Pop Culture Rewind: Invisible People

Unpacking representation in Australian media

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Words || Katelyn Free

Everybody loves a good ole classic Australian movie. From The Castle to Red Dog, there’s something about an Aussie cinematic staple that can bring together even the most diverse strangers at an awkward house warming BBQ.

But what Crocodile Dundee, Muriel’s Wedding and Mad Max all have in common is that their main focus is white Australia. Their sustained popularity reminds us that despite being a ‘multicultural’ nation, diverse representation in Australian media is very limited. That there are thousands of Australian who never see themselves reflected back from the television they sit around every night.

“Tell him he’s dreamin”

While representation has moved improved in the past two decades, when diverse representation does take place, and a ‘non-typical Australian’ does appear, their acceptance hinges on whether they still say what ‘Australians’ want to hear.

It’s a situation as precarious as downing a second bag of goon before a bush doof. Could go either way, but will probably go tits up.

Waleed Aly has been one of the most prominent POC representations in mainstream broadcasting (outside of ABC and the SBS) in recent years. But he has also been subject to an intense amount of criticism for his opinion segments on the Islamic community. When Waleed steps outside the safety of traditional current affairs news reading and seeks to represent and educate people on Islamic issues, strong criticism ensues.

In his most recent piece in response to the Christchurch attack, ScoMo himself, instead of focussing on the important discourse Waleed was generating, threatened a defamation suit over Waleed’s reference to an alleged plan put forward by ScoMo to use community concerns about Muslims as a political strategy.

In 2016 when he won the historic Gold Logie, the Herald Sun didn’t feature him on the cover, the first time in 20 years the winner of the award was not depicted.

Brooke Bony, an Indigenous presenter on the Today Show, received extreme backlash over her stance on the celebration of Australia Day. The criticism she received on social media focussed specifically on her race, with one Facebook comment reading “Hey Brooke…you are 3 parts white as well…get a mirror”. Charming and sensitive feedback.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied garnered serious controversy over her comments on the celebration of ANZAC day. And while her comments were insensitive and didn’t consider the full breadth of the situation, they didn’t warrant the response given by LNP backbencher George Christensen, who tweeted that Yasmin “should no longer be on the public broadcaster’s tax-funded payroll. Self-deportation should also be considered”. Nothing should ever warrant criticism that goes to the heart of a media personality’s place within Australian society.

When unique and diverse voices emerge within the Australian mediascape their existence is only okay as long as they don’t confront normalised Australian culture.

“How’s the serenity?”

The representation of Indigenous Australians in our media, while becoming more substantial over time, still faces limitations reminiscent of red P Plater licence restrictions. Freedom but at only 90km an hour.

NITV, ABC and SBS are the main media platforms providing voices to Indigenous Australians, giving them space to be represented and for their stories to be told. But these stations are limited in their ability to represent Indigenous perspectives to the general Australian audience. NITV is created for Indigenous Australians who are its primary audience, and ABC & SBS, while valuable media resources, have a limited demographic reach.

Mainly older generations engage with the ABC and SBS networks. In 2016 the average age of ABC viewers was 66, and for SBS was 61. By comparison, the average age of Channel Ten viewers was 46. Two decades younger.

The main stations that pull younger audiences and have a bigger demographic reach, aren’t the ones pushing diverse representation, and the stations that do the heavy lifting are not garnering the exposure needed to provide meaningful representation to Indigenous Australia, or other individuals from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Cinematic representations of Indigenous Australians are equally restricted. There are only a handful of critically acclaimed and well renowned films which depict Indigenous Australians in an authentic manner. Rabbit Proof Fence, The Sapphires and Samson and Delilah are some of the most famous Australian films with Indigenous subjects. However, compared with the number of films produced by the Australian media industry per year (around 30 on average), this is a small pool of strong representation.

“Suffer in ya jocks”

Australian media plays an important role in giving audiences a sense of identity and a visual understanding of the society we live in. But when diverse representation is as dried up as the Murray Darling Basin, there’s something amiss.

We should want to hear the voices and stories of all cross sections of our society and see them equally represented in our mediascapes. So that they can identify with the ‘Australian story’ that is currently being crafted. So that we don’t have another 30 years of the white Aussie battler character roaming around our television screens. So that we can create narratives that beautifully and accurately represent Australian society.

So, while Gallipoli might yet a good ole round of praise for the glory days of Mel Gibson at your parents’ next dinner party, it’s clear that the days of white Australian narratives shouldn’t still be the cornerstone of our media identity.