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soaps and low standards

Do we have low standards?

The past few weeks have had us questioning the popularity (or lack thereof) of Australian film, literature and culture generally. There’s talk of us still subscribing to ‘Cultural Cringe’, and failing to value Australian cultural products.  This analysis has been largely related to film and literature, but does it apply to ‘lower’ forms of expression too? Take, for instance, the day that Aussie soap Neighbours made front page news late last year.

The point of excitement? Producers were delighted to announce the introduction of Ramsay Street’s first Indian family. For those of us who are part of multicultural neighbourhoods in the real world, perhaps it’s a bizarre headline to read.  While the addition of three non-white cast members to a largely white Australian program deserves to be endorsed, how have producers gotten away with failing to address lack of diversity in the last 25 years? Is it network laziness, conservative groups or audience expectation that shapes it?

You know the deal with soaps. Between the evil long lost triplets, plane crashes and radio-active waste threats playing out in TV land at any given time, the appearance of an Indian Australian would, arguably, be entirely un-dramatic. And yet images of that very occurrence make print media because of the historical lack of such characters on screen.

Full disclosure: I have been known to consume these dramas. Doing so is usually a seesaw between mindless procrastination and outraged yelling at the representations of young people. It’s worth noting that most episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away would pass the Bechdel Test. But it can’t be denied that over the last twenty years, such shows have faced real criticism. While other Aussie programs have succeeded, the soaps haven’t been so up with providing different images of race, sexuality, family or disability.

When you talk about serial TV, it can be easy to dismiss it as the backwater of a national acting scene. But Home and Away and Neighbours are sold to much wider international audiences than some of our more auspicious Aussie dramas. As such, they are capturing a national image, even if it is shallow. As several commentators have suggested over the past couple of years, the white/straight/middle class nature of TV has been punctuated by attempts at ‘diversity‘.

The problem is that these have been such token efforts that they betray the very notion of honest attempts at real characters. Until 2012, no long running Australian serial drama had contracted a gay character beyond a guest appearance. Attempts at ‘new faces’ on the scene have at times been equally shallow.

Take, for instance, a 2008 attempted by Neighbours in which a Korean cast member entered as an ‘exchange student’, rather than a teenager of Australian-Asian descent. The tendency to place different characters on the fringes of narratives, or only indulge them for a short time, is arguably counter productive to diversifying the screen.

Are things going to change at all? Reviewers speculated that the introduction of digital channels in Australia may provide more scope for “controversial” soap stories to air outside of main channels. There’s not too much evidence that this is happening, but producers are certainly speaking out more about meaningful change. Not only is Neighbours running this year with their Indian-Australian family, they also are giving their first long-contract gay character romantic story lines throughout the year. It may still seem like poor attempts at improvement, but it does perhaps shift the portrayal of “outsiders” in serial television. It’s a move away from the notion that different races or sexualities are on the outside of Australian lifestyles.

Instead, different identities are being shown to make up the Australian community, as people who have friends and goals. As site SameSame suggested last year, adding an out gay character to a program with a 25 year history of heterosexual characters is an occurrence that you can’t really knock.

Not everyone’s happy though. On occasion, producers of programs like Home and Away have cited pressure of conservative groups as a reason to keep television tame. In 2009 ‘pro family’ groups boycotted a short-lived romance storyline between two female characters. Similarly, the “front page news” around Neighbours‘ new family was provided with more air time when the official website of the program was forced to remove comments from users enraged about the introduction of non-white characters.

These sentiments are no doubt expressed only by the minority of viewers, and networks stamp them out, but how complacent are we in the viewing experience? Progress on these issues is often made at the demands of a consuming audience. An argument can be mounted that we have such low expectations of the genre that changing it seems pointless.

In terms of production values, the soapie scene tends to have a far from stellar reputation. Even so, it contributes to concepts of Australia and informs the TV scene. Is it that we’re too embarrassed about Ramsay St. and Summer Bay to expect some realistic character portrayals? Maybe we are just cringing through the corniness that is their presence on air, barely noticing the worlds that they’re creating.

(Image credit: 1.)

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