• Juno Gemes (1994) selenium toned, gelatin silver photograph Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra Purchased 2004 (National Portrait Gallery)Source: National Portrait Gallery
For years, television drama has depicted human intimacy by telling stories of romance and relationships. But it was a long while before actors of colour were cast to play 'romantically active' characters.
By
Sophie Verass

28 Sep 2016 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 30 Sep 2016 - 4:45 PM

With Star Trek celebrating its 50th anniversary, everyone is talking about the kiss.

In 1968, Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss between white and black co-stars on a US television network series.

William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols made television history as they locked lips like no other famous on-screen couple had done before them.

Unlike the kiss between Joan Hooley and John White on British soap opera Emergency Ward in 1964, Star Trek’s controversial kiss was global. Even though southern states in the U.S refused to screen the episode, lounge rooms as far as Australia glowed phosphorously, as international audiences watched the ethnically diverse on-screen couple sharing a passionate kiss.

But how long did it take us to make – and watch – our own progressive content?

Number 96, a number one hit show in the 1970s, was known for its groundbreaking diversity. Not only did it air the first interracial kiss when African-American character Chad (Ronne Arnold) kissed white girl Sonia (Lyn Rainbow) in 1972, but also had the first ever positive portrayal of a gay character as well. After the historical, but somehow forgotten, kiss, Chad is subjected to terrible racial abuse in the pub but he turns it around with grace and good humour, and leaves with everyone saying 'maybe he is a good bloke after all'.

This year, however, Australia could be celebrating its 40th anniversary of producing its first 'romantically active' Aboriginal character in a television series. In 1976, bright eyed and sweet-faced, Justine Saunders joined the cast of Number 96. Before her character Rhonda Jackson started hairdressing at the local salon, Indigenous representations on Australian TV were mostly patronising token ‘hunter-gather’ roles, or those that fit into white Australia’s imagined 'Aboriginality'. This, of course, is after white actors blackened their faces and played Aboriginal characters themselves.

No First Nations actors were invited to tell stories of romance and relationships until Saunders’ character, Jackson developed feelings for Dudley Butterfield, a mop-headed hunk with a bum-chin and a wide collar shirt, played by white Welsh actor, Chard Hayward in the mid-1970s. In an interview with TV Week titled, '96 Girl Breaks the Colour Barrier', Saunders was proud to prove that her people could ‘do more than run through the bush without clothes. I feel strongly about the fact that so many producers seem to frown upon giving us roles on an equal footing with white actors.'

At the time, Saunders was aware her on-screen romance was a first and anticipated the reactions of viewers, "I wonder what some people will say when they first see a black girl and a white man in bed together. Apart perhaps from period dramas, I’m sure it has never been done on Australian television before," she told TV Week. 

However, before audiences see Rhonda Jackson lock lips on-screen, we're introduced to Indigenous Australians' sexual agency on television with a close-up of Jackson screaming as a masked male figure aggressively forces himself on her. As Andrew King, author of Romance and Reconciliation (Routledge Press) puts it, "If we can even call it a ‘sex scene’, this is the first involving an Aboriginal character in the history of Australian television drama."

"If we can even call it a ‘sex scene’, this is the first involving an Aboriginal character in the history of Australian television drama."

Sadly, Saunder's broken barriers didn't last long, as it took 20 years to see another Aboriginal character be intimate on screen. The next recorded Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal on-screen couple was on 1980’s The Flying Doctors, but despite having all the signs of being romantically invested, Kylie Belling's and Lewis Fitzgerald's characters are never seen holding hands, hugging or kissing. It's actually alleged that a kissing scene was scripted between the pair, but immediately cut by Channel Nine for being too controversial and 'offensive for the Australian public'. In 1986.

The second kiss in an Australian production between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cast members was in the 12-part ABC miniseries, Heartland (later renamed, Burned Bridges), performed in 1994 by none other than two national treasures – Ernie Dingo and Cate Blanchett.

Cue the gasps. Yeah, you know those two mega stars whose names could easily be added into a game of ‘celebrity heads’ because they’re that famous. Those two are a part of Australian television history together. 

Up until this time, the Australian media was relentlessly white and scarcely reflected ethnic or cultural diversity - not surprising, given the 'white Australia policy' was only dismantled in the 1960s. Professor Alan McKee of University of Technology Sydney, who co-authored The Indigenous Public Sphere  (Oxford University Press) with Professor John Hartley says that seeing an interracial kiss on television is very significant for Australians.

“In anthropological terms, what we call ‘marriageability’ is incredibly important,” McKee told NITV. “Every culture puts rules in place about who you can and can’t marry, and those rules map out the boundaries of ‘our’ culture – who is part of ‘us’, and conversely, who we exclude as ‘them’ – not like us, and sometimes even not quite human.

The idea that love could flourish across racial boundaries was deeply disturbing for Australian society for a long time.

“In Australia we have a history where the government actually controlled marriage between settlers and Indigenous people for a long time. The idea that love could flourish across racial boundaries was deeply disturbing for Australian society for a long time. To have a representation where a white woman and an Indigenous man simply fall in love and have a successful relationship fundamentally challenges a lot of those racist attitudes."

Heartland, largely created by an Indigenous team, was 'radical' in more ways than depicting an interracial kiss. The program had dialogue in local Aboriginal languages and told stories of racial politics and issues central to Indigenous peoples - a very powerful move given the absence of diversity in drama throughout television history. 

The program followed the mystery death of a young Aboriginal girl in country NSW, with her boyfriend being falsely charged with her murder. Simultaneously, the series follows a love story between Vincent (Dingo) and Beth (Blanchett) who share a common interest of the boyfriend’s innocence. Their growing and 'controversial' relationship is consistently confronted with hurdles of hostility from both, white and black communities.

Dingo was one of the writers of the series and said that being an Aboriginal man with a white Australian wife was something he could understand and draw from.

“We [Ernie and his wife, Sally] were ostracised from everybody, but we couldn’t give a sh*t because love conquers all,” he said. “Sal is still my best mate and we still have a strong relationship.

"These days it’s a lot more acceptable than what it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago or compared to 50 years ago, where you’d get shot.

“So yes, there is this ‘big difference’ and people will talk about it behind your back and maybe you can only talk about it behind closed doors. But in this case, what we did in Heartland is that we opened the doors and made it so there are no doors, there are no walls, nothing’s taboo. This is life, this is Australia and we should go ahead and be doing it,” he says.

" ... what we did in Heartland is that we opened the doors and made it so there are no doors, there are no walls, nothing’s taboo. This is life, this is Australia and we should go ahead and be doing it."

Since the slow plod of Aboriginal actors in romantic roles, after Heartland, productions began to have a far more inclusive approach to casting; ones that accurately represent the diversity of Australian relationships like Mr Dingo’s. Four years after the series, 1998 Bondi soap Breakers included an interracial relationship between main characters, complete with kissing scenes. Popular programs like Wildside, Water Rats and Secret Life of Us followed also suit through the noughties.   

This month Channel Ten debuts its new prime time drama,The Wrong Girl, starring Tiwi Islander, Rob Collins as a white Australian/South African protagonist and Jessica Marais' love interest. As mainstream audiences ogle over Collins' character Jack, a chef with a “sex appeal that is undeniable”, we can see - and even celebrate - the change and progress of coupling on Australian TV. 

 


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