Whitewashed: why does Australian TV have such a problem with race?

Scripted and unscripted Australian TV has been far more white and Anglo-Saxon than the population

The Australian soap opera Neighbours’ first non-white characters were an Asian family accused of eating another neighbour’s dog
The Australian soap opera Neighbours’ first non-white characters were an Asian family accused of eating another neighbour’s dog. Photograph: Fremantle Australia
The Australian soap opera Neighbours’ first non-white characters were an Asian family accused of eating another neighbour’s dog. Photograph: Fremantle Australia
Naaman Zhou

Last modified on Sun 18 Apr 2021 22.33 EDT

When the Australian soap opera Neighbours introduced its first non-white family in 1993 – the Lims from Hong Kong – their first major storyline was to be accused of eating another neighbour’s dog.

Admittedly, the person doing the accusing was Julie Martin, a character known for being obnoxious, and described by the official Neighbours book as “unbearable”. Eventually, in a triumph for race relations, they were vindicated. After six weeks, they were written out. The dog, Holly, stayed around for five more years.

Members of the Lim family, the first non-white characters on Neighbours.
Members of the Lim family, the first non-white characters on Neighbours. Photograph: Network 10

Historically, Australian television – both scripted and not – has been overwhelmingly white and Anglo-Saxon, more so than the population.

Recently, Indigenous actors Shareena Clanton and Meyne Wyatt revealed that they had experienced racism and racial slurs on the set of Neighbours. Fellow Neighbours alum Sharon Johal told Hlcarpenter.com Australia she endured “direct, indirect and casual racism” on set, including being referred to as “the black one”, and mimicked with an Indian accent like “Apu from The Simpsons”.

The former host of the long-running variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, Daryl Somers, recently apologised to the singer Kamahl for repeated unsolicited jokes about his skin colour and race when he made guest appearances in the 1980s.

A montage of segments, recently circulated on Twitter, showed a joke that Kamahl’s album would “go black” instead of gold or platinum, the singer getting hit in the face with white powder and told “You’re a real white man now”, and a caricature of him sitting in a stew pot with a bone through his nose.

The TV historian Andrew Mercado says television in Australia has generally been whiter and less representative of the general population, compared with the UK and US, though that is changing.

Mercado says he can find only three instances where Australian Indigenous characters were featured on the main competitor to Neighbours, Channel Seven’s Home and Away, across 32 years.

One of those was a dream sequence in which the character Alf Stewart imagined himself transformed into an Indigenous man, due to a brain tumour.

“One actor was Wes Patten, who played a student called Kevin Baker in 1993,” Mercado says. “One was a ghost that Alf imagined he was, when he was dying of a brain tumour on the operating table. Luke Carroll played Dr Lewis Rigg, for seven weeks. He is their last and most recent, in 2007.”

Shareena Clanton described Neighbours as a ‘toxic’ environment, with an ‘unhealthy level of silent complicity’
Shareena Clanton described Neighbours as a ‘toxic’ environment, with an ‘unhealthy level of silent complicity’. Photograph: Sam Tabone/WireImage

The Alf Stewart storyline, he says, “doesn’t even count [as representation]. He wasn’t real.

“The set-up was he was having a brain tumour and he was imagining things … Alf was walking around in the body of an Aboriginal man, who was played by David Ngoombujarra.”

Now, he says, Home and Away features a Maori family, the Parata family, played by Rob Kipa-Williams, Kawakawa Fox-Reo and Ethan Browne.

And Neighbours, at least recently, has surged ahead of Home and Away in representation. Current characters include hearing-impaired teacher Curtis, played by Nathan Borg, and transgender student Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone.

Both were cast after the actors pitched themselves to the show, and their character’s storylines are written in consultation with the actors.

Yet, when it comes to race, Mercado says both – and especially Channel Seven – have a lot to do.

Meyne Wyatt said he had been the victim of racism while working on the Neighbours set between 2014 and 2016
Meyne Wyatt said he had been the victim of racism while working on the Neighbours set between 2014 and 2016. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

He draws comparisons with The Heights, a two-season soap opera commissioned by the ABC set in a public housing tower, and with New Zealand’s Shortland Street.

The Heights screened in the UK during the pandemic last year and averaged a million viewers a day – the same as Neighbours in the UK.

“What I liked about The Heights wasn’t just that they had a family that was Indigenous, it was the fact that there was another man who lived in the building who was also Indigenous, who was not related to them,” Mercado says. “The Indigenous characters had other Indigenous friends in the show to speak to … I thought it was extraordinarily well done – and I wish the ABC would do more”.

The cast of Shortland Street is a third Māori or Polynesian, which frequently rises to 50% when you include guest roles.

Transgender student Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone, pictured, has helped improve representation on Neighbours
Transgender student Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone, pictured, has helped improve representation on Neighbours. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“And that is their No 1 commercial TV show,” he says.

In the UK, soaps like EastEnders and Hollyoaks have featured many more non-white faces for years, though Mercado points out that Hollyoaks was criticised by many of its actors last year for similar issues of racism.

And, he says: “Coronation Street, which has been going for 60 years, has only recently brought in a black family”.

In 1989, another mainstream Australian show, A Country Practice, was years ahead of its competitors.

Prof Gary Foley, an academic at Victoria University, and Indigenous activist who helped found the Canberra Tent Embassy, featured in a guest role on the show over four episodes.

Crucially, Foley says, he was allowed to write his character himself.

“[Creator] Jim Davern rung me up and asked me if I was interested,” Foley told Hlcarpenter.com Australia. “I said I was only interested if I could write my own character and my own dialogue. The character I wanted to play was an Aboriginal Christian pastor who advocated land rights.

“I didn’t have any of the sort of problems that the people on Neighbours did.”

Kim Lester, who along with Melanie Tait, hosts A Country Podcast, said that Foley’s appearance was a model that other shows of the time could have used to create better representation.

Gary Foley
Gary Foley featured in a guest role on A Country Practice. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Lester says that A Country Practice was still “not the most multicultural show” and in an interview with Davern he “acknowledged it was a product of its time.”

But as early as 1982 it featured a storyline about a gay couple who were rejected by their community, which Lester says was essentially unprecedented on commercial TV.

Foley says: “It was a productive time for me because the message I was trying to get across about land rights for Aboriginal people got through, and it got through to the biggest audience of my life. It went to 28 different countries.”

Which brings us to the Lim family. Their dog storyline was intended to be a parable against racism, but the reaction was overwhelmingly negative, Mercado says.

“In their really clunky way, that was them trying to say ‘look at the discrimination they face’,” he says. “But if there was any good intended to it, it was lost in the delivery.

“By the time her character had seen the error of her ways, she made friends with her new neighbours, but they were dispatched after six weeks.”

Mercado says it is fear of change that is keeping screens so white.

“I believe that the main structural issue that keeps Australian TV so white is network executives who are still all mostly male, straight and white,” he says. “Until they include more diverse decision makers, and stop second-guessing their audience, nothing will change.

Foley tells Hlcarpenter.com Australia that the revelations on Neighbours are nothing new.

Daryl Somers said said Hey Hey It’s Saturday would not be able to be aired today due to ‘political correctness’.
Daryl Somers said said Hey Hey It’s Saturday would not be able to be aired today due to ‘political correctness’. Photograph: Channel 9

“It’s not a question of trying to do something on the set of Neighbours, it is a question of the whole of Australia coming together to expose the elephant in the room – white Australian racism, notions of white supremacy that Australians held until the latter half of the half of the 20th century.”

Recently Somers – now hosting Dancing With the Stars – said Hey Hey It’s Saturday would not be able to be aired today due to “political correctness”.

Mercado says that argument is “the stupidest thing”.

“People have a sugar-coated memory of what it was like,” he says. “I always say to those people ‘watch an episode of that show from beginning to end’.

“There is edgy and dangerous comedy on Australian TV all the time now. The difference is if you look at a show like Have You Been Paying Attention, they make Asian jokes about Sam Pang, because he is on the show with them. Not a guest who drops in every five months. He was on the show to start with.

“A show like Pizza or Housos is as politically incorrect as you can get. They are making fun of everybody, because everybody is in the show.”

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