The ABC1 program Hungry Beast recently ran this short segment about the representation of Asian people on TV in Australia. Comedian Lawrence Leung makes a brief appearance. You can watch it at the show's website here (it's about 8 minutes in) if you wish.
Mind you, the segment doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. Television here has always been a pretty white domain, even though at least 10% of the Australian population is identifiably non-white.
Things are changing of course, gradually. Popular soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away have made token attempts to introduce Asian characters, but generally they have been poorly conceived and unconvincing. (Of course one could argue that everything about Neighbours and Home and Away is poorly conceived and unconvincing, but that's a whole 'nother conversation.) Popular kids show Hi-5 has always had one Asian member, as have The Wiggles. Weekly show Video Hits is hosted by the Ghanaian-Chinese Faustina "Fuzzy" Agolley. Popular comedy-drama Packed to the Rafters has included a couple of attractive Eurasians as recurring supporting characters. And talent shows such as Australian Idol have brought unprecented numbers of contestants of Pacific Islander, Asian and African background on to our screens - and the shows have been massive ratings winners.
And of course, there is SBS, which has long been the ethnic ghetto of Australian TV, an oasis of colour and exotic-sounding names amid the Anglo-ness of the mainstream channels. SBS has given us shows like Pizza (revolving around Lebanese and Italian characters), East West 101 (the award-winning drama about an Arabic cop in Sydney), or quiz show ADBC (with Eurasian host Sam Pang). Or take SBS World News, which has in the past introduced us to Indira Naidoo, George Donikian, Mary Kostakidis and Lee Lin Chin. The current team includes Neena Mairatha (Singaporean-Indian), Rena Sarumpaet (Indonesian), and Anton Enus and Janice Pietersen (both of coloured South African ancestry). You could even accuse SBS of trying too hard to overcompensate for the traditional lack of diversity elsewhere, but it has been necessary nonetheless. The problem is, the masses just don't watch SBS. The ABC has done fairly well in the diversity stakes - Lawrence Leung's Choose Your Own Adventure is arguably the first time an Asian-Australian has had their own show, aside from on SBS of course. But ABC is no ratings giant either.
Of course, part of the reason for the traditional lack of ethnic faces on mainstream TV is the shortage of talent; there is a smaller talent pool to draw from, and in some ethnic communities young people are dissuaded from entering the entertainment industry in favour of more reliable and traditionally-approved careers. But by the same token, those who are in the industry find it hard to break out of niche roles. And networks are probably apprehensive about whether a non-white face in a major role will be a deterrent to viewers.
Pictured below: some of the very few Asian faces on mainstream Australian TV. Hi-5's Fely Irvine, The Wiggles' Jeff Fatt, and Packed to the Rafters' James Stewart.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Teenage years are tough, full of self-doubt and feelings of unattractiveness. Teenagers unconsciously look for role models who are cool and in the public eye. But in the media, I saw no one who looked like me. Yes, I am half-white, but I was different enough. All the people I saw on television and the media who epitomised coolness and attractiveness had hair that was usually straight and light-coloured, and thin pointy noses. I had a mop of curly dark hair, fat lips and broad nostrils. I was a bit funny-looking, as many teenagers are before growing into their adult bodies; but I thought there was something hideous about me.
It seems ridiculous now, but I used to pinch my nostrils in the hope that in the long run, it would make my nose thinner like a proper white person. While most of my love interests since then have been South or Southeast Asian, back in high school I wouldn't even look at a girl who wasn't white. My ultimate love goal was to marry a blonde girl, so then our kids would look really white and wouldn't have my freaky features.
Much has been said about teenage girls' self-esteem gets affected by the relentless promotion of overly skinny women in the media. But while fat girls might aspire to be skinny and eventually attain that goal, a brown person cannot ever be white.
Things have changed a bit now, but in some ways they are not so different. Even today, with the exception of SBS, most of the nonwhite faces on Australian TV are women. Attractive women at that, although some degree of attractiveness is usually a prerequisite for a TV career. A few examples - Marcia Hines, Faustina Agolley, Kathleen De Leon and Nuala Hafner. It's hard to think of many recently prominent coloured male faces on mainstream TV - indigenous stars Ernie Dingo and Aaron Pedersen, and Samoan-New Zealander Jay Laga'ai'a are among a very small sample. Asian males are almost invisible on mainstream TV. What does that say about our society's attitude towards Asian men, and what message does that send?
Asian-Americans frequently complain about their under-representation on US TV, but there are plenty of examples of how the yanks do diversity a helluva lot better than we do. As well as plenty of black and Hispanic faces on TV, there is a gradual increase in Asians in significant roles. While Asian women have long been more prominent (think news anchor Connie Chung, right-wing ideologue Michelle Malkin, actresses like Sandra Oh, Ming-Na and Parminder Nagra), more and more Asian males are finally getting substantive roles. Think Kal Penn in House, Daniel Henney in Three Rivers, B D Wong in Law and Order and Oz, Naveen Andrews and Daniel Dae Kim in Lost, Masi Oka, James Kyson Lee and Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes, C S Lee in Dexter, and John Cho in Flash Forward.
TV in the UK is also streets ahead of Australia in this department. Think of the black and South Asian characters in shows such as The Bill, This Life, Spooks, and somewhat ridiculously, even Merlin.
Obviously, there is a bigger talent pool to draw from in both the UK and the US. And the Asian community in the US is longer-established, meaning there are proportionally far more Asians there than in Australia for whom English is a first language, which would surely be a factor in opportunities for success in the entertainment industry. But nonetheless, we must do better.
Also check out Yuey's post on this same topic over at the Asians Down Under blog.