Why do First Nations characters still need to justify their place on Aussie TV shows?

Sancia Ridgeway is a proud Gumbaynggirr woman living on Gadigal land. She studies a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communications and is passionate about art, design and social justice.

Representation of First Nations peoples in Australian media is an important topic, and we need to talk about it. For me, the key question is: What makes something a good representation of First Nations people vs what makes something tokenistic?

The thing that often rubs me the wrong way is how First Nations characters are introduced to us in TV shows. I’ve noticed that we seem to feel the need to straight-up address and identify that a character is Indigenous. This is usually done through harmful stereotypes, using plot, setting and costuming to make it obvious. It’s as if this is the only way to give these characters context or to justify their place in the story.

I’m often left wondering what the point of this is. Why does the audience need to know that a character is Indigenous? And why can’t they exist in the show just like the other characters do?

I think it’s important to have First Nations characters that feel authentic and relatable to Mob, and don’t just serve a tokenistic purpose in the narrative. Good thing is, there’s been some great recent examples in Australian TV shows that actually nail it.

How Heartbreak High gets representation right

Heartbreak high cast

Sasha, Harper and Missy from Heartbreak High. Source: Netflix.

Heartbreak High (2022) is a reboot of the original 1990s show, now set in 2022. It dives into classic ‘coming of age’ themes such as sex, romantic relationships and friendships. It’s also about discovering who you are and who you want to be.

When it comes to representation, this show’s a big hit for me – especially with its characters Missy and Malakai. These two First Nations characters are introduced to us the same way the other characters are. Their race isn't addressed right away, and they exist and grow naturally alongside the other characters.

The show also looks at issues that affect young First Nations peoples, such as racism, police brutality and inequality. But it’s not their whole story. And I love how the characters have room to make mistakes as they figure out who they are (which I feel isn’t always a privilege given to First Nations characters).

James Majoos, who is of South African descent and non-binary, plays the character of Darren Rivers. In an interview with SBS, they sum it up nicely: ‘I think what's most interesting in terms of the representation is beyond the skin colour or beyond the sexuality; it's getting to see these people living out regular lives rather than just dealing with racial politics or sexual politics.’

‘It's diverse, but our racial backgrounds or our sexuality or our identities are the least interesting things about all of these characters and us as people,’ Majoos adds.

Another thing the show got right was the language they used. It felt real and authentic to us as Mob, and I think really caught the attention of many young First Nations people.

In an interview with the National Indigenous Times, Sherry-Lee Watson (who plays Missy) says she was able to chat with the show’s creator, Hannah Carroll Chapman, about changing a line in the show where Missy was supposed to say, ‘Oh, she's too busy worrying about Dusty's “D”’ (referring to ‘sex’) to ‘budhoo’ (replacing the word ‘D’). She said that this helped make her character feel ‘authentic’.

I think it’s important to create this kind of safe space for First Nations actors to give advice and work together with non-indigenous directors, creators and producers because it will go a long way in creating First Nations characters who feel nuanced and relatable.

How Barons makes the complex normal

Barons cast

Reg and Snapper from Barons. Source: ABC iview.

Barons (2022) is another pretty good example of an Australian TV show with a complex and layered First Nations character.

First Nations actor Hunter Page-Lochard plays the character of Reg, and gives an amazing performance showing the hardships Reg faces in a small coastal NSW town during the 1970s.

Having starred in heaps of Australian TV shows, Page-Lochard has spoken out before about the need for the Australian media to represent First Nations characters in a more meaningful way.

In an interview with NITV, he says: ‘Being able to do roles where you're not Indigenous, I feel, is the next step to showcase a lot of our great talent that we have within the Indigenous industry.’

This is called ‘colour-blind casting’, which NITV explains is ‘the concept of actors from diverse backgrounds being chosen in roles where the character is not defined by race or ethnicity’.

Page-Lochard is right when he says that this is the way forward, because the more we see diverse characters represented in the media, the less uncommon and shocking it will actually be.

Following in the footsteps

While there’s still far to go, it’s great to see shows like Heartbreak High and Barons paving the way with positive and realistic representations of First Nations characters. It’s really inspiring for me, too, and it’s what I want to see more of – characters who aren’t defined by their minority and diversity labels, or whose stories aren’t defined by hardships and stereotypes.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the issues they face – such as police violence, higher rates of incarceration and discrimination – should be ignored. It’s more about looking beyond this to create nuanced, complex and relatable characters for Mob.

Australia has a big opportunity here. And I think if we can follow in the footsteps of shows such as Heartbreak High and Barons, we can be a real leader in creating timeless and relatable stories.

What can I do now?

  • Check out our Yarn Up collection for stories from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

  • Read this story that Sancia wrote in high school about what her culture and family mean to her.


Cultural identity