Conversations have been ongoing for some time now about representations (or even appearances) in media of diverse people. We are beginning to see more representations of people with disabilities, of women, of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, but more needs to be done in order to ensure that human representations seen in media are truly reflective of their audience.
Diversity in Australia vs Diversity in Media
We as a nation are very diverse and increasingly so. 50.2% of us are women, 24% of us are non-European and Indigenous, originating from over 500 cultural backgrounds and 20% of us live with a disability… around 35% of Australians are Caucasian males.
Conversely, in a study about gender in radio media advertising, for example, it was shown that 78% of the central characters were male and that traditional gender stereotypes are still prevalent where the males were in authority and the females were shown as being dependent figures.
In another study by MDA (more on this organisation further down), it was found that more than 75% of presenters, commentators and reporters were Anglo-Celtic but only 6% have an Indigenous or non-European background. Further to this, 70% of the media persons surveyed rated the representation of culturally diverse people in the media poorly or very poorly, showing the Media’s awareness of the issue.
As for disability representation in the media, there are very few people on TV who are differently abled and those who are represented are shoehorned into stereotypical roles. The media hasn’t represented diversity in the same percentages as those that exist in our people. Could this be because 100% of media CEOs are male, able bodied and from an Anglo-Celtic background?
Setting the Agenda
Why is diverse representation in Australian television so important? The media informs us about the world and people around us – it is a reflection of us, but that reflection is not representative of the Australian public at this time. We are not fully informed, and we are misrepresented to ourselves, marginalising the non-white male community.
The Media sets the agenda that we consume. The study of agenda-setting describes the way media attempts to influence viewers, and establish the importance of certain personal, political or social stories, describing how the public are able to be guided by the media stories that are told.
The media has the powerful ability to set the public agenda, to decide what we see and hear about and, ultimately, this shapes what we learn, think, say, which in turn influences what we do. The study of Agenda Setting in the media proposes that the media has a responsibility to handle their ability to inform us, the audience, in such a way that informs holistically, wholly, representatively.
Representations of Diversity in Australian Media
The Australian media can create positive shifts in social and cultural attitudes around diversity. In terms of physical accessibility, TV has been beginning to encourage more diverse peoples to watch tv since the advent of closed captions, and Auslan signers, along with some specialised shows such as Insight.
Diversity and inclusion in the media in Australia are growing however, and the following TV spaces are helping, or have helped, this to happen. We have mentioned a few below from the last 10 years, as a way of highlighting the diversity of Australian characters, actors and stories that are eager to be told. This list is by no means a completed view of diversity, or an exhaustive list, but rather a springboard for discussion about the diversity that is being portrayed on Australian TV:
National Indigenous Television
National Indigenous Television (NITV) was launched in 2012. This free to air channel is made by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – “Through us, you will discover a channel for all Australians”. Showcasing stories from the cultural heart of Australia, NITV provides a rich diversity of cultures, languages and talent. With News, Politics, Art, and Indigenous stories covering a multitude of other subjects, NITV places culture at the heart of media.
The Angus Project
This show, airing since 2018, places physical disability in the spotlight of comedy. Set in Regional Australia, The Angus Project focuses on a 20 year old male who wanders through his life with his ‘useless’ carer. Nina Oyama, who plays the career emphasises their desire to “dispel the myth that people with disabilities have to live this very inspirational life”.
This echoes a very important aspect of inclusion of all types, that the person who is in a particular role is more than their unique, identifying traits.
Bridie McKim is an up and coming actor who is female and has cerebral palsy. Playing the lead role in the ABC’s imminent show The Heights, Bridie highlights the future minimalization of her condition in future roles she may play, because having a disability is “part of my identity, but it’s not my whole identity; it’s not all that I am”.
The Heights is set around the lives, scandals and romances of a housing commission space and centre’s on Bridie’s character, the sassy queen, Sabine and is available to watch on ABC iview.
This multi series, multi award winning drama centres on 30-something obstetrician Nina Proudman and her family and friends, as they navigate the chaos of modern life. One of her cohort is Cherie, an character played by indigenous actress Deborah Mailman, but her indigenous culture, future, history, heritage or identity is not central to her characterisation. This colour-blind casting is a successful blueprint in finding the way forward for diversity and inclusion in the media, and is one way of expressing the idea that all cultures are normal and valid and, therefore, the cultural heritage of an actor need not even be a part of the script.
Premiering in 2016, this thoughtful six-part drama series showcases, updates and spotlights Dreamtime stories in a super heroic setting. A Cleverman is an Aboriginal Medicine Man guiding young men through their rites of passage into adulthood. Could it be that programs like this can help the Australian media on its passage into a diverse representation of the Australian Public?
With 20% of the population living with a disability and watching TV shows that only have 4% of characters with disabilities, it is very hard to find shows that champion differently abled characters. In light of this, Cloudstreet is an exceptional find.
The protagonist, Fish Lamb, played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt, is involved in a near-drowning and is left with severe mental impairment, but the driving force behind this show is that Fish is the narrator who can communicate with the audience, but not with his fellow characters. Insightful in its concept, it viscerally illustrates how we the public are often unable to hear the voices of the differently abled, even if we appear to be listening, and this failing has the capacity to catalyse real change in the way people who do not live with a disability communicate with the differently abled.
Cloudstreet is available on Foxtel.