Australian soapies are among our most successful media exports. Shows such as Home and Away and Neighbours earn “soft power” points and showcase our culture to more than 50 countries worldwide.
And last weekend, one of those soapies, Home and Away, was inducted into the Logie Awards Hall of Fame.
But what sort of Australia is it promoting?
I asked one of my international students, Nigerian-born Catherine Bassey, who just graduated with a Masters In Journalism.
“The first Australian drama I ever watched overseas a long time ago was Home and Away,” she told me.
Before I came to Australia I was already of the view that Australia is mostly a “white dominated” country. I was surprised when right at the airport, from the taxi man who picked me up, to the people I went on to encounter everyday – unless you are here, you may not get the picture of how diverse Australia really is.
I supervised Bassey’s final documentary project – a topic she was passionate about since arriving in Sydney. It was titled, “Why is Australia’s media so white?”. She felt that the screen did not match reality. And she is not alone.
Only minutes after Home and Away won its award, both industry and the viewing public recognised Miranda Tapsell, a young Larrakia woman, with the award for most outstanding newcomer.
Tapsell used her speech to address the reality of Australian television: it’s too white.
Appropriating Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s controversial term, Team Australia, this is what she told the audience:
Put more beautiful people of colour on TV, and connect viewers in ways that transcend race and unite us. That is the real Team Australia.
In the Nine network’s Love Child, Tapsell plays Martha, a young woman from the Stolen Generation who works at a Kings Cross hospital. Her character has clearly resonated with mainstream viewers but, as she reminded the audience, such stories validate the experiences of those who have suffered.
Many ladies can relate to Martha but there’s something really special about reaching the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who had experiences like the girls in Love Child.
These women can look at Martha and think “that was me”, so if viewers clearly love seeing this, why deprive them of that?
It was a clear challenge to mainstream television executives to make their programs more diverse.
In its 27-year history, Home and Away has only ever featured one Aboriginal character and then only for three months.
The other big soap cultural export, 30-year-old Neighbours, only employed its first Indigenous actor last year.
Casting agent Anousha Zarkesh has placed Indigenous actors in productions such as Redfern Now, Mabo, and The Gods of Wheat Street. She has also worked with Home and Away. She told me in an interview for this article that she was able to cast 200 Indigenous actors in the Redfern Now series.
Networks are run by white middle class men in suits – they don’t see the culture we live in because they live in a small pocket. They don’t go to Cabramatta and Western Sydney in their daily life so they need to think outside their small world.
Miranda Tapsell’s first major role was in the award-winning 2012 musical hit,The Sapphires, based on the true story of four Aboriginal women from a mission who win an opportunity to sing for troops during the Vietnam war.
Rosemary Blight, a producer on The Sapphires and partner with Goalpost Pictures, the company that produced the film, told me that there was “resistance” to getting it made, “an unknown factor, a fear”.
I think in terms of financing it’s still an uphill battle with an Aboriginal cast – it’s not something that is easy to do. To actually say that is depressing. Certainly, when The Sapphires came out, it was a battle to convince the world that this story had value.
Ironically, one person she easily convinced was the powerful Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein – who eventually distributed the film in America.
He had a private screening and he came in with his arms open and said “I love this movie” and he wanted to understand Aboriginal Australia. He got it and the distinction of what was offered by Aboriginal culture, and wanted to talk about the original Sapphires.
Both Blight and Zarkesh say Miranda Tapsell’s win should give Australian executives a wake-up call.
“They will see it as being brave. They will be mindful that those characters rate well and are popular and [it should] give them confidence to continue outside the whitebread culture,” says Zarkesh.
In the last couple of years it’s been changing. People are sick of just watching white, white, white. They are now wanting more.“
Zarkesh says there is a new generation of Indigenous actors emerging from places such as the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts in Brisbane and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts that has just opened a new Indigenous Unit.
Australia has moved a long way from the 70s series Boney, for which New Zealand-born actor James Laurenson was hired to play a half-Aboriginal detective – but we’re still a very long way from achieving colour-blind casting across the board in our productions.
What is colour-blind casting?
Colour-blind casting is casting without bias – there is no restriction or tokenism. The leading actor could be of any ethnic background. Such is the case with the casting of Deborah Mailman as a nurse in Offspring – in which there is no mention of her Aboriginality.
Zarkesh says colour-blind casting is always requested by the ABC and SBS in their productions, but commercial networks are less forthcoming.
Last year, leading Australian screen writer Andrew Bovell made an important keynote speech at the National Play Festival in which he asked:
Why does our theatre look so white and Anglo? We need to brace ourselves otherwise we lose a generation of great writers for lack of opportunity or support.
A similar warning was delivered at the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Summit of Creativity and Diversity in October 2014.
Adam Moore, the EEO of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said at the same summit that producers had no excuses for not making content diverse:
Reality television is pushing them, user generated content is pushing them, and independent new media content is pushing them in the direction to actually reflect the world we live in.
As far as Zarkesh and Blight are concerned – their latest venture is doing just that .
Cleverman is an Australia-New Zealand co-production that has been described as our answer to Game of Thrones.
It’s a six-part futuristic series to be aired on the ABC. Speaking to me from the set of Cleverman, Blight said the show was the idea of a young Aboriginal man, Ryan Griffin, who went back to his elders and got permission to tell their ”Dreamtime“ stories.
"It’s the creatures from the Dreamtime meet District 9 – a high-concept genre series,” she says. A moment later, Zarkesh adds that 90% of the cast is non-white.
And that to me sounds like the work of a colour-blind Team Australia.
Correction: This article previously stated that:
in its 27-year history, Home and Away has never featured an Aboriginal character. The other big soap cultural export, 30-year-old Neighbours, only employed its first Indigenous actor last year.
This information was incorrect and has now been updated.