Words by: Vivian Tang Art by: Brooke Stevens
As the year 2021 bloomed, a prevailing pandemic saw us once again recoil in our homes, clinging to any frothy distraction. Enter Big Brother, The Bachelor, RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under — shows at the epicentre of Australian reality TV to cure us from our daily burnout. Yet even they no longer provide a place of security or refuge. A misguided fantasy. BIPOC evicted. Sashayed away. Given a rose, only to be punctured by a thorn.
Wait, but why are they the first to leave?
A mere coincidence or by design? It begs the question, is Australian reality TV the mirror in which we see racism play out?
The spaces we inhabit on screen as Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPoC), are either non-existent or hollow, relaying a damaging message. As Junot Diaz, Dominican American writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, simply stated “there’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in [the] mirror…if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Hence, our process of identity shatters. Caged in a panopticon of mirrored cells where the only enemy is, us.
It’s a trauma that cannot be choreographed.
An estimated three in four Australians from non-European backgrounds suffer discrimination due to their ethnicity. In fact, the majority widely recognise that racism is still largely prevalent in today’s Australia. Though there’s an inkling to overturn these injustices, the country’s inability to address race meaningfully is unavoidably sheltered under the thin veil of the Union Jack and White Commonwealth. Reality programs such as Bondi Rescue prove the sentiment is just as much cause as it is effect in the content we see. Reigning over a decade in a prime-time slot, the show fails to go unnoticed, parading an aspirational image of ‘Australian-ness’ — we are one, and all, we are a White homogenous fantasy.
Is it an enduring vanity affair? Are we as a nation too patriotic, progressive, focused on the next step forward that we’re reserving space for White, thin, heterosexual figures on land that is in fact Black, borrowed and splintering?
The stories on screen are the stories that tell us who we can be and allowing racism to perform on Australian screens, lends acceptability. It’s why microaggressions and throwaway comments remain, translating to an unwavering, universal language of indifference. “Wow, his English is pretty good.” “I can’t understand a word she’s saying.” “She’ll be out of here before the first ceremony.” “That poor fella’s got no chance.”
But how can we empathise with BIPoC when their roles are given nothing to relate to? Because it’s not just the burden of underrepresentation breaking people of colour, but the types of representation.
BlPoC are not monolithic. Yet our token characters are predetermined, manufactured in a warehouse of distrust and fettered imagination. Diluted, flawed, reliably subordinate, they seek to be redeemed when they do no wrong. Seek forgiveness when they do no such harm. And internalise their anger when their frustrations are subliminally unacknowledged. Because a single misstep outside the coloured lines is a reminder of where we stand in the stencilled hierarchy, unable to erase the fact that one Asian man is not going to represent all Asian men nor is one Black woman able to represent all Black women. Given the smallest space to perform, we’re forced to manoeuvre, shrug, keep our head down, shed all individual quirks in service to the reigning narrative that speaks to ‘our’ Australia.
It’s a symptom of validating stale stereotypes. We’re hypersexual or emasculated, brazen or timid, frail or conniving. A series of monolithic extremes, that fail to parallel true diversity. It’s why the first three to be eliminated from this year’s Big Brother, Korean man Soobong Hwang, Fijian-Australian Laura Coriakula, and Chinese-Australian Allan Liang, is no longer a coincidence.
When we fail to normalise nuance, we fail to humanise those that make up the rugged fabric of our society. When we fail to recognise our strengths in diversity, we surpass an opportunity for redemption and develop the need for salvation. The reality is, BIPoC are not a quota to be met nor a number to be added. Alongside executives, directors, writers, and producers, we all have a responsibility to engage in meaningful inclusivity. When the whole country is watching, the power to redefine these portrayals is not a privilege but a necessity. Simply put, when given a large stage, why throw away the mic?
It’s easy to adopt a perceived closeness to reality TV contestants. They saturate social, cultural conversation and interactions. They’re in our homes. We hear them speak. We bridge a bond through their story. In this instance, I push aside the borders of race and speak simply as a person that seeks to belong; I no longer want to put effort into an illusion. There are real cracks in the way we interact with one another. There are even more damning cracks in our system. Innately, we were meant to operate without borders. I believe we still can. Take away Black, White, boy, girl, the norm and disparate — there beneath lies the real world.