t see Caucasian as a race. Which is why when most Australians watch Sunrise or Today or The Block – shows that are whiter than a Klan rally at a yacht club – we don’t bat an eyelid. Despite the fact that over a quarter of us have parents who were born overseas.
ML: I read this cool Rebecca Solnit piece the other day about literature and gender/privilege, called ‘Men Explain Lolita To Me‘. It speaks specifically to the reading experiences of men and women, but I think it also applies to cultural diversity in TV and film:
“The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racialising of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much. I coined a term a while ago, ‘privelobliviousness’, to try to describe the way that being the advantaged one, the represented one, often means being the one who doesn’t need to be aware and, often, isn’t. Which is a form of loss in its own way.”
Maybe there’s a fear that white audiences will not be able to relate to protagonists who come from a minority background? Which I think is silly and patronising. Silly because people from minority backgrounds have been relating to white characters their entire viewing lives. And patronising because I think white viewers are interested in seeing characters from different cultural backgrounds.
BL: OH NOW THIS IS INTERESTING, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS. And it’s not just about race!
ML: PRAY TELL, BROTHER.
BL: I was listening to this great interview with Meryl Streep and Terry Gross on NPR, and Streep was saying that how whenever men tell her they’re a fan of her work, they always – always – cite the same favourite character of theirs. And it’s always Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. And she thought, “Huh.” Is this because Miranda’s a boss and in a position of great authority and power?
Her theory – and I think she’s right – is that a lot of white men aren’t as used to having to empathise with people who aren’t them. Whereas if you’re a woman, if you’re from an ethnic minority, you’re constantly watching other people’s stories and putting yourself in their shoes. I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be Indigenous or trans or disabled, for instance, but when I hang out with people from those backgrounds, I do have some in-built shorthand and understanding of being seen as “other”. And it bonds us. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most people who ask questions like, “Will you write books that AREN’T about black people?” or “Why should white people watch this show about Asians?” are often … well, white dudes.
THAT SAID, I LOVE WHITE DUDES AND AM EVEN DATING ONE, THIS IS HOW PROGRESSIVE I AM.
BL: Will this thing on Junkee just basically be us screaming in caps or are you going to edit them out? It’s a lot of caps.
ML: I WILL EDIT SOME OUT BUT LEAVE MOST.
BL: I like what Matchbox Pictures are doing. Because Debbie Lee and Tony Ayres – two of the executives and creative heads there – are Chinese-Australian, they’re totally working an agenda. Nowhere Boys has an Asian main character. The Family Law and Maximum Choppage are super Asian. And poofs are all through their work, like in Glitch. They’re also making the first Australian Muslim rom-com, Ali’s Wedding. You do have to make a concerted effort, or it doesn’t actually change.
ML: Let’s talk a bit about AGENDAS. I know we both started screenwriting by accident, but now that you’re balls-deep in the profession do you now have some kind of sexy political agenda?
BL: My aim is to be balls-deep in every Australian household.
ML: *kissing emoji*
BL: In the end, we just wanted to write a comedy about a marriage imploding, because of course that’s the funniest thing in the world for children. The specificities of their Chinese-ness is there (they eat congee, the dad manages a Chinese restaurant), but their Chinese-ness isn’t the plot. There’s a scene in Episode Six of‘The Family Law where a character’s race comes up, and it’s almost a shock because up until now, race hasn’t been an issue for anyone in the show, really. They talk about it, they joke about it, but it’s not a problem.
But you first. Do you have an MO? A secret mission statement? YOU CAN TELL YOUR BROTHER.
ML: Ummm. I guess I do! But it’s only an MO in that everything I do is an MO, because to be a young, Asian woman living in Australia is inherently political and that infiltrates my work.
BL: You are a Young Asian Woman In a World Gone Mad™. For me, I think I just want to do good work. And because I’m this Asian, gay minority-turducken, I just assume those sensibilities and perspectives will inform the work.
ML: That’s true. I think for me it’s often a conscious decision as well, though, because there’s a lack of female and minority protagonists. And I think about female-led creative teams a lot. (According to Screen Australia’s figures on women working in key creative roles in traditional film, women account for 32 percent of producers, 23 percent of writers and 16 percent of directors.)
BL: True, true. BE THE ASIAN SHONDA RHIMES YOU WERE BORN TO BE. The Family Law was proudly created by a team of women. The rest were card-carrying homosexuals. Tell me about the stuff you’re writing in 2016. And how much do you think they’re political when it comes to race?
ML: Mostly I’m going to be working on my play, Single Asian Female. It’s a family drama about single, Asian women in the one family who are working in isolation from each other, and keeping secrets from each other. All of the leads will be Asian women, which I’m really excited about. What are you going to be focusing on?
BL: So The Family Law is going full steam ahead, obviously. We’re thinking about what another season would look like. And I’m working for Blackfella Films as a researcher on Deep Water, a feature documentary for SBS about horrible gay hate crimes and murders that happened in Sydney between the ’70s and ’90s.
ML: SBS is making some good stuff. HAI, SBS!
BL: HAI SBS, PLS KEEP EMPLOYING ME, KTHXBAI!
ML: Do you feel that pressure to move overseas for screenwriting work? Also how do you feel about quotas?
BL: Nah, I actually feel we’re super lucky in Australia. For all the cultural cringe (which I find more embarrassing and tedious than anything to do with Australia’s actual culture), I think we’re making remarkable TV, plays, books and films. Although, Sharon Horgan – who co-created, co-stars and co-writes Catastrophe with Rob Delaney – did start following me on Instagram the other day, and I was like, “I LOVE YOU, SHARON, TAKE ME TO ENGLAND AND LET ME WRITE FOR YOU AND BE YOUR FRIEND FOREVER”. Quotas: all for them. Even if the concept gets people angry, then good. At least the discussion reminds them there’s a problem.
ML: Screen Australia recently launched their Gender Matters initiative for LADDEHS, and they’re launching their cultural diversity initiative soon. Part of the changes means that the gender and cultural diversity of a creative team is a consideration when applications are being assessed. Do you reckon it’s a good thing and do you think it’ll help?
BL: I am all for this. Obviously I’ve come into TV screenwriting in a really unusual way, but I do know that our screenwriting, directing and producing friends are often the only women or non-white people in the room. It’s fucking lonely! And as a viewer, it means show after show whose cast has no resemblance to my friendship group or a typical inner-city party. Canada, the US and UK have had diversity initiatives for years. It’s no accident that they’ve managed to represent their social make-up far more successfully than Australia has on TV and film.
ML: Why do you think Australia is so behind?
BL: Partly because Australia is actually so great at multiculturalism – by some measures, we’re even more multicultural than the US, UK and Canada – that our sense of fairness tips over to the point where we think quotas and diversity mechanisms aren’t needed. Which is to say, our egalitarianism can be our best and worst quality, sometimes. We’re not great at admitting there’s a problem, and we’re touchy about race.
The UK and US are different. Many UK broadcasters have targets for diversity, and if they don’t hit them, those executives don’t get a bonus. Many US networks have diversity officers, whose sole job it is to ensure practices like race-blind casting are in place. It’s why Anthony Brandon Wong – who plays our dad in The Family Law – finds himself auditioning for the same parts alongside Black, Hispanic and Caucasian actors in the US, something he says rarely happens here.
ML: Do you think somewhere down the pipeline in the writing and casting process, characters get white washed because there’s a fear there isn’t enough talented, culturally diverse actors? There’s a behind the scenes video of the casting agents for The Family Law discussing the challenge of casting a Chinese Australian family who spoke Cantonese, but THEY DID IT.
BL: I think people are lazy and scared of making the effort. We all knew from day one The Family Law was going to be insanely difficult to cast, but everyone was committed enough to think laterally to find these actors. And in the end, most of them had extensive acting training and experience already!
ML: The talent was there! We exist! #GiveAYellowAGo. That’s my latest catchphrase.
BL: You mean on Tinder?
ML: I think the tides are turning for both culturally diverse productions AND Tinder. Just yesterday I saw like EIGHT mixed race couples where the dude was Asian. That NEVER happens. And then you’ve got shows like Maximum Choppage, Redfern Now, Black Comedy and The Family Law.
BL: I fucking LOVE Black Comedy so much.
ML: VERY SMART. VERY FUNNY.
BL: It is telling how we have to market shows like these, though. Black Comedy’s tagline is, “A sketch comedy show by Blackfellas … for everyone”. Which should be self-evident. But I think if you don’t push that line, people will see it and think, “Well I’m not the audience for a show with a majority-Indigenous cast”.
And in discussing The Family Law, as cool as it is that the cast is 90 percent Asian-Australian, I do find myself emphasising that it’s also for anyone who’s ever been embarrassed by their family, or anyone from a big family, or an inappropriate family, or anyone who’s experienced a marriage break-up. It’s silly, I know. I may as well say, “THIS IS A SHOW FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE LEGS. BUT IF YOU DON’T HAVE LEGS, YOU’LL STILL GET SOMETHING OUT OF IT!”
ML: But it doesn’t give you the shits when people point out it’s got Asians in it, right? It’s very exciting! We’re not eating dogs in it! At least not in this season.
BL: You do know Dad ate a dog once in China, right?
ML: Yeah, but we’ve eaten turtle soup…
BL: Yep, Season Two kicks off with everyone eating dogs and being drug lords and prostitutes. It’s going to be very edgy.
ML: WAIT. DAD BOUGHT THE TURTLE FOR THAT SOUP.
BL: I don’t want to talk about the turtle today, Michelle.
The Family Law premieres tonight from 5pm on Facebook, and at 8:30pm on Thursday, January 14 on SBS.
Benjamin Law is a Sydney-based journalist, columnist and screenwriter. He is the author of two books — The Family Law (2010) and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East (2012)—and the co-author of the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle and illustrator Oslo Davis. Benjamin is a frequent contributor to Good Weekend (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), frankie and The Monthly, and has also written for over 50 publications, businesses and agencies in Australia and worldwide.
Michelle Law is a Brisbane writer whose work has appeared in Women of Letters, Growing up Asian in Australia, Destroying the Joint and many Australian literary journals. She is an AWGIE award-winning screenwriter whose films have screened internationally and on the ABC. In 2014 she co-authored the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say. Michelle is currently working on her first stage play with La Boite Theatre, and is part of the Playwriting Australia Lotus First Draft group of playwrights, a program supporting Asian Australian writers.
Feature image by Tammy Law.