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.
“The audience relates to anything great that stands out for reasons that make sense beyond what is logical. You cannot obligate shows to introduce characters and actors of diversity, unless they are willing to reveal the potential of them,” explains Coustas.
“Quality should be the motivator, and finding new opportunities to showcase talent and story should be pursued, if the team behind something can see the enormous potential of it … Not because they feel obligated to do so,” she adds.
Tony Nikolakopoulos believes that the limited opportunities available to ethnic actors hasn’t been done intentionally, even though ethnic actors are still being used to play stereotypical, caricatured roles such as the ‘wog’ criminal, the ‘immigrant’, or the ‘Greek’. He reserves praise for shows like East West 101 for portraying the points of view of ethnic cultures within Australia.
Mary Coustas adds that many well-known television stars of ethnic background have paved a way for themselves in Australian television such as Firass Dirani, Vince Colosimo and Greek Australian actor Alex Dimitriades.
“There is a talent, a gravitas, a passion and enough of an exotic point of difference that helps them to connect with an audience that is looking for something real,” she says.
“In general I would say that television doesn’t accurately reflect the diverse cultural spectrum within Australia. I go to places like Oakleigh, Brunswick, the CBD, Windsor and Malvern, and see people of diverse cultural backgrounds and varying professions who are all Australian,” says Nikolakopoulos of the way Australian television fails to reflect Australian society and says it would be “great to see this on the television too”.
“Having this diverse representation on our television would be positive for social cohesion, and to help reduce racial tensions within our society, which unfortunately still exist.”
Mary Coustas echoes this sentiment: “We just need more storytellers to put forward great ideas with potential to engage with a big and often starved audience. We learn about differences often through art and entertainment and the opportunities that exist there need to be mined on a regular basis from more and more people of diversity that want to be part of the industry.
“Each nationality needs to serve itself and to represent itself in a three-dimensional way. Collaboration with producers who can find the way of getting that material in the right hands is a good way to guarantee that plight. There are many funding bodies that look to invest in non-mainstream and typical material – and networks like SBS continue to invest in diverse, brave material and shows. It’s best to focus on those aspects instead of thinking that it is an impossibility, and be marginalised further by what is seen as the norm,” says Coustas.
“The desire to tell stories is to reveal and inform, to liberate and emancipate,” says Coustas.
“Much of the ability to do this comes from a confidence or a need, as well as from the opportunity and ability to pull that off.
“The entertainment industry is a difficult one for many different reasons,” but adds, “in current times it’s much easier to navigate, than it was decades earlier.”
“Special box”
made for immigrants
Even though the first Greeks arrived in Australia over a hundred years ago, Tony Nikolakopoulos believes immigrants are being placed in a “special box”.
“I believe that the first migrants and their descendants are still placed in a somewhat categorised box. Therefore the new immigrants are placed in an even smaller box.
“On a more positive note I have recently played a role in the yet to be released television show Reef Doctors, where the character was non-cultural specific with the name Barry Mulligan. This is due to the director knowing me as person and seeing me as an Australian actor, rather than an ethnic actor. I am sure there are many other directors and other creative professionals that have a similar view, but maybe they aren’t willing to take the ‘risk’,” says Nikolakopoulos.
As our famous compatriots have agreed, the way for media to progress and become a mirror of Australian society in 2012, is through writers and through encouraging storytelling to be more diverse. As they said, only in this way, a presence of a whole of Australian diverse community can be achieved on Australian television screens, thus providing a true reflection of what Melbourne and Australia really are, rather than network driven ideologies that media moguls think are commercially viable.
Looking through
the director’s eye
One of the most significant directors of Greek origin in Australia – with a distinguished career in film and theatre – Alkinonos Tsilimidos has become famous through examining social themes in his movies. His films are connected by fringe characters that “inhabit the shadows of our society and test the boundaries of acceptability”.
As a person behind the lens of a video camera, Tsilimidos’ opinion is that multiculturalism is missing from Australian media, as multiculturalism as such does not exist in Australia.
“I don’t think there’s any multiculturalism in our media and television because there’s no multiculturalism. We have a society made up of diverse cultures, but let’s not kid ourselves; the media and television interest is in appeasing the broader Australian Anglo community,” he says matter-of-factly.
“There’s the occasional ‘guilt’ piece and some well-behaved, migrant offspring doing well in the industry, but essentially the attitude is white. We are okay at tolerating, but we don’t really accept strangers. Never have,” says the famous Greek Australian director.
“Television is to blame that Anglo-Saxon features rule Australian television screens,” says Tsilimidos.
“It’s Anglo-Saxons’ who mostly write these characters. The lack of interesting heads is directly related to the lack of interesting writers. The White Australia policy is sort of alive and well in the corridors of producers and casting directors, who are essentially terrified people because their makers – the network executives – are white bullies.”
Are the opportunities for actors who are, or look like ethnics, significantly lower than for “whites”, and therefore fail to represent the racial make-up of one of the most diverse countries? Is the image of society, reflected by media in one of the most diverse world countries, realistic?
As Tsilimidos says, the opportunities for any actor in Australia are limited; it’s not only the case with ethnic actors.
“Being white is an advantage because you’re mostly auditioning for white roles. I think ethnic actors are still required to play ethnic roles and this keeps us in the dark ages. We just need to cast great actors in great parts and not worry about their ethnic background; get with the rest of the world. I actually prefer television to stay away from portraying the migrant, as it’s done in such bad taste and with so little thought that it is damaging to everyone.”
The television apartheid and racism in Australia of 2012, concern not only the new immigrants, says Australian-born Alkinos Tsilimidos.
“I think we’re constantly reminded that we’re migrants and to not overstep the mark. Sometimes it’s like we’re still on Gilligan’s Island where all the visitors are baptized as enemies.”