Are we really “seeing ourselves” on Australian screen?

Image from Love Child (2014-2017). Supplied by Screen Australia's Seeing Ourselves report (2016).

Australia’s screen industry has long been charged with “Celebrating Australian stories” and receives significant amounts of public funding to do so. But many of the stories told are a selective celebration of Australia, its population, and landscapes, frequently distorted by colonial hang-ups about Whiteness and masculinity, or paternal assumptions about a “multicultural Australia” that is sometimes, nonsensically, differentiated from another kind of “Australia”. Despite established traditions of Aboriginal and multicultural film-making, on balance, Australian screen has a White face.

In 2016, Waleed Aly—host of current affairs panel show, The Project—won a Gold Logie for most popular TV personality. In his acceptance speech Aly highlighted the issue of representational norms and racism in the Australian screen industry, joking that there was “nothing wrong” with the image of him standing on stage that an Instagram filter could not fix.

Waleed Aly, a practicing Muslim born in Melbourne in 1978 to Egyptian parents, was reported as “the first non-white person to take out the top gong”. His comments caused a flurry of debate about Australian screen’s diversity problem. It was not the first time this issue had been raised.

With Gold Logie in hand, Aly dedicated his win “[t]o Dimitri and Mustafa and all the other people with unpronounceable names like Waleed”. This was a point of irony, because “Waleed Aly”, who is extremely well known as an Australian cultural and sports commentator, is a name that now rolls off the tongue for most Australians.

Aly’s mention of Mustafa was in reference to Australian actor Tyler De Nawi, who changed his name (from Mustafa to Tyler) in order to pass screen auditions. De Nawi’s experience—as a Sydney-born actor with a “foreign” sounding name—was much publicised after Aly’s award. It was revealed as an experience shared by many Australian actors who had been positioned as “migrant subjects” or cultural “Others”, and who had been severely limited in their career opportunities because of those assumptions.

Part of the impact of Aly standing up and speaking those names, dedicating his success to Australians who are not necessarily called Rachel, Peter or Carrie, was that it threw into relief how often Australian screen content so poorly reflects the communities in which we live.

A year earlier Miranda Tapsell, a Larrakia woman who grew up in Jabiru in West Arnhem Land, won awards for most popular new talent and most outstanding newcomer. In her Logies speech she called for the industry to: “Put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us.” Tapsell spoke about the importance in her own life of seeing Aboriginal women in screen and stage roles, and encouraged girls around Australia to, “Dream big and dream fierce.” 

The barriers that Waleed Aly and Miranda Tapsell alluded to manifest in overt and subtle ways, and are not experiences limited to the screen industry. Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, took over the role in January 2017. When she was re-elected as Premier in March 2019, she became the state’s first female leader to win government in her own right. In her acceptance speech, she said that her win proved that: “Someone with a long surname, and a woman, can be Premier of NSW.”

A few weeks earlier, Ms Berejiklian had visited a class of primary school children. Their sing-song welcome began, Good Morning, Mrs… but halted with a collective intake of breath at the part where they should have said her name. All the adults in the room laughed. The teacher said to the students: “Would you try it, boys and girls? Mrs Berejiklian”—as if the name was a food the children may not like, not to mention getting her prefix wrong.

The episode was captured by ABC News and and streamed on their Facebook page with the peculiar caption: “Gladys Berejiklian must be glad she never became a primary school teacher”. Ms Berejiklian wrested control of the situation, saying, “or Premier is fine”.

Premier Berejiklian’s reference to her “long” name in her acceptance speech was a euphemism for Aly’s “unpronounceable”. As an Australian with Armenian heritage, and a woman in politics, remarking on these parts of her identity in the context of her achievement—like Waleed Aly and Miranda Tapsell—demonstrates an awareness that she has overcome serious social and cultural barriers to achieve such heights.

What these public anecdotes also suggest is that for many Australians the experience of being framed as different or as Other is so regular, so routine, that it often goes unnoticed. It has become so mundane in the context of Australian culture that it has to be brought to our attention—again and again—by those who have, despite the systemic racism our society and culture is built upon, become our leaders and role models.

Off the back of Miranda Tapsell and Waleed Aly’s comments in 2015 and 2016, and a rise in public debate in the United States (#OscarsSoWhite), Screen Australia prepared a diversity “benchmarking” report. Screen Australia is the national film and television’s overarching funding and policy body.

The report, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV, was designed to measure rates of representation of Australians with diverse cultural heritage, sexuality, and ability. Contrary to its title, the project found that many Australians were resoundingly not “seeing themselves”.

Benjamin Law, creator of The Family Law (2016-2019) a sitcom about a Chinese-Australian family streamed on SBS, wrote that “everyone had a hunch that Australian TV was disproportionately white”, but with the Screen Australia benchmarking report, it was finally proven. While this might be the case in recent years, many reports have come to similar conclusions, including Nextdoor Neighbours (1992), Marcia Langton’s “Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television …” (1993), The Taxidriver, the Cook and the Greengrocer (1998), and Broadcast in Colour (2002).

Seeing Ourselves was based on a model used by the Australian Human Rights Commission for a similar study into Australian business and political leaders. It broadly categorised actors into four groups—Indigenous, Anglo-Celtic, European and non-European. Even these categories are problematic. The research then measured the number of characters and actors in each group against Australian Bureau of Statistic figures for Australia’s population.

It found that while “Anglo-Celtic” Australians make up 67 per cent of the population they represented 78 per cent of actors in TV dramas, and 82 per cent of characters. For the “European” category the proportion of population was 12 per cent, and 9 per cent of actors and 6 per cent of characters. “Non-European” Australians were marked as 17 per cent of the population but only 10 per cent of actors, and 7 per cent of TV characters. Indigenous Australians made up 3 per cent of the population but 5 per cent of both actors and TV characters, but, the report concluded, were more often than not appearing in specific programs.

In an almost congratulatory tone, the report noted that: “At 5 per cent, Indigenous Australians were comparatively well represented as characters compared to their proportion of the population (3 per cent).”

The report also calculated that Australians who identify as LGBTIQ made up 11 per cent of the population, but only 5 per cent of TV drama characters. And that Australians with disabilities were also underrepresented—4 per cent of TV characters and 18 per cent of the population. Neither of these categories considered the ability, or sexual orientation and gender identity, of the actors involved.

The results of Screen Australia’s study speak to two separate but related problems.

First, in addition to a severe lack of diverse representation across the board, is the blunt statistical exposure of structural barriers to entry into screen roles. It is not just that Australian TV drama (and we can extrapolate for other content) is on the whole lacking, but that screen roles for Australians who do not identify as “Anglo-Celtic” (eg. Australians with names like Mustafa and Waleed)—or who cannot pass as White, able-bodied, or straight—are limited. It shows there is a hesitancy, still, to cast non-White, often non-masculine male bodies in main roles, or to write them in the first place.

Second, while the report was designed to highlight and address gaps in representation, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the power and significance of screen representation for cultural visibility. The idea that achieving proportional representation on screen is the answer to Australian screen’s diversity problem is deeply flawed.

While the study was able to make the point, which no one was overly surprised about, that most of the actors and characters in Australian TV dramas are White, it blanked on gender/sex (and the disproportionate number of male versus female leads). Framed as a benchmarking study, it seemed to leave little room to “Dream big” as Miranda Tapsell encouraged.

At a time when the Australian film and television industry, like all the arts, is in a state of crisis, yet when Australian society has never been more diverse, it is more important than ever to return to these issues with renewed interest, and commitment to change.

Note: Seeing Ourselves was released in 2016. At the time of writing, Screen Australia had not publicly reported any further updates against these benchmarks.