The Spice Girls vs The Two Mos: Racisim on reality TV
Who's saying what
It was only last year that Clem Bastow wrote a most insightful piece for TheVine bemoaning the whiteness of Australian TV. It seems little has changed. Perhaps the issue is, as one friend opined, that the numbers reflect the demographics, and people of ethnic backgrounds just need to get their butts on TV.
However, in the absence of a diversity of voices, we know that, for now: (a) Australian TV is not reflective of Australia's cultural mix (not counting SBS, which is essentially the UN of television); and (b) when non Anglos do tend to pop up on TV, it’s usually on reality shows. The end result, for some contestants, is a particularly vile brand of abuse.
Cue the latest series of MKR, a show that I’m admittedly not a fan of. It was hard to ignore the kerfuffle that was being made about two Indian contestants, aka the Spice Girls. While we all know reality TV contestants are meant to be annoying, these women were apparently a more insidious breed, so much so that, according to them, not only are they being rejected by their own ethnic community, Australians think they’re “a-holes”. They’ve actually gotten death threats. Over a cooking show.
The interesting thing about it was the focus on their ethnicity - a sample of the Twitter vitriol ran along the lines of “those Indian bitches are going”. You know, as opposed to your garden variety misogynistic abuse, their Indian-ness was worth noting.
And this is the key thing. While it's easy to see how hate filters online, it's not so easy to understand why someone with a non-Anglo background is served a particularly nasty strain of hatred.
In the absence of a more diverse dramatic and comedic fictional TV world, reality shows are the key access point for people of non-Anglo backgrounds.
I recently heard whispers that the producers of Channel 7’s new show The Mole were desperate to recruit a woman in a headscarf for its new season, perhaps following on from the extraordinary success of Amina El-Shafei on Masterchef last year (who, incidentally, despite being a fan favourite, didn’t escape abuse in online forums either). Rumour has it they’ve managed to recruit a male Muslim, which won’t be the same, especially if he can’t play. But so long as we get lots of camera pans to man bowing in prayer, we’re sweet.
If it’s true, I’m genuinely curious about the intention of the producers - are they just trying to mix things up to appeal to a wider, mixed ethnicity audience? Or is there more a currency of tokenism at play? (Perhaps it’s a mixture of both.)
While the cynic in me suspects it’s for shock value, rather than a commitment to diversity, it really doesn’t matter. The more pertinent fact is that Australian TV is starting to reflect Australia’s cultural and religious diversity, even if we have to endure the real life versions of them in constrained face-to-camera monologues.
According to Mohammed Elleissy, one half of the very popular ‘two Mos’ team on the 2011 The Amazing Race, and the first practicing Muslims to really be featured on an Australian reality TV show, this entertainment format is the most accessible one for non-Anglo people with TV aspirations.
With an acting profession that is traditionally very white, Elleissy says reality TV will help Australia out of its whiteness, because it’s not reliant on acting ability.
“The overwhelming majority of characters that are written for Australian TV are written as white characters, I know that from my actor friends. But also ... the pool of non-white actors [is] obviously not as substantial,” he tells TheVine.
Though he does perceive “a very Anglocentric world view,” he says casting agents and producers need more diversity in the audition line-up.
"I do think they need to change their mindset, but I just think it’s easier for them to cast on reality TV as opposed to fiction, because I think the writers just write them as white characters.”
As for his own reality TV experience, Elleissy says that, despite the ultimate emphasis on the boys’ religion, Elleissy didn’t enter with the intention to change perceptions.
“I wanted to see the world. I wanted to be on The Amazing Race. My original intention was to go for what is an incredible, once in a lifetime experience,” he says.
But it became clear at the start line that the producers were pushing the “Muslim” angle.
“When I got there, it became very clear to me that part of my ‘story’, I guess from the producers’ point of view, was that I was Muslim. And that was actually quite a bit of a shock at the start, because I was just going about auditioning. And when I auditioned, I did it as myself.”
Elleissy says he was asked a little about being Muslim and praying, but he considered it idle chatter.
“Then when we were at the starting line it was, ‘well, have you brought your prayer mat?’
The show’s ads sold the boys as being the one team that would have to stop and pray, he says.
“And the reality was, the prayers never ever were an issue."
“So of course it’s about selling advertising, but they did it to everybody, it wasn’t just us. The models, they were just as ‘dehumanised’ ... I think at least they could justify it to themselves with, well, they’re doing something good and noble, and in the end they did actually.”
But he applauds the show for including them, whatever the intention.
“I have to say kudos to them for doing that, because it was definitely the first time that Muslims were portrayed in a human way. So I think they had very noble intentions, but it caught me off guard.”
As for the public response, Elleissy says the duo were a fan favourite and escaped abuse on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. Rather, this being the Internet (and a hotbed of criticism) the guys were attacked for being overweight.
“A lot of people would say, ‘oh they’re fat guys, they’re a waste of space.’”
The latter was a common complaint from disgruntled people who spent months training and preparing for auditions.
But the Muslim jibes didn’t come.
“One of the villains on the show was a Greek guy who sort of screamed at his girlfriend, and no one ever mentioned his ethnicity. So I think if he was Muslim then he definitely would’ve copped it,” Elleissy says.
He says there’s a “big discussion” occurring in the TV industry about whether the positive, feel good feedback that they’ve been aiming for in the last couple of years has met its expiry date.
“They sort of say that reality TV goes up in trends. So sometimes the bitchy, bad thing is what draws viewers, and then sometimes the feel good, nice thing draws them,” he says,
“I think they’re in the process of switching over. So I wouldn’t be surprised if they started to get really bad Muslims or anyone else on TV.”
Whatever the next phase of reality TV, the two Mos are an example of how diversity can work - deliver interesting people who, despite the “difference” hook, can change mindsets.
Elleissy says their participation made a difference to perceptions, which, given they were just being themselves - showing character not cartoonish caricatures of what people think they should be - this is a significant thing.
“The reaction was wonderful,” Elleissy says, citing warm welcomes at a Jewish school and a small country town in Victoria.
“I felt very, very proud about that. If they asked me to go again and pray 10 times a day, I would do it. It’s such a necessity for what we currently have in our media landscape.”