“Growing up, I didn’t really know how important representation was because you don’t know what you don’t have, right? I just kind of accepted the fact that I was never going to read any stories that had anyone like me. At some subconscious level, it kind of made me believe that who I was was never quite good enough, and that I would need to change in order to fulfil any kind of dream or imagination,” Yassmin Abdel-Magied discloses to me as I walk around my room trying to catch the best phone reception.
Abdel-Magied is a writer, engineer, speaker, broadcaster, advocate, and no stranger to the media. One of the very few Muslim-identifying, women of colour to grace our screens, I remember my feeling of elation when I discovered her. Finally, proof that Muslim women aren’t subjected to a life of oppression and servitude as mainstream stereotypes dictate. Proof that women of colour are intelligent, articulate, and yep, can speak English fluently.
This feeling of elation had taken over two decades to hit me. Ever since my family immigrated about a quarter of a century ago, Australia has been my home. And up until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t recall a time when I’d experienced this feeling. Seeing Abdel-Magied on television was the first time I’d come across someone in the Australian public eye who fit into the categories that I identify with. For the first time, I felt represented.
But why has it taken so long? What gives, Australia?
Our country has never been more culturally diverse. Not only is the evidence in the statistics, but it’s also there in my daily commute, it’s there when I go to the shops to buy groceries, and it was there when I went to school and university. There are people from different cultural backgrounds everywhere I go. So why is it when I switch on the telly, or go on social media to catch up on news and current affairs, that I am inundated with a sea of white faces?
The importance of accurate representation
Accurate television and media representation is crucial for self-reflection, understanding different communities, and for influencing attitudes and behaviour.
“When people see their faces represented, the effects are enormous. It helps break down barriers and misunderstandings, and it also helps next generations of culturally diverse people feel that they belong to a community,” explains Antoinette Latouff, co-founder of Media Diversity Australia. “It’s really essential in a democracy. For the media to be the Fourth Estate and the pillar of truth, it needs to speak to all Australians, and not just to some, or the majority.”
But a lack of diversity on screen does not only affect individuals on the front line. The projection of certain problematic tropes through misrepresentation impacts society as a whole. As Latouff said, it popularises pervasive stereotypes and bars people from understanding cultures that they are not familiar with.
“Loads of people in Australia haven’t met Muslims, so where do they get their ideas of what Muslim people are like? Where do they get their ideas on what Africans are like? All these sorts of things, they are heavily influenced by the media,” Abdel-Magied says. “If we don’t have accurate representation, then the stories that are construed by the media, be them fictional or otherwise, become stories that people have in their mind about those cultural groups. That changes the way they think, that changes the way they hire, and that changes the way they interact with people on public transport. It has a real world affect.”
But hey, what about Waleed Aly?
The mainstream media isn’t always adverse to multiculturalism. In 2016, media personality and co-host of Network Ten’s The Project, Waleed Aly, won Australian television’s most coveted award, the Gold Logie.
If we’re only looking for diversity, why not just take a look at our fictional characters like The Wog Boy, or the family in Here Come the Habibs, or almost everyone in Fat Pizza? There is representation a-plenty in these shows, but it isn’t just any old type of representation that we’re after. We need authentic voices, characters and storylines.
Diversity on screen and television cannot only be celebrated when it is self-deprecating or mocking. “While it’s a good thing to propel the careers of the actors, we shouldn’t only be part of the national conversation to make fun of ourselves, or when it comes into playing a stereotype,” Latouff points out.
So, what is being done to improve and diversify representation?
Screen Australia recently conducted a study on diversity in Australian TV drama between the years 2011 and 2015. Data revealed that only 18 per cent of main characters were from a non-Anglo Celtic background, compared to 32 per cent of the population.
However, it did reveal a breakthrough regarding our First Nations population. Despite only making up 3 per cent of the population, the study showed that 5 per cent of main characters in these TV dramas were from Indigenous backgrounds.
This significant achievement didn’t happen from sheer luck. It was the result of years of hard work from the industry, with networks consciously deciding to rectify the exclusion of First Nations’ voices by creating work and study initiatives such as SBS’s Legal Indigenous Cadet program, and their National Indigenous Television (NITV) Media Mentorship program with Macquarie University. The welcoming of NITV to their organisation in 2012 has enabled SBS to help drive the careers of young journalists and producers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
And while this study focused on TV drama, much of the information also applies to Australia’s current media climate.
Advocacy networks like Latouff’s Media Diversity Australia, a not-for-profit organisation run by journalists which seeks to increase cultural diversity in news and current affairs media, exist to help bridge the gap. They are committed to improving and diversifying representation by running programs that introduce young people from different cultural backgrounds to the industry, by offering media training to communities to ready themselves for comment should an issue arise in the media that affects them, and most importantly, by conducting research.
“Without research, you are unable to measure success, failure or progress,” Latouff explains. “But while we take care of this side, I urge communities to get more organised and more mobilised, and to make themselves available to journalists for comment. We need to stop hearing from middle-aged, white men when it comes to issues concerning the Middle East.”
Another way to improve and diversify accurate representation is to take matters into our own hands. If mainstream media isn’t working for us, then we need to start creating things ourselves. “I strongly encourage people to create their own stuff, because the reality is that our stories make for great content,” says Abdel-Magied.
“Once people start seeing that we’re funny and interesting, they’ll come knocking at your door. Just take a look at the success of Muslim women in fashion as an example. They’ve created their own lines, and their own following, and now big brands want them. Institutions aren’t going to change until they see that there’s actually huge success in stuff that’s different to the mainstream. So yeah, go out and do it.”
Learn more about Media Diversity Australia here.