• The Family Law returns to SBS on 15 June at 8:30pm. (SBS)Source: SBS
Mainstream audiences watch animated movies about fish, so is on-screen ethnic diversity really too confronting for viewers to embrace?
Benjamin Law

16 May 2017 - 11:06 AM  UPDATED 16 Jun 2017 - 9:48 AM

If – like me – you grew up as a non-white kid in Australia, you wouldn’t have seen many people on Australian TV who resembled you. In the 1990s and 2000s, Asian-Australians had Cindy Pan, Elizabeth Chong, Lee Lin Chin and Annette Shun Wah, but scripted roles were pretty rare. Off the top of my head, I can remember one Asian dude on Home and Away – let’s call him, oh, I don’t know, Victim of Racism – who disappeared as soon as Alf Stewart learned his lesson that racism was bad. Neighbours had the Lim family, a Hong Kong Chinese family who moved onto Ramsay Street and were promptly accused of eating a neighbourhood dog. It was pretty grim.

After a while, I kind of resigned myself to the fact Australian TV was always going to be as white as the suburbs in which I grew up. Eventually though, I got frustrated. Nowadays, roughly one in 10 Australians have significant Asian heritage – a similar proportion to how many black Americans there are in the US. And when you think of black faces you see on American TV, and compare that to how often you see yellow or brown faces on Australian TV, clearly we have a problem.

For a long time, everyone had a hunch that Australian TV was disproportionately white. It was only last year – in 2016 – that we finally got the data. For the first time, Screen Australia – who help fund so many of the shows we see on Australian TV – did the number-crunching, meticulously analysing Australia’s scripted TV shows.

The main takeaway? Though only two-thirds of Australians are Anglo-Celtic white, they’re incredibly over-represented, with over 80 percent of our television characters being white. In fact, in nearly every measure of diversity – cultural background, LGBTQI people and Australians with disabilties – scripted Australian TV fell short when it came to representing our communities.

For a long time, part of the problem has been what The Family Law executive producer Tony Ayres (who’s Chinese-Australian himself) calls a “default to white”. In so many industries, arts and media included, white doesn’t even seem to be considered a race – it’s neutral or standard. Producers and screenwriters have often expressed concerns that if they write a non-white character or cast a non-white actor, it’ll be seen as “tokenism”. Others insist there’s too small a talent pool.

They’re lame excuses. White people have a race and ethnicity, too. Tokenism only happens when you’ve failed to develop an ethnic character as much as their Anglo counterparts – which is to say, it’s a fig leaf excuse for laziness. And the talent pool isn’t small. When our casting directors, producers and directors cast actors for The Family Law – which required 90 percent Asian-Australian talking characters – they knew it’d be one of the biggest challenge they’d undertaken. The casting call went out across the world. In the end, most of the talent was in Australia already. (As a result of their hard work, the show’s casting directors, Tom McSweeney and David Newman, won the Casting Guild of Australia Award for Best Casting in a TV Comedy.)

“But will white Australians even tune in to shows about ethnic minorities?” some worry. It’s arguably a racist thing to assume of white people. Master of None’s Aziz Ansari – whose family is Tamil – articulately calls bulls*** on the idea. “It’s bulls*** ’cause people watch animated movies about fish!” he says. He has a point: we empathise with monsters at university and talking cars; I grew up empathising with Irene from Home and Away, and from what I’ve been told, I only bear a passing resemblance to her, really.

None of this is just cosmetic. Junot Diaz, the Dominican American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, once said, “There’s this idea that monsters – vampires – don’t have reflections in a mirror. What I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” When I first heard that quote, I knew exactly what he meant. Growing up without seeing yourself reflected back in your nation’s stories is a quietly dehumanising thing.

Right now, the only minority group represented proportionately on Australian screens is Indigenous Australians, who constitute three percent of Australians and five percent of onscreen characters. This didn’t happen by accident – in 1992, there were no Indigenous characters on Australian TV at all. Since then, the industry’s actively developed Indigenous stories, actors and storytellers through specific initiatives, departments and funding. Which is to say, if you actually want diversity on screens, you actually have to do something about it.

Nowadays, we’ve got Black Comedy, Cleverman, Barracuda, Love Child, Here Come the Habibs! and Maximum Choppage. Neighbours and Home and Away are starting to actually resemble Australian communities. The Family Law is the most watched comedy in SBS On Demand’s history. And no one’s accused any of these shows – or its performers – as being tokenistic, either. It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And everything already suggests the next generation of non-white Australian kids are going to have it way better.

The Family Law airs on SBS every Thursday night at 8:30pm. New episodes and the entire first season are streaming now via SBS On Demand:

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