Like a lot of people, when I first saw the promo for Channel Nine’s Here Come the Habibs, I was angry. I even started a petition to try to bring people’s attention to what I see as inherent racism in Australian media.
But the creators of the show, Rob Shehadie and Tahir Bilgic, have asked for viewers to reserve their judgment until the show has aired. In fact, they’ve insisted that the show isn’t racist, but rather pokes fun at Australia’s elite.
I’m willing to keep an open mind, but here are some things I really hope not to see when the show premieres on Tuesday…
Whilst most of the world seems to understand that blackface is no longer an acceptable form of entertainment, Australia still lags behind.
Cast your minds to October 2009 and Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s attempt at a revival on Channel Nine. The comeback was completely overshadowed by the The Jackson Jive’s performance - in blackface and afros. A horrified Harry Connick Jr, guest judge for the segment, called it out for what it was.
In 2014, Chris Lilley, with his “modern minstrel show” Jonah from Tonga also received a great deal of criticism for donning brownface, wearing a permed wig, putting on an accent and making fun of Tonga and it’s people. Apparently, Lilley thinks he’s quite the courageous comedian:
“I think I’m pretty brave with putting myself out there and looking stupid and doing things that are potentially offensive,” he said.
It’s not the first time Chris Lilley’s painted himself. In his series We Can Be Heroes, he plays an Asian character Rick Wong, who then plays an Aboriginal person in blackface. Quite a feat that - yellowface and blackface at the same time.
2. Exotification of women for the colonial male gaze
With just over a month until International Women’s Day, it will be interesting to see how Middle Eastern women are portrayed in Here Come the Habibs. There aren’t many examples on Australian TV (in fact I couldn’t think of one major character), but internationally it’s not unusual for Arab women to be portrayed as part of a harem or belly dancers - code for being sexually available, more often than not, to white men.
Think of orientalism and its accompanying images as well as depictions of female pharaoh’s. Based on what we’ve seen from the Here Come the Habibs promo, the daughter Layla is a scantily clad, hip shaking woman who appears to have been created straight out of the White Misogynists in the Media 101 Handbook.
3. The stupid “bro”
According to representations in Australian media, both fictional and “news”, Lebanese young men are only interested in cars and lifting weights. These “bros” hang out with their cousins, commit petty crimes, deal drugs, treat white women as objects and generally make a nuisance of themselves, contributing nothing to society.
Apparently, our two choices of representation in the media are dumb/dangerous males and fuckable females. Having already gotten a glimpse of the character Toufic in the promo, I’m prepared to see this same stereotype paraded for the pleasure of viewers.
4. Jokes about the desert, bombs, oppressed women, etc
If there’s one thing that’s been done to death, it’s jokes about camels, the desert, oppressed women, war and suicide bombers. It’s all over the place, all the time and is a lazy trope pulled out over and over again. If Here Come the Habibs can get through all six episodes without using one of these tired jokes, I’ll eat my keyboard.
5. Cartoonishly uncivilised behaviour
Lebanese people, and Middle Easterners in general, are apparently unwilling to assimilate (as though the only way to exist in Australia is to behave “white”) and do crazy things all the time - like grow food in their backyards, or keep chooks, or cook strange smelling food that stinks out the street, or slit the throats of goats in their front yard. Because they’re not like everyone else. They’re, you know, different. Considering this is the premise of the whole show (The Beverly Hillbillies, anyone?) I do expect to see this, but it would be nice if by some magical wand it disappeared.
Here Come the Habibs premieres Tuesday, 9 February at 8:30pm on Nine.