By JAMILA RIZVI
What’s wrong with this picture?
And, no, I don’t mean the fact there is a leather couch on the beach (what’s with that?).
Let me explain…
I was flicking channels while working late in the office last night. I watched a bit of my girl Mia Freedman on The Project, I tuned in for Rudd and Abbott going head-to-head at Rooty Hill and I caught some of the new Aussie drama, Wonderland on Channel 10. The photo above is a promotional shot for the show.
From the little I saw, Wonderland seems like a fairly predictable but harmless Aussie drama. It’s about a bunch of young people living in Coogee in Sydney’s east and I imagine, they will encounter the usual challenges of relationships and friendships that is typical of the genre. Wonderland is engaging, well shot and the central cast includes some impressive and likeable Aussie actors.
All of whom are white.
A fact that did not escape Australian actor Jay Laga’aia (formerly of Home and Away and Water Rats fame). When the show premiered last week, he tweeted the following:
Now, Laga’aia appears to have overlooked half-Chinese Australian actress Emma Lung but his broader point about the lack of cultural diversity in the show rings true. Australian viewers don’t see the multicultural cities and towns that we live in, reflected back to us on screen.
Yet, I imagine that most viewers wouldn’t have noticed this about Wonderland, let alone been bothered by it.
And if I’m entirely honest with you – despite my own mixed race background – I didn’t either.
That’s because watching TV is a passive activity. As viewers, we accept the scenario that is set before of us; we believe the characters and their relationships as they are presented.
We’re in a relaxed and accepting state of mind. We’re not tallying up the gender and race of the cast on our fingers; we’re too busy using them to Tweet during the ad breaks.
Actor, Jay Laga’aia knows a little bit about the casting of ethnically diverse Australians.
In March of last year he labelled the Australian television industry as racist, after he was written out of popular soap Home and Away.
Laga’aia also had a Twitter exchange with fellow Australian actor Firass Dirani (who is of Lebanese descent) about Channel 7’s Winners and Losers.
“People on Winners & Losers in their floral colours and their pastels … I don’t even know people like this…We need to watch ourselves, warts and all; flaws and all”.
To which Laga’aia replied:
“As someone who lost his job on H&A because they couldn’t write two ethnics that weren’t together, I’d like the chance to ply my trade.”
In 2011, there was widespread media coverage – including on this website – applauding Channel 10 for finally writing a culturally diverse family into their suburban drama Neighbours.
But sadly, the Kapoor family’s residency in Ramsey Street was short lived with Sachin Joab, Menik Gooneratne and Coco-Jacinta Cherin all being written out within 12 months of joining the cast full time.
Sachin Joab told Digital Spy, at the time of his character’s exit from the show that:
“We were definitely written out and it wasn’t of our own accord. We were actually dumbfounded by the decision and we had no idea that it was coming…
It was more of a shock to us knowing that it wasn’t just one multicultural actor who was being written out, it was every single multicultural full-time actor on the show…
We were all really hurt as we’d all been part of extremely heavy storylines and after working so hard on those, we really felt that we’d earned a second year on the show.
Instead, they’ve now brought in another all-Caucasian family and returned Ramsay Street to all-white characters.”
In 2011, Channel 9’s reality TV juggernaut The Block was also criticised for having an all-white cast.
The much-loved Packed to the Rafters has been targeted for having an all-white central cast of characters.
Packed to the Rafters
But should it be the responsibility of casting agents and producers to reflect Australian society back to us on our TV screens?
After all, the fabulous coming of age drama, Secret Life of Us cast Indigenous actress Deborah Mailman and came under fire for having an Aboriginal character who appeared to have no Aboriginal friends. They were accused of ‘tokenism’. Can anyone ever win?
Well yes. But I think the solution needs to be two fold.
Firstly, we do need to start seeing the Australia we all live in, more accurately reflected on our television screens.
Walk down the streets of any major Australian city and you’ll hear a buzz of conversation; the accents and languages as varied as the topics being discussed. We don’t see that on TV.
It’s easy to dismiss shows like Wonderland, Home and Away and Neighbours as mere fiction.
They’re not supposed to be real. But entertainment does play a critically important role in shaping a society’s norms, values and attitudes.
Television guides our beliefs about different races and religions and can work to either further entrench or to rebut cultural stereotypes. It is also an antidote to the negative presentations of culturally diverse Australians (including Indigenous Australians and Muslims) that we see on the nightly news.
Secondly, casting agents need to move away from the idea that ethnic actors can only play ‘ethnic’ characters. That is, characters whose primary role in the storyline is to provide a racially charged perspective or to have experiences that are shaped by their cultural heritage.
If I were a character in a television show, I’d probably be an accountant or working in IT.
I’d be fighting with my father about not covering my hair in public and I’d be hiding my relationship with a white boy from my family.
Oh, and I’d probably be written out with a storyline that bemoaned my arranged marriage to a man I’d never met in Mumbai.
That’s why Deborah Mailman’s Offspring character Sheree is so refreshing – her ethnicity is hardy (if ever) mentioned. You could just as easily have cast a white girl in that role but the makers of the show picked Mailman – cos’ she’s the bomb.
She’s an amazing actress and the fact she is Indigenous, simply means the show more accurately reflects the community.
Ethnicity is a part of who you are and for many Australians its a terribly important part of who we are. But it is not everything.
Australians speak more than 200 languages, and more than 60 different Aboriginal dialects. 30 per cent of us are born in a country that is not Australia. 43 per cent have at least one parent who was born outside of Australia. And in addition to our citizenry, we have hundreds of thousands of temporary migrants and overseas visitors in Australia each and every day.
Surely we could see a few more of us on the TV.
And while we’re at it, let’s cast us in roles more diverse than the mob boss, the terrorist, or the taxi driver.
Do you think that Australia’s cultural diversity is reflected in television drama?