Despite the guise of greater representation in the film industry, racial stereotyping is still rampant, and the concept of diversity doesn’t favour all.
According to the comments I’ve heard, both first and second hand, actors from ethnic backgrounds lack either the ability, skill or experience. The preceding reasons are supposedly why there aren’t many in the industry. As an Asian Australian, working to forge a career path as an actor, I call bullshit. I don’t want these generalisations following me around like a bad smell. I’ll take this moment early on to clarify that, of course, they’re generalisations, and I know plenty of actors from diverse backgrounds with bucket loads of skill and talent, but it doesn’t remove the undercurrent that runs through our industry.
With conversation about casting diversity starting to become clearer, it’s also becoming a problem. I’ve heard numerous comments, first hand, about the deficiency of choice and options when casting (insert ethnic background) roles.
On a number of occasions, a director or producer has contacted me personally, asking for recommendations on Asian actors. They are struggling to seek them out, and I guess they think we all know each other (well, it’s partially true – you meet your Asian acting buddies in the waiting room of an Asian-specified audition).
Diverse casting seems quite alien; well, that’s what’s coming across; in fact, a lot of the time it’s banished to the too hard basket, manifesting itself in absurdities such as the Emma-Stone-plays-an-Asian-in-Aloha-thing, which, in an age of enlightened multicultural progression, shouldn’t be happening.
The bare truth is the Australian industry has never fostered diverse talent. In fact, it’s done a darn good job at doing the exact opposite, with minorities under-represented at every level, in every arena, from actors and directors to creators and writers.
Of course, there will be a dearth of actors from diverse backgrounds when, for years, we’ve made diversity invisible on our screens and stages. How can we expect to see actors from diverse backgrounds when there’s no inspiration for them to audition for drama schools in the first place? I was a lucky token ethnic to be taken into a reputable drama school. In fact, in my year group, I wasn’t even token as there were three of us. In terms of diversity: Probably one of the best years on record. To point out the blindingly obvious, if you don’t train actors from diverse backgrounds, then yes, they will lack skills compared to those who receive such training.
If there is no influence and stimulus for them to choose that path, then yes, there will be a lack of options, and so goes the cycle. It’s been a cycle embedded within the industry for many years, a cycle that needs to be broken, and broken it will be. Diversity is an issue which no longer lays dormant. Worldwide, it’s become high agenda, with people talking about it with an intensity that was never there before. After much public controversy, Aloha will be forever remembered as “that film that whitewashed Hawaii,” and certainly not the feel-good, laugh-out-loud, romantic comedy I’m sure they intended to sell. The public is letting the industry know that it will be made accountable.
The 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report states that minorities will become the majority within a few decades. Australia is on a similar trajectory. In no way is it a changeover, pitting one group over the other, there is no valid argument in sustaining the deluge of white middle-class content we continuously present. Even if we talk about the harsh reality of money-making and ratings, heartless (but inescapable) recent evidence suggests that diversity sells.
This assumption and mentality that diversity doesn’t make money just isn’t true.
For decades now, the vibrancy of our society has been made invisible. The wealth of faces I see from different backgrounds as I walk the streets of Sydney – who I have grown up with, who are in my social circles and who have contributed to the cultural richness of our country – are deemed worthless each time we eliminate them from the stories we choose to feed the masses. The media, film, TV and storytelling have mysterious powers in their ability to affect us subconsciously (some of us like to think consciously too) and to influence the world’s perception of us. But it seems multicultural Australia is starting to find its voice. The newer generations are here with dynamic opinions they aren’t afraid to share. As more move into adulthood and more opinions and views enter the public arena, it’s being made clear: The erasure of diversity is not okay.
These generations consist of people who have grown up with friends and colleagues from different backgrounds, modern families, second-generation immigrants, many who were born and raised here, and are now able to provide a voice for their parents and elders. My parents came as refugees in the late ’70s in the wake of the Vietnam War. English was their second language and their focus was to rebuild their lives here. Many migrants in similar situations would have found it difficult to add to the commentary of social debate.
Growing up, I had a markedly different childhood that of my parents. Born and raised in Wollongong, I attended the local primary school, high school and university; what could be called a standard Australian upbringing. There were always kids from other backgrounds in school with me, and it was only on rare occasions that I felt like being Asian was a thing. Interestingly, it has never been comparable to the segregation I have felt working professionally in the industry, where my race has always been the number one point of focus. The majority of roles I have played or auditioned for seem to need to explain why the Asian is there. They are often tokenistic, stereotyped, and supporting roles.
Credit where credit’s due: There is headway being made in the Indigenous sector. Australia Council, the NITV channel, the Belvoir Theatre and the Balnaves Foundation are a few examples of initiatives generated to support Indigenous stories and creators. There has been a range of recent shows including Redfern Now, Black Comedy and The Sapphires, which have returned much success, which has in turn led to more opportunities for Indigenous content to be made.
It has also paved opportunities for Indigenous performers to be cast in other projects that are not just Indigenous-focused. Colourblind casting, here we come! The same can’t be said on the improvement of diversity, which in general terms, hasn’t seen as marked a change.
We need to foster our diverse talent; create more opportunities to hone their skills; create more places for them to be seen. I have no problem with quotas. Some consider it a dirty word, fearing that it’s dismissing quality for quantity, but creating clear pockets of opportunities is investing in growth and progress that will heed a valuable return. It creates movement and removes tokenism. Passive responses, where we assume that companies will eventually change their mindset, are not a plan of action, have rarely worked in precedence, and are not a method for progress.
Importantly, we need to celebrate the diversity in this country and not be afraid of it.
Growing up, I spent a large part feeling like I needed to be as less Asian as possible to fit in. I know that this was a common feeling among my ethnic friends; it is so engrained in our culture that a lot of people from diverse backgrounds don’t find the lack of diversity in the media a problem. It has become so normalised.
It’s inherently wrong and we should retch at the fact that it has become so.
A large part of what makes this nation great is its cultural richness, combining a manifold of different traditions and beliefs that contribute to our democracy. It needs to be recognised. Embraced. Celebrated.
If this attitude is circulated, anything can change in any amount of time. Don’t stop the voices; don’t stop the conversation; don’t stop fighting for change.
For where there is hard work, there will be reward.