TV is sometimes an unforgiving medium. Partly this is because as a society we’re pretty harsh in our judgment of people who appear on it. So when Gerard Healy’s brain explodes during AFL pre-game coverage or when Eddie McGuire’s brain explodes during AFL post-game coverage, we mock, even condemn their actions as unprofessional. When Jeremy Clarkson makes a racist remark on TV that isn’t even live to air, we rightly take him to the cleaners. But somehow in the midst of all this criticism Chris Lilley gets to make a show in brownface and for the most part we bicker amongst ourselves about whether it’s better than Ja’mie Private School Girl.
For the sake of argument let’s assume that Jonah from Tonga is the funniest show on TV this year, and that Lilley’s decision to ‘brown up’ rather than playing Jonah without make-up, or casting another actor in the role was taken to further his incredibly astute and nuanced critique of Australian racism.
The main issue here is the lack of outrage over his decision to appear in brownface, regardless of motivation, that would seem to be consistent with our standard reaction to anything even vaguely controversial appearing on TV. We are after all the same society that has been having a reasonably earnest discussion about racism in Game of Thrones.
Maybe Chris Lilley has passed some threshold in our perception of racism, a kind of ‘can’t see the forest for the racial stereotypes’ situation. Are we are so used to examining the half-said, implied racism that we have sadly become somewhat accustomed to that we simply fail to register when something is this obvious?
Regardless of the content of the show, simply by choosing to wear ‘racial drag’ Lilley has put his work in the company of pieces of entertainment history as regrettable as the Al Jolson Minstrel Show. Yet for the most part we seem at peace with one of Australian TV’s favorite sons doing something that we would not, and have not let anyone else get away with.
The Red Faces blackface incident was only in 2009, and obviously that was a different level of racism entirely – but we’ve hardly become more tolerant of racism in the intervening years so explain to me the difference that justifies the polar shift in levels of outrage. We even managed to muster a reasonable reaction when Lilley wore blackface to play S.mouse in 2011’s Angry Boys. What has changed?
All Lilley’s characters are figures of ridicule. They are all deeply flawed human beings that the audience spends most of their time laughing at, not with, and even when it comes to Jonah this is to make a deeper point about the society in which we live, but there are structural problems with portraying a racial stereotype in this way.
Because racial drag is a genre as much as it is a type of make-up or wardrobe, it connects any performer that utilities it with a long, incredibly offensive history of racial exploitation for the purposes of mass entertainment. Many will argue that Lilley’s intent is not simply to profit from racial stereotyping but to criticise Australia’s comfortable racism through satire; that this is the point of all his work. Whether or not this is true, Lilley risks a lot with Jonah, and not for himself. At best, he manages to reach a small portion of the community with a message deeper than ‘people who talk differently to us are funny’; at worst he is actively perpetuating a racial stereotype.
I don’t think we are a nation that is tolerant of racism, especially when it is openly displayed in the media – our track record would certainly support this – but at the same time we seem to have let this slip through the net of public criticism a little too lightly. Of course Lilley should be allowed to be as controversial as he wants to be, but just because somebody is controversial for a living does not mean we quietly chuckle and say ‘Oh Chris…’ when he steps over the line.