Our community on the TV screen
Does Australian television portray the multicultural community we live in?
We live in a country, proud to be one of the most diverse in the world, whose soil has accepted great numbers of immigrants and refugees during the last several decades. Even the statistical data from last year's Census says that the five million of the 21.5 million population of Australia, are people from non-English speaking backgrounds. 400 thousand are non-English speaking Greeks. Yet with all this data, and knowledge, ethnic communities are still lacking from Australian media, more notably Australian television series.
When you start a conversation about the appearance of actors of Greek backgrounds on Australian television screens, you will reel off a dozen or so well-known names and faces of entertainment industry, but scratch beyond the surface and you will see what kind of roles are being offered to these ethnics actors. Are they as versatile as their Anglo counterparts or are ethnic actors being stereotyped into one specific role?
Australian actor Jay Laga'aia - who has Samoan descent - sparked off the debate recently after his character was written out of the long-standing Australian television drama Home and Away.
He claimed that the television series Home and Away couldn't write a script that catered for two ethnic characters referring to himself and long-serving actor Ada Nicodemou, who has a Greek-Cypriot background.
He criticised the show for being racist and casting white actors only, and only offering a limited number of roles to ethnic actors. Laga'aia's colleagues have publicly supported his opinion. Famous star of the serial The Straits, Firass Dirani, has said that "the networks should start writing shows that cater for different actors and different cultural backgrounds," adding that the Australian media do not reflect the Australia of 2012.
However, in an interview with Neos Kosmos earlier this year, Ada Nicodemou said she purposely made her character (Leah Patterson-Baker) Cypriot.
"It is very Anglo-Saxon based show," the actor said of Home and Away, "but it is also set in a coastal town in Australia where a lot of the people do look like that; it's not an inner city show."
Ada Nicodemou kick started her television career over 16 years ago in the multicultural series Heartbreak High, and says a lot of kids could relate to the show as it had a multicultural cast that reflected Australian society.
"I have been very blessed and have been working in television back-to-back since I was 16 and I am now 34," she says, "and I don't look Anglo-Saxon."
But the message still coming from actors of an ethnic background was that the opportunities for actors from non-English speaking backgrounds, are limited. The issue is serious. There is a clear lack of non Anglo-Saxon actors in mainstream television programs. They wonder how our society is portrayed in the Australian television industry? Does it reflect the community that we live in, its multicultural make-up, lives, experiences and the attitudes of all of its citizens, and not only of a few "chosen ones"?
Is multiculturalism still missing from Australian media, and especially from the television screens of one of the world's most diverse countries? To see what it feels like to be ethnic actor in Australia, we talked to our compatriots, directly involved in this area - actors Tony Nikolakopoulos and Mary Coustas, and the director Alkinos Tsilimidos.
In front of closed doors
"I think that much of what appears on television is represented by the writers that pull from their own experiences and lives. There needs to be more writers with diverse backgrounds that express and create shows and characters based on a world that they know and feel passionate about," says veteran Greek Australian actress Mary Coustas.
"In the case of The Slap it was motivated by a book written by a Greek writer, Christos Tsiolkas and in the case of our work from Wogs out of Work to Acropolis Now the same applied. "
Coustas shot to fame on Australian television in the '80s for her portrayal of Effie Stephanidis, the cousin of Jim Stephanidis (Nick Giannopoulos) on the hit show Acropolis Now. Her alter ego Effie is still revered as the stereotypical second generation Greek Australian woman and continues to make appearances to this day.
"We cannot expect to be represented authentically without that motivator and unique voice. Tokenism does not help the case," she adds.
Regardless of his impressive resume, Greek Australian actor Tony Nikolakopoulos does not think that in Australia we have overcome prejudices about cross-racial casting, as they have done as say in the United States. Nikolakopoulos has no doubt that multiculturalism is missing from television screens in Australia.
"I was asked very similar questions by a journalist 15 years ago and the answers I gave then still apply," he tells Neos Kosmos.
"Yes, multiculturalism is definitely missing from our television screens and Australian media. I don't think this is a premeditated intention by the industry and network heads.
"Australia - in particular Melbourne - has one of the most diverse populations in the world but is yet to be explored and portrayed in our stories told on television. There are token ethnic characters that appear from time to time that are treated as ethnic stereotypes, however they are Australian. In essence what I am trying to say is 'why can't an Australian born actor of a diverse cultural background simply play any role?'".
The television series Neighbours is one Australian drama that has drawn harsh criticism for being heavily Anglo-Saxon orientated, and for failing to cast actors of different ethnic background.
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