Here come the Habibs – and recycled racial stereotypes…
On January 7, I saw a posting on Facebook for a new show out in February on Channel 9 called “Here come the Habibs”. With much trepidation, I pressed play – and sat cringing through the 45 second promo. For those who haven’t seen it, the general premise is that an Australian Lebanese family wins the lottery and moves from the lower socio-economic suburb of Lakemba in Sydney’s west to the affluent Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. The promo includes an introduction to the characters – Fou Fou the patriarch is portrayed as something of a slob dressed in a singlet and sandals, his wife Mariam whose physical actions mimic those used in traditional Lebanese dance, their son Toufic the typical “bro” shown lifting weights and who is so stupid he doesn’t know the difference between millionaire and billionaire, and their daughter Layla who is a perfect example of the colonial exotification of Middle Eastern women. Screen Australia provides the following synopsis:
“It’s a second migration for the Habib family, first it was Lebanon to Australia, now Lakemba to Vaucluse. But not everyone is happy to see them, and soon the Habibs find themselves in conflict with their new next door neighbours. The O’Neills are Vaucluse royalty – old money and proud of it. They’re extremely uncomfortable with goats and chickens, shisha pipes and people of Mediterranean appearance, but the Habibs can’t understand what all the fuss is about. One family want to stay, the other family want them gone. Here Come The Habibs brings a fresh comic perspective to multicultural Australia.”
The synopsis alone panders to so many stereotypes and racist ideas that it’s hard not to feel angry:
- Apparently a Lebanese family can only move up the socioeconomic ladder by winning the lottery. The classist rhetoric is incredibly offensive – how hilarious! Lebs in Vaucluse?! That would never happen!
- Goats, chickens and shisha pipes? Yes – because Middle Eastern people commonly have live chickens and goats in suburbia. Look – we’re just a really uncivilized bunch who have no idea! Mind if I start this spit on your front lawn and make a kebab?
- A “fresh comic perspective to multicultural Australia”? Or a rehashing of the same old perpetuated stereotypes?
Deciding to take action, I started a petition and received immediate support, as well as vitriolic backlash. I spent most of the day responding to people and got decidedly tired of repeating myself. This blog is an effort to explain exactly why this show is extremely problematic.
I am a first generation Lebanese Australian. My parents were both born in Lebanon. They met and married here and have lived here most of their lives (my mother’s family immigrated when she was just 3 years old and my father immigrated when he was 21). We are an atheist family though I was baptised as my family’s religious ancestry is Maronite. I have always felt a deep connection to my family’s cultural heritage – the incredible food, the wonderful music, the tradition and importance of family, the storytelling of my father about Lebanon, my mother’s Australianised version of the Lebanese language. Despite this beauty of culture, I have experienced a great deal of racism because of my heritage. Growing up, the standard jokes were about hairiness, garlic smells and funny accents (even though I didn’t and don’t have one). The terms Leb, Lebbo and Wog were bandied about by non-Lebanese as though they were entirely okay. My parents were abused by neighbours who called them wogs, something that was also yelled at me. The unoriginal “go back to where you came from” is also too familiar. These days the most common thing I hear is “You don’t look Lebanese” when actually, I couldn’t look more Lebanese – it’s just that I don’t look like the Lebanese portrayed on Australian television: caricatures and stereotypes pandering to white ideas of what Lebanese people look like. Because most people don’t realise I am of Lebanese descent, I have sat around many tables where friends of friends have launched into racist diatribes about Lebanese people based on perpetuated myths (all gangsters/thugs/uneducated etc). I’ve even sat across from an off duty police officer who declared “I fucking hate the Lebanese. They’re the fucking scum of the earth.” I’ve seen a 15 year old Lebanese Muslim girl cry as she described having the hijab torn off her head whilst on the bus going home from school and another talk about how she’s been spat on. I could go on.
I don’t know what’s funny about any of that – do you?
And that’s what most of the criticism boils down to – my apparent inability to take a joke. The majority of the people who have told me to calm down are white people. People who sit at the very pinnacle of privilege in this country. People who have no idea what it’s like to experience the threat of violence because of the colour of their skin. People who’ve never had racist terms yelled at them from across the street. People who haven’t had to deal with the systematic racism in this country. Apparently, Australia’s humour is that larrikin behaviour of good natured laughing at each other. Well, who’s laughing at white people? On national television? Pandering to stereotypes which further racist experiences?
Those same critics pointed to Chris Lilley, who uses black face and yellow face to play Asian, Tongan and other characters, as a comedian who laughs at everyone equally. This view is so incredibly flawed – once again, he is a white male poking fun at marginalised groups. The fact he pokes fun at white people too doesn’t negate the racist nature of his so-called comedy. For humour to be equal, history has to be equal, and that is, of course, not the case – colonialism, oppression and marginalisation ensure absolute inequality.
“Kath and Kim” is another show used in defence of “Australian” humour – this classist show poked fun at those in lower socio-economic circumstances (as does “Housos”). All this humour is based on othering – making fun of the marginalised, the down trodden, those that are outside the apparent “mainstream” of Australia. And isn’t that the crux of Australian humour? Making fun of anyone not white, not middle class, not “normal”? Is that really the sort of humour we want to promote in this country? Haven’t we moved beyond the 1950s? Beyond “Acropolis Now”, “Wog Boy” and “Fat Pizza”? Are we determined to stay in the past where good fun and good humour must come at the expense of those already marginalised? Already demonised by a society that is currently “Reclaiming” Australia and “celebrating” the Cronulla Riots? The level of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment is so high right now, the timing of this show just beggars belief.
One has to wonder whether it is Australia’s ongoing inability to come to terms with its own genocidal history and present treatment of our first people that encourages this sense of entitlement to make fun of everyone that’s different – i.e. not white.
“Here Come the Habibs” is created by a mix of Lebanese and non-Lebanese people and written and directed predominantly by non-Lebanese people. The production company Jungle Boys, working in conjunction with Channel 9 on this program, is headed by three non-Lebanese people. Many of those defending the show claim that, as there was some involvement by two or three Lebanese people, then the stereotyping humour is okay – it’s absolutely not. It is simply colonialism doing what it does best.
The impetus to make a show that ridicules Middle Eastern people to entertain predominantly white audiences is born from colonialism. Australia has a long history of making fun of Lebanese, Italians, Greeks and other ethnicities on television and in film – just look at Farouk in that much loved Australian film The Castle – portrayed as hairy, speaking in broken English and delivering stereotypical one liners such as “I have friend, come to your house, put bomb under your car and blow you to fucking sky”. The portrayal of Lebanese people and Muslims in the mainstream news further perpetuates stereotypes and often disseminates misinformation. Suspected criminals are described as being of “Middle Eastern appearance” (unless the suspects are white, in which case their ethnicity is not a feature of the crime) and endless images of bearded men outside mosques evidently up to no good constantly appear on our screens. I have the right, as an Australian Lebanese person, to push back against these stereotypes and to call out racism where I see it – in fact, I believe I am obligated to do so. I would do the same if a show written by women was misogynistic even though I’m a woman. I don’t speak on behalf of all Lebanese Australians – and neither do the creators of this program, including the Lebanese ones.
One of the most surprising responses to my petition is the accusation by (white) people that I’m spreading hatred. This actually confuses me no end – my idea of a multicultural society where all are treated equally and with respect comes from a place of absolute love, not hate. I am staggered at people’s willingness to distort my distress and present it as hatred. I can never express in words, even as a poet, what an impact racism has had on my life and those experiences that have carved me into the being I am today. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a show on television that challenged those damaging stereotypes instead of further ingraining them in the psyche of white Australia? I have never seen a true representation of myself in Australian media, only as a caricature. It’s why I turned my television off years ago and became much more selective about what I watched. And for those of you who claim I have no sense of humour, I challenge you instead to rethink your ideas about humour and engage with intelligent, compassionate humour instead – it’s a powerful tool when used well.
Here come the Habibs? There goes progressive Australia.