• Not when it comes to representation of disability, ethnicity and sexuality. Which means we’re watching the lives of predominantly Anglo-Australians on screen... (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
How do writers of comedy and drama on Australian television get away with the insensitive and tokenistic representation of race? Simple: the entertainment industry itself is far from diverse.
By
Amal Awad

31 Jul 2017 - 1:41 PM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2017 - 1:45 PM

Last week, Australian actor Chris Lilley stoked outrage when he posted a blackface video, days after protests and manslaughter conviction in the death of Indigenous boy Elijah Doughty, who was run down by a man in a ute.

The video was called ‘Squashed N****’.

The social media response was justifiably swift: putting aside the obvious issues with blackface, the insensitivity of posting such an offensive video seemed lost on the acclaimed star of shows that have long raised questions about what amounts to being a modern-day minstrel.

Lilley has since deleted the video and apologised.

That Lilley defended it as nostalgia only emphasises the original problem: his comedy has long taken the experiences of lives he cannot relate to as fodder for cartoonish characters.

How did he get away with it? Well, we’re sorely deprived of diversity in the writer’s room of Australian television. 

It was only last year that Screen Australia released a rather damning report that confirmed Australian drama did not reflect the country’s diversity. Not when it comes to representation of disability, ethnicity and sexuality. Which means we’re watching the lives of predominantly Anglo-Australians on screen, with minimal minority representation.

How did he get away with it? Well, we’re sorely deprived of diversity in the writer’s room of Australian television. 

In a nutshell, the essence of ‘normal’ is Anglo, able-bodied and heterosexual.

It’s a worthy discussion on its own to consider how damaging lack of diversity in representation can be in popular culture and beyond. Diversity meaning ‘not the norm’ of white, able-bodied and heterosexual. For a lot of us, this has long been the reality, and while there are signs of change, it’s a very slow turn of a very large ship.  

The Screen Australia report, progress in itself, recognised a significant gap in storytelling. It’s one that can be filled, and it means allowing for more diversity in who tells stories.

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It’s a no-brainer, given audiences are diverse. And while the term ‘diversity’ has its own set of problems in how it suggests that difference is not the norm, the entertainment industry is slowly seeing a shift in audience expectations.

The show, Confederate, is allegedly going to reimagine the American Civil War – but instead of losing, the Confederates win and slavery continues.  

So it’s also no surprise when the internet exploded with criticism against the announcement of a new show by the showrunners behind Game of Thrones (which I admittedly cannot watch due to its gratuitous sexual violence), which would see an alternative history of continued slavery in the US.

The show, Confederate, is allegedly going to reimagine the American Civil War – but instead of losing, the Confederates win and slavery continues. 

Where to even begin with the problems around such a show? Well. Two white men imagining the continuation of slavery. That’s a place to start.

What kind of violence porn is this next prestige drama going to deliver in the name of art? As Roxane Gay points out no one needs ‘slavery fan fiction’.

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“This show’s premise highlights the limits of the imagination in a world where oppression thrives,” Gay writes in the New York Times. “These creators can imagine a world where the Confederacy won the Civil War and black people are still enslaved, but they can’t or aren’t interested in imagining a world where, say, things went in a completely different direction after the Civil War and, say, white people are enslaved. Or a world where slavery never happened at all.”

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But what really bothers me is how much of a wasted opportunity this is. Despite a very switched-on global audience, storytelling for minority writers remains a challenge. It is a successful showrunner’s luxury to take on a story that mines another person’s horrid and traumatic history.

How many more meaningful considerations of history could be imagined and told? How many complex viewpoints and emotions could be expressed in the writing of shows that offer unseen glimpses into the tragedies of life?

Do we ever stop to wonder what it does to us to watch damaging fantasies that people support in the name of art? Violence and rape on screen, the latter being a ridiculously over-used character development shortcut for female characters, are desensitising us.

For a long time, ethnic cultures have been misrepresented and capitalised on in pop culture, a problem that no amount of tokenism or blind-casting can dilute.

But not everything needs to be written and portrayed. Some things really should not. An exploration of slavery beyond the Civil War is hugely problematic and tone deaf, particularly in a time of #BlackLivesMatter. 

And if anyone should be considering the horrors of slavery, I would think it would be best handled by those who have inherited that history personally.

For a long time, ethnic cultures have been misrepresented and capitalised on in pop culture, a problem that no amount of tokenism or blind-casting can dilute.

Indeed, much is made of blind-casting – where a character isn’t defined by the colour of their skin, their religion or sexuality, for example. You know those characters – the sassy sidekick who ticks a diversity box but is never the hero(ine). It’s important because it’s the antidote to tokenism, where a supporting character (also never a positive central one) is stereotyped into existence, lacking in complexity and a story arc. In the case of Arabs, for example, we have long been portrayed as bombers, billionaires and bellydancers. Asians are nerds. Russians are spies.

The list goes on.

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As a storyteller, I think about these things a lot. As much as I care about being recognised as simply a writer who happens to be of Arab and Muslim heritage, I have no problem telling stories that I’m equipped to tell due to my personal experience. But it comes bundled with potential limitations. I’ve been told (‘jokingly’) how a particular workplace ‘needed a Muslim’. I get asked to write as a woman of Arab heritage. I’m OK with that. But the idea that my usefulness is limited to my experience is difficult to manage. How can I grow creatively if I’m only seen as useful if there is a Muslim character?  

I’ve never desired to write a story or show or film that doesn’t require me to mine my own history and understanding of life. But I can write beyond my experiences. In fact, if I’m to get better at what I do, I have to.

And so, the difficulty for people like me is not being tokenised in the fresh push for diverse voices in the industry.

In the process of creating more plentiful stories that normalise ‘diversity’, it’s important that writers from diverse backgrounds are not seen as token writers who can tick boxes.

And there certainly is one. Next month, Australian cinemagoers can watch a well-made romantic comedy called Ali’s Wedding, which is concentrated in but not strictly about a Muslim community in Melbourne. It’s a love story, one lived by one of its writers, Osamah Sami. Only he could tell this story, and he did so with the mentorship of Andrew Knight, an accomplished screenwriter.

This is something to feel heartened about. It’s taken us ages to get here, but it’s progress.

In the process of creating more plentiful stories that normalise ‘diversity’, it’s important that writers from diverse backgrounds are not seen as token writers who can tick boxes.

We are a long way from effortless diversity, where blind-casting is easy because ‘difference’ is no longer how we perceive people from cultures other than our own.

Given the fact that Confederate was given the green light, the push for diversity in storytelling should continue to be a priority.

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