Essentialism, ABC’s Black Comedy & Channel 7’s Sunrise

I am honoured to be on the ancestral lands of the Whadjuk Noongar people and I acknowledge the First Australians as the traditional custodians of this continent whose cultures are among the oldest living cultures in human history. I pay respect to the Elders of the community and extend my recognition to their descendants who are present.  

Established as one of the great Indigenous Australian television comedies, Black Comedy’s segment titled Wake Up to Yourself creates parodies that cleverly reflect back to its viewers complex and pressing issues via stereotypes, Othering, culturism and essentialism within Australian society. As a direct satire of Channel Seven’s morning television show Sunrise, in Wake Up To Yourself we see the role reversal of Indigenous personalities acting  stereotypically white as they bring prejudiced television into the public eye (Shelper, 2018,  17:19). Sunrise’s panel of white media personalities comment on news, pop culture and celebrities, sometimes detouring into ill-informed and uneducated political discussions, of which Sunrise often make headlines for, due to their insensitive, racist and disrespectful views (Wilson, 2018). Indigenous Australian’s are repeatedly under-represented, often silenced and completely excluded from discussions that should include them, as was the case when Sunrise recently called for a second Stolen Generation (Ballard, 2018, 0:58). Television programs have the ability to alter audiences’ views, and Sunrise and Wake Up To Yourself, when juxtaposed, show the essentialist attitudes pervasive on morning breakfast shows on Australian television and how media and communication are mediated by cultural context. 

Essentialism attempts to neatly classify people who are different from ourselves into uniform  groups (Holliday, Kulllman, & Hyde, 2017). It looks for homogeneity for ease of use, as a  construct for social, racial and political classification. Black Comedy ridicules the essentialist  nature of shows like Sunrise right from the start of their segment stating in a sarcastic tone,  “Here at Wake Up To Yourself we take racism very seriously. We’ve heard what you’ve been  saying and folks, we’ve been listening. So much so that we’ve invited Verity onto the show  to be a guest on our expert panel segment. Verity is white and today is all about Verity.” (Shelper, 2018, 17:19). Language choice is highly important as it makes and shares meaning.  The emphasis here is placed firmly on differences (Eide, 2010) and the language used is  essentialist and reductive because the mention of her whiteness is not required. While the  hosts of Sunrise may have had good intentions, in their attempts to categorise others based on  membership to a particular race, essentialism becomes an evident thread of the discourse, dominated by condescending reductionism. Their attempts at non-essentialism in acknowledging viewer feedback and offering a placement for the under-represented person, as Sunrise sometimes does, still ultimately comes across as patronising and inauthentic

because of the context to which is it presented. Even their efforts at empathy appear as contrived, forced platitudes lacking any real humanity or authenticity, as is common in  morning television shows. Wake Up To Yourself may have exasperated the presenters’ approach but in it they have left no room for misinterpretation: morning television consists of  underqualified opinions that cause much offense and harm to the wider community through  its essentialism. 

Essentialism also obstructs “negotiation of identity between people” (Holliday et al., 2017,  pg. 263), and one way of doing this is through silencing others. This happens in three ways.  Firstly, Wake Up To Yourself continually revokes the platform for Verity to respond to their questions and she is unable to shape her identity through her responses. Secondly, the all white panel on Sunrise raised Indigenous issues yet refrained from inviting an Indigenous  Australians perspective. Thirdly, Sunrise censored protesters outside their recording studio  with stock footage to hide the outrage they were responsible for igniting (Davidson, 2018). A  spokesman for Seven said they “Respect the right to protest as much as we respect the right  of free speech” (Davidson, 2018), but it is clear that “Aboriginal exclusion extends a colonial  “gaze” on Aboriginal issues and ultimately Aboriginal representation” (Suneeti, 2008). Media shapes our behaviour toward people of other races, and how they are represented (or  under-represented) effects our attitudes, values and points of view. Hall said, “There is no  escape from the politics of representation” (Hall, 1993, pg. 111). Seven and Sunrise will  remain biased, essentialist and devoid of an objective view without proper recognition of an  Indigenous Australian presence and voice. Without firmer action, essentialism on television will continue unabated. 

Stereotyping can be seen as formulating prototypes in its attempts to understand ‘foreign  cultures’ and people (Holliday et al., 2017). In addition to the blatant gender stereotyping of  women in Wake Up To Yourself (Shelper, 2018, 17:46), the show reveals and dismantles stereotypes by using humour, but also negatively reinforces those stereotypes by its very  existence. Media can either spread prejudice or challenge it (Silverstone & Georgiou, 2005) and Wake Up To Yourself does both. Morning television shows are not known for quality reporting, but rather as sensationalised story making, often taken out of context and lacking  balanced viewpoints to only reinforce harmful stereotypes and imagery (Ellis & Cole, 1993), as Sunrise does. Sunrise contains stereotyping because it has assumed that all Indigenous  children are being neglected or abused (Meade, 2019). The presenters are clearly unaware that during the Stolen Generation years, “Simply being an Aboriginal entitled removal” (Haebich as cited by Sherwood, 2000) and are exasperating a stereotype that sees all  Indigenous Australian’s as lacking parenting skills. Media has the ability to shape our opinions, perceptions and behaviour toward others, contributing either to social cohesion or  social disorder (Dandy & Pe-Pua, 2015). Therefore, responsibility must be placed on the  media presenters who spread misinformed racial commentary and the networks that allow  them. Building onto these imagined characteristics is damaging to Indigenous Australian’s  wellbeing and in its raising may activate past and present trauma, anxiety and panic.  

Culturism is a construction that imagines characteristics and uses them to define a person (Holliday et al., 2017) and is evident when Wake Up To Yourself’s host asks, “Brendon,  Verity is a white woman and you’re a black man. How does it feel sitting next to her?” He  responds, “I’ve got to say it does feel a bit strange. I’ve never been so close to a white woman  before and I’m hoping she doesn’t press any charges” as he puts his arm around her (Shelper,  2018, 18:16). This scene brings to light an attitude by the dominant culture that attempts inclusion but creates culturism and Othering because race and proximity are stipulated as characteristics that create division between the two parties. As some white people claim, “If I  can tolerate (and especially if I enjoy and value) proximity, claims of proximity maintain I  must not be racist; a “real” racist cannot stand to be near people of colour ” (diAngelo, 2019).  There are many misconceptions of what it means to be racist, most of them assembled on incorrect attributes assigned to others. Education on racism requires widespread application  to reveal the veiled Othering and white privilege that dominates Western minds. 

Othering is reductive and diminishes the foreign other to less than they are. Holliday (2016)  stated that Othering is strengthened by the portrayals of others we have been raised with and  ‘fed’ by the media. It is often displayed as wielding power over others (Holliday et al., 2017) as we see in the following closing statement in Wake Up To Yourself, “It has been an honour having you on the show today Verity. You’ve done such a good job representing yourself and  white people. I think I speak for all us when I say we’ll be thinking about your insights for a  long time to come.” (Shelper, 2018, 19:26). Phillips (2010) explains essentialism as attaching  characteristics to everyone in a specific category, and Holliday et al. (2017) describes Othering and culturism as reducing a group to a predefined cultural label, as is done here with  Verity, as she is more than just a white person. Othering has also arisen as a power play, evident in the language used that comes across as an afterthought in order to appease the numerous complaints made regarding the Commercial Television Code of Practice, as  Sunrise is often found in breach of (NITV Staff Writer, 2018). Wake Up To Yourself successfully shows that any attempt to amalgamate ideologies based on race proves terribly  misleading and inaccurate, and although media can be powerful, the audience is privy to  forged altruism. 

Media has the “power to promote or retard change, dependent upon who is in control of the  image-making process” (Ellis & Cole, 1993), and when constructions have been formed by  viewers they are difficult to modify (Guba and Lincoln 1989 as cited by Sherwood). Stern  (2004) did state however that when relying on comedic relief, the viewer decides what is and  isn’t acceptable, and in its controversy, television programs like Wake Up to Yourself can  advocate change (Hodgetts & Stolte, 2009), and thereby encourage critical thinking. 

Increasing representation of Indigenous Australian’s on television is a positive step forward  and shows like Black Comedy are vital for this to transpire. Black Comedy has been integral  in creating a society that shows both Australia’s diversity and the foibles that obstruct that  diversity. If commentary on popular television lacks representation of Indigenous  Australian’s and reverts into historical amnesia of the facts, we are only furthering inequality and the colonial shroud we currently exist under. It remains that if we allow prejudice in the  media to continue and let indifference cripple action, we will not see change in our  broadcasts and mindsets. We must be vocal in our support of shows like Black Comedy or of  our distain toward shows like Sunrise in order to create real change.  

Thankfully, the days of Sunrise touting their worldview from a place of privilege without it  being challenged is transitory and is being corrected (Meade, 2019). Shows like Black  Comedy are so important in creating discussion around racial discrimination and now that it’s  series has ended, it is essential that another show along similar lines slips into its place. It is a  real and attainable solution to the inclusion that this country so desperately needs.


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