Our modern culture is saturated with imagery and how this imagery is presented to us is crucial to the formation of individuals cultural understanding. Stuart Hall (1997) describes representation as how culture interlocks with how things are presented to an audience. He goes further to say that the practices of representation are one of the key processes in the “cultural circuit” (Hall, 1997, pg. 3). The representation of Aboriginal Australians in television has vastly improved both on and off the screen with characters identified as Indigenous Australians at 5 per cent, compared to their proportion of the population (3 per cent) as of 2011. Contrast this with figures in 1992 of no Indigenous actors on screen and only 2 in 1999 (ScreenAustralia, pg 6), this is a major improvement of cultural diversity in Australian television.
However, Indigenous characters were concentrated in fewer programs than characters from European or non-European backgrounds and nearly all programs were aired on SBS or ABC. This is important because it means that although there are more Indigenous actors and characters, they are not widespread throughout main stream media and therefore according to Hall’s theory, effects audience’s cultural understanding of Indigenous Australians.
The problem with a lack of representation is that it can mean misrepresentation, stereotyping and racism. An example of this was published last year in The Australian. The below cartoon by Bill Leak depicts an Aboriginal father with a beer can who can’t remember his son’s name, a hurtful and degrading stereotype that clearly illustrates how main stream media marginalises Indigenous Australians by representing them as incapable of parenthood. This negative sort of representation in main stream media continues to foil Aboriginal advancement. Aboriginal people face shorter life expectancies of up to a decade, make up 50% of all Australian suicides as of 2010 and equate to over a quarter of the adult prison population (2013) despite only making up 2.3% of the adult population. Negative main stream media representation not only shapes cultural understanding by perpetuating stereotypes but also prolongs inequality.
The issue of representation for Aboriginal Australians can not be overcome without overcoming the issue of access to culturally diverse creative goods. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity promotes access to culturally diverse creative goods as a basic human right. However, in Australia, as of 2006, 25% of Indigenous people were living in remote areas of Australia compared to only 2% of non-Indigenous people. It can be hard to access media in remote Australia at all, especially media that is reflective of and relatable to those living in remoteness. Indigenous programming on mainstream television accounts for less than 2 hours per week, or around 1.2% of the total airtime (Ausgov 2016), which is arguably a severe under representation of the indigenous people of Australia and hardly culturally diverse. For Australians cultural understanding of Indigenous people to improve, the diversity of Australia’s media landscape must also improve. It is arguable that when there are few relatable and tangible role models, you ‘can’t be what you can’t see’ and so the “cultural circuit” continues. In the second part of this case study I will explore several organisations and initiatives that have been created to address the under representation of Indigenous Australians in media, as well as access to relatable and relevant media for those living in remote Australia.