Thursday, 22 December 2011

Ethnic Diversity on Australian Television

When I wrote my piece on memory, migration and MasterChef for Issue Seven of Kill Your Darlings, I mentioned that Poh Ling-Yeow (Adelaide-based visual artist and cook of Malaysian-Chinese origin) had become a role model of sorts. Not only was she the runners-up in the first series of Channel Ten’s MasterChef, but subsequent series have continue to feature “ethnic” contestants. Still, I feel none of the later participants complicated the non-White representation discourse on mainstream, commercial television in the same giggling yet dead-serious manner as Poh.

Now what the hell do I mean when I say “non-White representation discourse”? There is a long history of academic scholarship and some public debate on whether (and even how) non-White minority groups are represented in the media of OECD nations. At the cost of simplifying what is a vast body of literature into a mere footnote, let me rely on my scholar-migrant-hipster instinct and just this - the one phrase that resonates with me since my first encounter with postcolonial writing at uni is Black British cultural critic’s “burden of representation”. As weighty as this term sounds, I think it has enormous potential to free both migrants and non-migrants from the burden of political correctness.

Again, let’s unpack this. What Mercer was referring to when he used the above term was the immense pressure felt by creative practitioners in the diaspora to both represent their own ethnic group, and also to show it in a positive light. I am sure those of us working in any creative industry in Australia in the present day are expected to have a ready-made archive of “cultural” or “exotic” images and stories if our last name or skin colour even so much as hints that we would be out of place on Ramsay Street. There is no doubt that most of these stories are worth telling, and find a voice in a commissioned SBS documentary or a satirical ABC series. But what happens when “ethnic” creatives want to tell non-ethnic stories, or show the dark side of their community? Can they find an audience beyond the annual comedy festival where being politically incorrect is not just fashionable, but essential?

When I saw Poh recently (for real!) at the Asian Australian Identities Conference in Melbourne, she mentioned during the Q&A after her keynote how difficult it was for her as an artist and a migrant to negotiate her way through television’s obsession with the lowest common denominator. While her series on the ABC, Poh’s Kitchen (now Poh’s Kitchen on the Road) has been a resounding success, she added that the commercial networks never wanted a piece of her in the immediate aftermath of her MasterChef glory. She did receive a request to appear on Dancing with the Stars (how magnanimous of them to include everyone from Pauline Hanson to Anh-Do), but promptly turned it down. The reason I am recounting Poh’s experience (which may not be representative, but is certainly current) is to emphasise that while reality TV today may be diverse by accident, it does not absolve the white male middle-class bosses of commercial television from the responsibility of chasing a modestly accurate version of 21st century Australia (that has been shown to generate profits too, you know). The “burden of representation” then falls on all of our shoulders and becomes less of a weight. 

Of course no one is going to complain if the ethnic “us” is represented by the hunky yet soft Hector and his wife, the sexy yet feisty Aisha on the ABC’s latest local drama, The Slap. Yet, as Kill Your Darlings blogger Bethanie Blanchard pointed out at the start of the series, the Indian Aisha of the novel has morphed into a woman of unknown (and seemingly inconsequential) ethnicity in the television adaptation. There may be logistical and therefore entirely explicable reasons for this choice, but it often comes across as a token attempt to include only to the extent that the different does not become alienating to the mainstream (and presumably Caucasian) viewing public. 

In a recent episode, while on holiday with her husband to celebrate their sixteenth wedding anniversary, Aisha found out that he has had an affair with a much younger woman. She is keen to find out whether Harry’s mistress had been his type, which she immediately interpreted as being white. On hearing that, my racial representation radar came alive. However, there was utter disappointment ahead as the rest of the episode became a homage to the modern suburban marriage (with some brave personal choices made by both partners), rather than an exploration of an inter-cultural relationship. While Hector’s Greek-ness is normalised, even Australianised, Aisha’s ethnicity is palpable yet unnameable. I reckon we could do with more real Aishas, Pohs as well as non-ethnics who laugh, cry and produce beautiful mixed race children and food. Just don’t let the idiot box also turn into an ethnic pigeonhole - it really is more wired than that!

PS A revised version of this piece was published on the Kill Your Darlings blog.

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