The results are grim, but not surprising. A new in-depth study from Screen Australia, released today, shows that Australian drama is not doing well on the diversity front. Not when it comes to different cultures, not in terms of representation of disability, and not when dealing with sexuality.
Basically, the main characters in Australia’s television dramas are predominantly white, healthy and straight – and not at all reflective of real-life in Australia in 2016.
The report, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama, is the most significant investigation of visible diversity on screen since 1956, analysing 199 dramas that aired between 2011 and 2015. It also analysed 1,961 main characters in these shows according to identifiable cultural background, disability, and sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, the diverse aspect of a main character had to be identifiable or visible for it to be relevant. Having an invisible disability doesn’t count, and having a very pale-skinned Lebanese character, similarly, wouldn’t count for much in terms of someone from a Lebanese background identifying with that character.
The study showed that, despite 32 per cent of Australia’s population being from a non-Anglo Celtic background, only 18 per cent of the main characters analysed were non-Anglo. That is, 82 per cent of Australian television’s main characters in dramas are Anglo-Celtic – compared to the 67 per cent of Australia’s population who are Anglo.
Before we unpack that, it’s important to note that most overlooked were disability (four per cent of characters compared to 18 per cent of the population), and sexual orientation and gender identity – i.e. LGBQTI (5 per cent of characters compared to 11 per cent of the population).
The population percentages are based on the figures from the 2011 Census, so they’re outdated and, most likely, inaccurate given the very nature of anonymous surveys. But they are ballpark figures, which in the context of the study tell us enough: a lot of Australia’s population don’t see themselves reflected in any identifiable way in Australian dramas.
Most overlooked were disability, and sexual orientation and gender identity.
The only area that revealed a positive result was Indigenous representation, showing a considerable uptick in roles on Australian television in recent years. While Indigenous people make up 3 per cent of Australia’s population, 5 per cent of the characters analysed were Indigenous. It might not sound like a lot, but in terms of scale, it’s a strong result, and if shows like Cleverman and the rise of stars like Miranda Tapsell are any indicators, this will only grow.
This success lies in years of work by various organisations that have made a steadfast effort to offer Indigenous storytellers and actors the opportunity tell their own stories. Screen Australia and the ABC both have Indigenous Departments, and there are several production companies also producing great content. The talent that was always there has a place to go, and it’s refreshing and heartening to see that it’s paying off.
And this success points to a solution for the Australian television industry: greater attention to, and investment in, Australia’s real-life diversity. There are a few things to consider when talking about evolution in Australian television.
First, ‘blind’ casting will see more actors of different cultural backgrounds, actors with a disability and actors who identify as LGBQTI nab roles that by default go to actors who are none of the above. Many roles can just as easily be played by an Asian person, or a person with a visible disability. And you don’t have to be straight to play straight.
We can also make room for characters who are not there solely to be the point of difference. Not every Muslim character has to be a terror suspect. How about characters who happen to be Muslim or Hindu?
Moreover, in normalising diversity – rather than tokenising it – the industry can draw on difference by recruiting people who fit any of these categories. This is not only key to authentic storytelling, it is inclusive and deepens the scope of the stories being told.
Screen Australia, which also consulted numerous people, within and outside the industry, has taken an important step with this study. This goes beyond mere acknowledgement – it’s evidence that the industry can take away and work off. And it needs to, because the solution to Australia’s lack of cultural diversity isn’t to tick boxes and offer up token characters.
In a time of racial and social turbulence, when many Australian-born people, of different backgrounds and lifestyles are querying their place in the country they were raised in, there is potential for powerful stories.
The way forward lies in colourful, rich storytelling, which depicts Australia as it looks in 2016.