There are huge challenges with being the ‘first Indigenous’ anything, but when that 'something' is a fictional representation of Aboriginal people, particularly on television, it brings with it an obvious problem – how can you avoid being seen as creating and perpetuating stereotypes when you only have a small number of characters to tell your story with?
For example, if we see a white drunk on one show, it doesn’t impact on the wider perception of whiteness, because on another show we see a white doctor, a white Prime Minister, and an endless array of white heroes, villains, and ‘everyday’ people on our screens. So much so, that no one white character, or one show, is expected to bear the weight of responsibility of accurate and meaningful portrayals of whiteness. For Aboriginal characters on our screen however, the challenge is far greater given the historical and contemporary lack of representation of Indigenous peoples, cultures and lived experiences.
If we see a white drunk on one show, it doesn’t impact on the wider perception of whiteness, because on another show we see a white doctor, a white Prime Minister, and an endless array of white heroes, villains, and ‘everyday’ people on our screens.
Even though there has been a stark increase in the number of roles for Aboriginal actors, and the diversity of identities that people are attempting to portray – there are even roles for Aboriginal people now that do not rely solely on their Aboriginality for their character traits or story development.
In recent years we have seen shows like Redfern Now, Gods of Wheat Street, Black Comedy, Cleverman, and even the first cartoon series for kids, NITV’s Little J & Big Cuz - and with the roll-out of every new show there are endless conversations about how we are portrayed. This is to be expected, and welcomed, as many Aboriginal people understand that there are still far too many non-Aboriginal Australians who claim to have never met an Aboriginal person in real life. This means that how we are portrayed in media can have a huge impact on how we are perceived individually and collectively by the society we live in.
This is true in all forms of media, be it news and current affairs or in fictional shows. As such, the lens we apply to our representation is far harsher, and the responsibility for writers and directors in how they represent Aboriginal characters is far greater. But even though there are countless statistics that frame us, we are not a homogenous group. We come from many different nations, with different languages, different experiences with colonisation, and like all groups we have vast diversity within those differences as well.
But even though there are countless statistics that frame us, we are not a homogenous group. We come from many different nations, with different languages, different experiences with colonisation, and like all groups we have vast diversity within those differences as well.
Given that diversity, how do you address the issue of representation and avoid what could be perceived as a stereotypical portrayal when you are dealing with only a handful of characters? Do you make sure you have at least one character from the city and one from the bush? Do you throw a twist on that by making the one from the city stronger in their identity than the one from the bush? Do you make sure you have an LGBTQI character? A character affected by a shared trauma like the Stolen Generations? A character affected by alcoholism or interactions with the criminal justice system? What character traits can you choose that not only suit your story but can do justice to representing the diversity of our mobs? The simple answer is that you can’t. There are no five people, real or fictional, who can reflect the diversity evident within the 600,000 or so of us. This challenge becomes even harder if the characters in question are minor roles that are not given the opportunity for deeper character development. It robs the audience of the opportunity to get to know the individual character, to see them as an individual and not as a tokenistic or stereotypical representation of Aboriginality.
What character traits can you choose that not only suit your story but can do justice to representing the diversity of our mobs? The simple answer is that you can’t.
But what if, instead of bearing the weight of that responsibility within any given show, the complexities of representation were lessened by increased levels of representation across the industry? What if your Aboriginal character was one of a hundred Aboriginal characters on TV? How much easier would it be to accept the nuances of identity reflected in one character when it could be contrasted, complimented and juxtaposed against so many others? What if we saw more Aboriginal actors filling roles that weren’t necessarily written with an Aboriginal actor in mind?
As Deborah Mailman has called for, and found a lot of success in. She spoke to TV Tonight in 2015 and said, “I’d broaden things so that Aboriginal actors have the opportunity to diversify, to be able to be cast in roles that aren’t anchored in an Indigenous experience. So for example, seeing more opportunities that have been given to me being given to other actors. I played Cherie in Offspring or Kelly in The Secret Life of Us and I’d love to see more of that happening,”
How would that help shape the way in which we are perceived as Aboriginal people in Australia, but also lessen the burden of representation because we wouldn’t automatically scan every Aboriginal character for what stereotypical traits make up their character?
Perhaps an obvious answer to this would be to increase Indigenous participation in ‘off screen’ areas of the media industry. Having more Indigenous producers and directors, and others working behind the camera would provide a catalyst for this; not just because they would be more likely to employ more Aboriginal actors, although hopefully they would, but also because they would impact on the stereotypical views of those who currently have the power to shape these characters and employ the actors to bring them to life.
It is reasonable to hope that non-Indigenous people who work with several Aboriginal people would, in time, expand their own understanding of the diversity of Aboriginality beyond the existing tropes and begin to look for richer stories and characters.
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Main Image: (L-R) Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Meyne Watt and Little J
Australia's first Indigenous children's animated series Little J & Big Cuz airs weekdays 4.30pm and Fridays 7.30pm or On Demand.
Watch Ep. 2 here: