As a mousey-brown-haired blue-eyed Australian woman, born of Australian parents who were born of Australian parents, I am a part of the main demographic my country’s media represents. Yet my appearance is genetic and my citizenship a result of my place of birth. But here I am, an Aussie sheila.
My childhood and adolescence were certainly shaped by the rote of national television. I would rise to Agro’s Cartoon Connection, eat dinner between Neighbours and Home & Away, and reach the pinnacle of my weekend as Red Symons dished out another Red Faces gong. Perhaps one day Koshie and Mel will dictate my morning routine as I dream of my children’s post-All Saints-equivalent-Australian-medical-drama-bedtime.
As David Morley summarises Berlant (2000) ‘through the accident of birth within a particular set of geographical and political boundaries, the individual is transformed into the subject of a collectively held history and learns to value a particular set of symbols as intrinsic to the nation and its terrain.’ Although it could be argued that our parents’ ideologies shape us as much, if not more than national ideologies, the bigger picture is that they too are a product of their country and form part of its ‘collectively held history’.
Like many Australians, I was proud to be Australian. I loved the beach. I supported the Wallabies. I cried when Princess Diana died. But I’ve never been surfing. I don’t care for sports. And I like the idea of becoming a Republic. What ‘Australian’ even means to me these days I would struggle to define. Or I would shudder. Again.
Putting your finger on Australia’s national identity has never been an easy task. In an attempt to articulate our Australianness, we identified ourselves as a people through what we were not, distancing ourselves from the British and the Americans (Cao, 2007). It was here that the ‘laidback larrikin’ stereotype began, and has since been perpetuated and bastardised into the loudmouth racist bogan stereotype that is too often associated with the green and the gold.
For such a young country, the ‘idea of the nation as represented in its mediated culture’ (Morley, p.105) was intrinsic in ‘the construction of a sense of national identity’ (Lofgren in Morley, p.106), ‘the “cultural thickening” of the nation state’ (Morley, p.106). Cinema as well as broadcast media lauded blokes in the bush as national heroes. Yet this young country has grown and developed. Immigrants added richness and diversity Australia, and their children, second-generation immigrants, increasingly made up a significant component of the country’s populace (May, 2003).
Papastergiadis (in Morley, p.107) argues that “the symbols and narratives of the nation can only resonate if they are admitted to the chamber of the home”, yet if the symbols and narratives dictate a verandah out the front, a clothesline out the back and an old rocking chair, and the chamber of the housing-commission home they are admitted to is represented by none of these things, national broadcasting as a form of unification instead becomes a repellant. The media has a responsibility to inscribe non-Anglo Australian identities as equally central to any other experience, and not marginal or different (Berry, 1999).
Television was indeed anglocentric. In fact up until the early 1990s, multiculturalism within Australia’s national broadcasting remained minimal. When it did occur the actor’s part was ‘performed’ ethnicity, rather than the portrayal of an ‘everyday’ Australian (May, p.1). May suggests that diversification of the country’s media occurred from the late 1980s onwards, paralleling the development of a broad multicultural policy by government. For a cultural identity to remain accurate, it needs to respond to the social, political and economical developments occurring within that culture and be fluid enough to mould a new definition of self. As a nation changes and grows, the identity of a nation grows with it.
Perhaps Channel 7 didn’t get that agenda. Ex-Home and Awayactor Jay Laga’aia (of Samoan descent) accused the Channel 7 show of dumping him as they had already fulfilled their ‘ethnic quota’ with Ada Nicodemou, a Greek Cypriot-born actress. In fact, Laga’aia’s accusation came just a day after Under Belly actor Firas Dirani called for commercial TV to rid itself of a perceived “white Australia” policy and instead strive to represent the “different flavours, different cultures” of modern Australia (Vickery, 2012). Says Professor Andrew Jakubowicz ‘The streets of Neighbours and Home and Away remained blandly Anglo, with an occasional and often violently resented non-White newcomer. These people appeared and disappeared with monotonous regularity, as though there was a tipping point at which the commercial channels had to do something, just to say they were, but then move them on before offence was caused.’
Although the “visibly different” are comparatively more visible and less different today than they were in decades past, I’d argue that Indigenous Australians are still grossly underrepresented by our national media. And even when cast, the role laid out for Indigenous actors is often one that really emphasises aspects of Aboriginality. An Australian television drama that really stood out to me at the time of airing was Secret Life of Us. Looking back on it now, it becomes increasingly clear that the show seemed more pertinent and more real because of its depiction of a group of friends with different coloured skin, different beliefs, different incomes, different accents. Secret Life of Us was actually one of the driving factors that saw me move from Canberra to (more ethnically diverse) Melbourne.
The media plays a central role in the production, circulation and transformation of ideas about race (a key contributor to the idea of “national identity”) – but the media is also subject to the wanton whims of the nation’s funding agencies. Jakubowicz argues that despite the culturally inclusive policies of agencies such as Screen Australia and the ABC, our media is still in desperate need of independent reviews and a political shakeup.
At the time of writing this original post, the Olympics were screening and creating the spectacle-induced swell of national pride that Bondi Rescue could only dream of. Australians in all their varieties came together. For a while, at least. A dismal medal count saw our ‘great sporting nation’ bow it’s head in shame, and second generation immigrants revert to barracking for the country of their heritage. My freckles and name would suggest I champion the Republic of Ireland. I don’t suppose they’re doing much better though, are they?
Berry, C (1999) ‘The Importance of Being Ari: Chris Berry Takes a Sideways Glance at Head On’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, v.118, pp.34-37.
Cao, B (2007) ‘Beyond Empires: Australian Cinematic Identity in the 21st Century’, viewed 25 September 2012, <http://www.polsis.uq.edu.au/docs/Challenging-Politics-Papers/Benito-Cao-Beyond-Empire.pdf>.
Jakubowicz, A (2010) ‘Race media and identity in Australia’, blog, n.d., Andrew Jakubowicz, viewed 10 October 2012, < http://andrewjakubowicz.com/publications/race-media-and-identity-in-australia/>.
May, H (2003) ‘Australian multicultural policy and television drama in comparative contexts’, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Queensland University of Technology.
Morley, D (2000) ‘Broadcasting and the Construction of the National Family’, Home Territories, course readings from COMM1073, RMIT University, Melbourne, viewed 6 Aug 2012.
Vickery, C (2012) ‘Ex-Home and Away star Jay Laga’aia rants over ‘racist’ soapie on Twitter’, Herald Sun, 16 February, viewed 9 October 2012, < http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/tv-radio/ex-home-and-away-star-jay-lagaaia-rants-over-racist-soapie-on-twitter/story-e6frf9ho-1226272054926>.