• Habib in Pizza, Zane Malik in East West 101, Tarek in The Principal, Fou Fou in Here Come the Habibs.
It’s not all bad news – but we still have a long way to go…
By
Jeremy Cassar

17 Mar 2016 - 3:20 PM  UPDATED 23 Mar 2016 - 9:52 AM

The moment has arrived.

Here Comes the Habibs, that comedic-ish monument to stereotypical Lebanese Australians and their stereotypical rich white neighbours, has finished its first season. Finally, you might assume. Our long national nightmare is over.

No dice. Despite its steadily declining ratings, the show has been renewed for a second season. Yes, there’s no way around it – Channel Nine’s sitcom is a “success”.

But while this may be allegedly exciting news for fans of commercial network sitcoms and actors of colour who have a hard time finding work in Australian TV because they’re not white, is more Habibs a victory for Middle Eastern representation on the small screen?

To put it all in perspective, I’ve combed—nay, excavated— the sands of Australian television history for characters of Middle Eastern background - and have returned with an even smaller haul than expected. Only a few shows have exposed audiences to the rich history or thriving presence of Middle Eastern-Australians and many of those shows have resorted to typecasting Arabic actors as criminals or uneducated buffoons.

Sure, half of the more sensitive and respectful depictions come from SBS and ABC – which is obviously due to the fact that multicultural programming is part of both networks’ mission statements: to offer a more eclectic sampling of our nation’s melting pot. But when left to the mercy of the commercial television market, this portion of the population is largely ignored or, well, Habibs’d.

 

Heartbreak High (1994-1999): Co-existing cultures, '90s-style!

Every '90s teenagers favourite afternoon drama, Heartbreak High introduced us to characters with surnames like Malouf, Fatoush, Cardenes, Tran, Ioannou, Bordino, Ruark and D’Esposito. That’d be a pretty rare cast list for an Aussie drama, even today. And it aired on Channel Ten for two of its five-year run, before moving to the ABC.

It was a show that painted a multicultural Australia and included a loving relationship between a Lebanese woman and a Vietnamese man:

Heartbreak High treated its characters as people - and their ethnicities were only ASPECTS of who they were as living, breathing, human Australians.

 

Pizza (2000-2007) and, while we’re here, Housos (2011-2013): Satire or... something else?

I know. These SBS shows (and their movie spin-offs) are both well loved and often heralded as great works of satire achieved through ethnic and class stereotyping. But while they may have had their well-observed moments, both shows feel more like three-minute YouTube sketches played on loop for however many seasons, insulting anyone from Western Sydney (of all ethnicities) with any self-respect, and any audience member with a functioning concept of comedy.

As far as representation goes… who knows:

There's also Sleek the Elite – a sleazy pizza delivery man who becomes a target of organised crime families for “rooting all their women”.

This might not be the kind of representation some have in mind when they think of progress, but for Paul Fenech, the creator of both shows, that’s besides the point.

“I think there's something a bit more real about the type of Australian you find in those scenarios and Housos is a representation of those types of Australians,” Fenech said.

But aren't the type of Australian's he's referring to 99 percent caricature? After a while, it's hard not to feel as if we're meant to be laughing at people in unfortunate positions, rather than with them.

Again, who knows. Maybe I'm missing something.

 

East West 101 (2007–2011): A cop drama within a multicultural society

Running for three seasons, 101 is the kind of show you could imagine airing on Showtime or FX. Not only was it an exciting police procedural with unique standalone cases and compelling overarching storylines, it explored the impact of the Afghanistan/Iraq conflicts on Sydney’s culture through the rich characterisation of Don Hany’s Zane Malik.

Sociologist Mehal Krayem praised East West 101’s ability to explore the realistic, forward-thinking possibilities and benefits of an Australian multicultural society…

“Through Malik, East West 101 effectively demonstrates how religion, class and culture can intersect, not to the detriment of a society, but to create skilled and savvy individuals uniquely positioned to contribute to their communities and professions. It further displays the kind of difference that is considered acceptable within a multicultural society; that is, the kind of difference that does not compromise the dominance of the white majority.”

See? A great show centered around multiculturalism is not going to alienate white people.

Plus, Susie Porter joins Hany to deliver one of her most sublime performances to date. Everyone’s happy!

 

Underbelly: The Golden Mile (2010): "Hot-headed Lebanese thugs"

This season of the popular anthology TV series revolved around alleged organised crime figure John “King of the Cross” Ibrahim, played by Firass Dirani, who would later call for diversity on commercial network shows. It was based on a true story, and part of a series that focused on criminals of all colours, so I’m not saying the show is in any way racist, but it does align with the Daily Telegraph-ian tendency to paint young Lebanese men as dangerous and criminal – or “hot-headed Lebanese thugs”, as one review observed.

 

The Code (2014): Immigrants may not destroy us after all

The ABC’s award winning six-part drama was a multi-threaded story of hacktivism and federal intrigue. One such thread focused on Hani Parande (played by Adele Perovic – the only lead cast member without a Wikipedia page), a student from an Iranian immigrant family whose immigration status is threatened. It’s a small part of the show, but the storyline is treated with nuance and respect.

 

The Principal (2015): Exploring issues with a compelling story

Set in an ailing high school within a largely Middle Eastern community, The Principal refused to paint Western Sydney as unsalvageable war-torn Chechnya, exploring multi-ethnic issues within a gripping, high stakes story. And while Alex Dimitriades, our nation’s favourite Greek son, played the title Middle Eastern character – he did a pretty bloody respectful job. And he was surrounded by actors of Middle Eastern descent who wouldn’t ordinarily get to show their chops.

 

Here Come the Habibs (2016): And here comes my rant...

Which brings us into the now. 

Yes, a petition was started to get the show cancelled after Channel Nine aired a wildly reductive promo that promised a cacophony of stereotypes. Some hoped the trailer misrepresented the actual show. But it didn't.

Right or wrong, the public ultimately decided that the show wasn’t so racist and everyone stopped talking about it after the first episode.

The unfortunate truth is that the smaller audiences for the more authentic - and far better - shows make the ratings success and unfunny, “satirical” failure that is Here Come the Habibs all the more unforgivable.

If Middle Eastern culture is barely represented, then a large portion of TV viewers aren’t going to understand whatever it is the creators are trying to satirise – as they have no barometer of the reality other than shows like Underbelly, or Housos and Pizza, or the completely even-handed reporting of A Current Affair and Today Tonight

In that context, the portrayal of Lebanese Australians from Sydney’s Western Suburbs as uncivilised buffoons who covet nothing more than a “better” life in the Eastern suburbs carries more weight and responsibility, even if it is “just a comedy”. I don’t know a single person from the West who gives a pair of sandy balls about living in the East or someone so unaccustomed to luxury that he would frolic in a backyard fountain, like Fou Fou Habib does within the first few minutes of the pilot.

Why, in the era of Master of None, Louie and Broad City, do we set the bar so low? The Habibs are not comedic characters bound by hilarious contradictions or blind-spots. They are walking caricatures from a Family Guy aside made distinct by such personality traits as “being Lebanese” and “doing Lebanese things”.

Television has changed.

Curb Your Enthusiasm was mining the arbitrariness of ethnic divide in 2011 and last year, Master Of None took aim at precisely the kind of thinking that allows for stereotypical “ethnic” representation…

On Louie, this is Louis CK (who plays Louie) with his on-screen daughters:

And this is Louie with his ex-wife, their biological mother:

Why? Just because.

[Not that the US has all the answers – this interview with several typecasted Muslim-American actors from last year is extremely disheartening.]

While promoting the final series of Pizza in 2007, Paul Fenech said, “For kids with a Middle Eastern Background, just hearing the name Habib on Australian television is pretty wild.”

Nine years later, surely those kids can expect more than such a minimal effort.