When I was in my final year of acting at The National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), I took off my earrings, rolled up my sleeves and screamed down the third-year design students, “Do any of you own a brown water colour pencil?” I’d had enough of going to presentations and seeing sketches of white women with extended limbs and straight hair wearing costumes that were meant for me, costumes that were meant for my body. “My skin is brown, I have an afro, short legs and a large sweet round butt – so all of y’all can kiss it!” That was probably the first time I challenged white supremacy inside of the Australian theatre world, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Back then, in 2001, I believed Australia was on the verge of a revolution: a cultural revolution that would see actors of colour all over the TV, in films, and on stage. I thought I was doing those design cats a favour and preparing them for the future. Now it’s 2016, and…
‘The Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity’ analyzed 109 major studio films from 2014 and 305 “scripted, first-run TV and digital series” spanning thirty-one networks and streaming services from September 2014 to August 2015, according to AP. The study considered over 11,000 speaking characters for gender, race, ethnicity and LGBT status; around 10,000 directors, writers and series creators, along with over 1,500 executives, were also examined. Ultimately, the report determined that “the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed.”
— Ryan Reed, ‘Media Study Finds Hollywood Excludes Minorities, Women, LGBT People’, Rolling Stone, 22nd February 2016
And… I was wrong.
The Australian stats are less easy to come by, but if my TV-watching game of ‘People of Colour Bingo’ is anything to go by, I can say that diversity in Australian content is similar to, if not worse than, that of the States. (You should play at home: just shout “BINGO” when you see a person of colour in an Australian TV show or film. It’s a really hard game.)
As a chubby brown kid growing up in Dandenong, Victoria, my life revolved around the television. Athletic kids might have been riding horses in the back paddock or skateboarding down the excellent hill next to the park, but I was sitting in front of the box. I watched everything, from Saturday morning cartoons to Sunday matinée movies, from Hey Dad…! to Home and Away. TV was my centre. Kylie and Jason’s wedding stopped the neighbourhood, as did anything Princess Diana was involved in, and the special launches of Michael Jackson film clips gave me full body thrills. As I hit adolescence I loved Press Gang and Degrassi Junior High but also 90210 and Melrose Place. Holidays gave me the opportunity to pick up on Bold and the Beautiful and all the glorious talk shows. (FYI for the twenty-somethings reading this, back then you had to plan your life around the TV guide in order to ensure you caught your favourite shows. Before the Internet Super Highway—as we used to call it—there were stiff channels with even stiffer programming.)
Australian content was almost exclusively white, with the occasional black guy from the UK doing an appearance on Neighbours or Trisha Goddard reading The 7.30 Report. For some reason people of colour with English, American or even French accents were permissible. I don’t recall seeing a black person with an Aussie accent until I was about fourteen and Uncle Ernie Dingo brought his swag (I’m talking about his incredibly dashing gait) to The Great Outdoors. I had no interest in travel, but I loved watching Ernie. The other brown man that became a household name was Kamahl, but I always felt unsure about how to view him. He was wonderfully handsome, a beautiful singer and I’m pretty sure most of my Aunties were crushing on him, but the way the other performers teased him confused me. Hey Hey It’s Saturday was an extremely popular show, and Daryl Sommers earned Gold Logies as he racially abused one of the only real talents on it… So. Very. Gross. Australia.
The whiteout on screen was a constant reminder of what everyone should aspire to be like, and look like. As a kid I got swept up in Aussie movies like The Shiralee and BMX Bandits. I had to pretend I could relate to all these white kids and their families. Kate Richie lived around the corner from me and I often daydreamed about swapping lives with her. Imagine if I rocked up on the set of Home and Away in 1990 and said I was the new Sally? Sally was a foster kid, so she could have been anything – why not a mixed-race South African/Australian girl? Why not, I ask? Back then I cultivated a strong mental ability to cut out and collage my brown face onto my favourite white characters’ bodies. Frankly, my face was easy to paste, but I never quite got the hang of getting my chubby thighs and bubble butt into their jeans. So, like many of my Thai, Filipino, Koori and South African Australian friends, I turned to Black American culture to see myself, or at least see characters that shared my pigmentation.
Black kids being funny, black kids being cute, black kids being emotional and black kids talking about their hair, school, love and discrimination – now that was my happy place. I loved Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes (yes, that how they spelt ‘Different’ – because, you know, ghetto!). I loved Webster even though he was such an obvious Arnold rip-off, but most, most, most of all I loved The Cosby Show. Four whole black daughters and a black Mum and Dad in my lounge room on a weekly basis – I was in heaven. Rudy Huxable and I were the exact same age, and it felt like we were best friends with so many shared experiences. The fashion and hairstyles were inspiring, and then there was the entrance of Lisa Bonet into my dreams: my longest lasting girl-crush ever. But more than all of this, I had a TV dad. Dr Huxtable subbed in for my very absent father. I talked to him nightly. We spent time together. We danced. I cracked jokes that he wouldn’t laugh at, which made me laugh all the more. I was obsessed with Bill Cosby. I watched documentaries on him, I cut out magazine pictures of him and once or twice I even wished on my birthday candles that I’d wake up and he would be my dad instead.
It was January 2015 when I first heard that Bill Cosby had drugged and raped a large number of women throughout his career.
I watched the interview with Keisha Knight Pulliam where she gives support to her TV dad. “This is not the Bill Cosby I knew,” she said, invalidating the experiences of over fifty women who had been assaulted in the very workplace she shared with the man. Television is so weird, especially the way it shapes our inner most thoughts and beliefs without us even knowing it’s happening. I was so angry with my friend Rudy for protecting that monster. All of the feelings churned up in me and I had to pull my Huxtable fantasy out at the root and burn it. I’ve lost best friends before, there are always better and truer friends out there; but losing Dr Huxable meant that I lost everything. I couldn’t replace my TV dad with anyone else. It’s not like I had multiple black fathers on Neighbours or A Country Practice to sub in.
Recently I was chatting with a friend about all this; she had never thought about it before. She said she didn’t feel particularly represented on the TV either. To her mind, the white women of her age on Offspring or Winners and Losers didn’t really make her feel more visible or validated as a person. I think she thought that was a positive thing, like, “Cheer up, Candy, everything is not centred on race!” I was blown away. To have characters your age, gender identity, colour, sexuality, nationality and ability, using your very same accent, on the telly weekly, and not feel a connection? Well that is just outright privilege! Even glancing a biracial couple on a Commonwealth Bank advert for two seconds leads to a mini party in my soul. The conversation exemplified how invisible privilege is for white folks who’ve never questioned the impact of white supremacy on Australian culture or on their black friends’ lives. The term ‘white supremacy’ shocked her. Explaining the deep, insidious, and destructive nature of exclusion, tokenism, the white male gaze, the white washing of history, the erasure of black female identities, and the burden of stereotypes was as tiring as it sounds. I summed up the problem by quoting my sister: “As a black woman, why do I know more about white men than I know about myself?”
When I guest-hosted on Network Ten’s The Circle in 2012, my eight-year-old niece Nicole became obsessed with the show. She found the episode online and watched it over and over again. Nicky memorised my segments and recited every word to her mum nightly. A couple of years later, I played the incredibly beautiful role of Camae in Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, directed by Todd MacDonald for Queensland Theatre Company. It was a two-hander and I was working across from Pacharo Mzembe, who played Martin Luther King. It was a monumental moment in my career. We performed at QPAC in the Playhouse and all of my friends and family told me it seemed like the role was written for me, a perfect fit. But what shook me to the core (more than anything else) was looking across the stage and seeing an actor with my father’s hair. For the first time in my life I was onstage with a man from the African Diaspora. For the first time in Queensland Theatre Company history, there was a woman from the African Diaspora starring in a lead role. It was 2014.
My niece Nicole is almost in high school and she is amazing. There are still no Aussie families that look like her family on the telly, and main-stage theatre companies still avoid plays that feature more than one or two people of colour in fear of not selling tickets. I still watch more American content than Australian for the same reasons I did as a child. There are a few more shows and miniseries, like The Principal, Cleverman, and The Family Law, that pop up, giving an Aussie brown girl hope, but I am not so naïve as I was in my twenties at NIDA. Nothing will change if it’s left up to the powers that be, because it’s in their best interest to keep everything as it is and to keep their jobs. White supremacy runs the game, so what’s the use of playing? How can we keep pitching and hoping for opportunities from folks who can’t even see us? We need to change the game. What writers, directors, producers and designers of colour have is a rapidly growing multiracial population that are yearning to see themselves, and a massive gap in the market.
Revolution is rarely painless. It’s always best to come willingly, and with a set of brown water colour pencils, when seismic change is afoot.
Candy Bowers is a writer, actor and comedian. Her particular passion is hip-hop and spoken word theatre. She is best known for creating Sista She, Australian Booty, Hot Brown Honey and MC Platypus and Queen Koala’s Hip Hop Jamboree. She is currently working her latest hip-hop theatre work One the Bear at Campbelltown Arts Centre and hustling to get Twelve, a soul musical from the streets (after Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) on screen.