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.


  • January 11, 2016 at 11:02 am //

    Well said Candy! It’s ‘funny’ how some entitled privileged (white) people feel like they need to tell you, that, because they don’t feel like this show oppresses (brown) people like you, you shouldn’t take offence. You’ve nailed it on how corrosive and perpetual white privilege is in Australia and how racial stereotypes in the mass media vilify and demonise an entire culture without understanding the beauty and diversity of said culture.

    Australia is a beautiful melting pot of wonderful diasporas that enrich it and creates opportunities for engaging with so many beautiful cultural traditions and cuisines.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason and reality in a sea of brainless ethnocentric TV stereotypes.

  • January 11, 2016 at 7:06 pm //

    Hi, I totally agree with all you said, and for these producers to bring out such a show given the present tensions is negligent, irresponsible to the nations state of affairs and is another form of racially vilifying a marginalised group. It’s funny though most marginalised groups have the most richest cultures, and what do these white people have, to keep thier superiority they try have a laugh, which shows level of intelligence and racist intent, the verdict show was an absolute disgrace as well!

  • January 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm //

    Brilliant blog, and exactly what I have felt when seeing the previews for it. It just made me literally cringe and feel small and demoralized inside myself – so I can only imagine that’s how it would make our Lebanese friends feel!

    I don’t want this trash on my TV, perpetuating more horrible stereotypes and people laughing AT the Lebanese community, not WITH them. It’s insulting on so many levels.

    I have signed the petition, although I doubt it will stop them showing it. Here’s hoping no one watches and it gets cancelled. Good to know at least a few hundred people see this for what it is!

  • January 13, 2016 at 12:33 am //

    Strength and power let the truth be heard Candy Royalle .
    You are absolutely right and thank you for educating so many and leaving us with a choice to make .

  • January 13, 2016 at 3:39 pm //

    I completely agree that this show will ne awful and also thought about how racist it was.
    But, I offer this thought which came to me as I was reading your comment.
    Screen Australia’s quote ‘one family wants to stay, the other wants them gone’ is actually a massively relevant theme in modern day, past day, future day Australia, Europe, Asia, Mars.
    It’s the theme of accepting someone different than yourself into your world, accepting them for their difference, and dealing with the fear that someone might take what is ‘yours’.
    The role of comedy is to turn a mirror on ourselves so that we can see what we are doing wrong.
    I for one definitely think Australia is doing the ‘accepting someone different to me’ wrong – take any general position that breaks the issue into us versus them: refugees, immigrants, Indigenous issues, gay marriage…all of it.
    The way comedy can do this mirror turning is by making caricatures of the people it’s pointing fun out. Obviously nobody – Lebanese included, has freaking goats in suburbia.
    It would seem that ALL the people in this show are heavily caricatured -including the White people who I’m gathering are going to be inherently unliveable – and perhaps it is going to make a point of acceptance out of all of it.

    Having said that, the show looks horribly crass and I will be avoiding!

    • January 14, 2016 at 10:43 am //

      I hear what you’re saying, the problem is that the characters are so stereotyped and playing to old stereotypes that have been proven to breed racism in the past. What would properly developed, nuanced characters look like in a comedy? Why this ugly stereotyping and racist crap? We can laugh at ourselves, but white people laughing at minority groups is hugely problematic.

  • January 14, 2016 at 11:36 am //

    I agree! If nothing else, ignoring the racism problem, the show is formulaic and boring. What a treat it would be to have a program with characters that are complex and meaty themes to explore.

    Not ignoring the racism problem, for a fine piece of comedy or art, finding that grey area that is so difficult – being able to offend us enough to try and shift our perspective on ourselves without becoming outright offensive.

    Of course a network program that is trying to please it’s advertisers and turn a profit is not going to attempt to deliver a program like that…stick,to formulas, and generate profit.

    The show that is using racial stereotypes to try and help its white viewers realise different is good instead achieves convincing minorities that white bougouis are pricks (though convincingly so, within delivery of the trailer only)

    Australian tv has far to go.

  • January 15, 2016 at 7:23 pm //

    Have you seen Kath and Kim?

  • January 16, 2016 at 5:01 pm //

    The show is a disgrace and will do more harm in our Country where integration is not working at all. To portray a Family behaving in this manner, while ignoring the Peace of the neighborhood in whatever location shows total disrespect for our Country and her native people and Culture.

  • January 22, 2016 at 12:01 am //

    No excuse for the tirade of abuse being directed at you for your views. I don’t happen to agree with you (yet!) about wanting this show to be cut but I value your opinion based on your lived experiences.
    Personally, I want to see the first few episodes to judge whether it’s just a parade of racist stereotypes or whether the true intent is to hold a mirror up to mindless, ignorant racism (the more malevolent kind is probably immune to literary persuasion) to highlight how ridiculous are the reactions to the “otherness” of ethnic cultures.
    I won’t judge this show based on the promos as they are almost always a naked grab for hype, eyeballs and click bait for the premiere, but I can already see a lot of opportunities to expose the unthinking stereotyping by the old school neighbours to show them up. Comedy and ridicule through hyperbole seems to be the major weapon here but time will tell if that’s what is really going on.
    So I say, air the show but let’s keep an eye out for the promotion of racism and not the exposure of it.

  • January 24, 2016 at 5:29 pm //

    Nail hit on head!