Cultural Diversity (or lack of?) on Aussie TV

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Last year, Screen Australia released an important report on the state of Australian drama on television. More specifically, it investigated how diverse the representation of Australia’s population is in these dramas. The results revealed yawning gaps between reality and the cultural imagination.

The report, Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama, was significant because it acknowledged what was slowly coming into the public discourse – for all of Australia’s diversity, including its cultural complexity, this was not reflected on screen.

PWC’s 2016-2020 Entertainment and Media Outlook also recognised a lack of diversity in these industries. The PWC report forecasts a total market reach of $47.4bn, with consumer spending reaching $28.7bn and advertising $18.7bn by 2020.

Think of what that audience looks like – it’s not the limited Australia we see on our screens. Australian audiences come from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, religions and experiences, and the industry will only benefit by catering to them.

 Cultural backgrounds comparison. Source: Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama, Screen Australia, 2016

Cultural backgrounds comparison. Source: Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama, Screen Australia, 2016

Spotlight: Cultural Diversity

While the Screen Australia research considered three areas – cultural diversity, disability status, and sexual orientation and gender identity. For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on cultural diversity and why improving the statistics is not only important for Australia’s cohesion as a multicultural nation, but also progressive for the entertainment industry.

As I reported for SBS Life when the report was released: “The study showed that, despite 32 per cent of Australia’s population being from a non-Anglo Celtic background, only 18 per cent of the main characters analysed were non-Anglo. That is, 82 per cent of Australian television’s main characters in dramas are Anglo-Celtic – compared to the 67 per cent of Australia’s population who are Anglo.”

For many of us, who come from an ethnic minority – for example, I’m the child of Palestinian migrants – we are rarely, if ever, seen as part of Australia’s cultural make-up. Despite being active members of society, having attachments to community, and for many of us, growing up with a hybrid identity, we are not represented in dramatic television. Not in Hollywood, and not at home.

...82 per cent of Australian television’s main characters in dramas are Anglo-Celtic – compared to the 67 per cent of Australia’s population who are Anglo.
— REPORT: Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Aus. TV

There are many contributors to this, but foremost is the lack of diversity in the writer’s rooms of television shows. It’s taken decades to soften the edges of perceived difference in Australia’s multicultural tapestry. In fact, we’re still trying to tenderise a brutal reality: in general, popular culture in Australia has not been inclusive, and when it has been, it has often been to tokenise people from minorities.

This will change the more that people from these minorities take opportunities to broaden the types of stories we tell Australian – and even global – audiences. While these will usually be drawn from our personal experiences, and these stories are valuable ones to tell, the ultimate goal is for diversity to not be the catchword – ideally, perceived difference is normalised. Rather than being seen as ‘others’, our experiences are equally ‘normal’.

It’s important because so much of what we believe and understand about others comes from the stories we consume. While media, in its many guises, is a powerful influencer, the subliminal messaging in stories – particularly those we watch on television and in the cinema – is just as strong.

How many times have you seen Arabs portrayed as ‘normal’ people with an interesting journey that doesn’t revolve around identity and terrorism? Are Asians allowed to be heroes, not just computer nerds? Can Russians be more than spies?

 Source: Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama, Screen Australia, 2016

Source: Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on diversity in Australian TV drama, Screen Australia, 2016

In a time when Australia’s cohesiveness is tested by divisive outlooks that at once demand loyalty to one Australian identity while emphasising difference through diversity, the challenge is to strike a balance between allowing different experiences without judgement, and expressing these through stories told by the people experiencing them.  

Even when such limited portrayals aren’t strictly racist, they can engender damaging stereotypical narratives.

The ideal is to move beyond characters who are featured because of their difference, e.g. the Muslim character who is only written as a terrorist or someone related to a terrorist. Muslims lead complex lives, too. While they are affected by terrorism and global events, these limited portrayals suggest there is little else to consume them.

The good news

The good news is that the Screen Australia report has led to a new initiative that aims to increase the diversity of the nation’s screen industry. The Screen Diversity and Inclusion Network (SDIN) launched a charter to “promote diversity in the sector”. Signatories include screen industry bodies from around the country, the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), and networks ABC, SBS, Network Ten, and Foxtel (among many more organisations and bodies).

It’s wonderful to see such a significant industry body leading the charge on widening the opportunity pathway for people in the entertainment industry. It’s a step that, hopefully, leads to diversity initiatives not being a necessity because difference is the norm. It’s a movement that will undoubtedly broaden Australia’s talent pool and the stories we tell.


Written by Amal Awad, Lexigo: Amal is a journalist and author, and has worked as a producer at ABC Radio National. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the real lives of Arab women.