Saturday, October 10

While we're arguing about blackface . . .

Most Australians couldn't see what the fuss was about when a nostalgic revival of the Hey Hey, It's Saturday television variety show ended in a bitter debate.

So what's wrong with five performers wearing fuzzy-wuzzy wigs and vaudeville blackface in a skit where the sixth performer wore whiteface to sing and shuffle a Michael Jackson number? And those bloody Yanks – what right have they got to be so angry at a bit of good old fashioned humour on television?

Political correctness gone mad? Well, not really.

Imagine an Australian shirtmaker advertising its products by putting them on an Aboriginal man who's saying, “Mine tinkit they fit.” Even the letters page of The Australian would be full of angry protests (I'd hope).

The long-running “Mine tinkit they fit” campaign began with a depiction of two indigenous Australians wearing what may be mission hand-me-downs, but later ads depicted the black Australian as a more satorially elegant.

I've taken the images of the Pelaco shirt ads from this history web page. The page is worth a look – historian Richard Broome describes how he tracked down these images, which were familiar to my generation of Australians in our younger days, and also how he discovered the identity of the indigenous Australian, "Mulga Fred",  who was the model for the ads.

As a young man, Fred was a successful buckjumper – a rodeo competitor who tries to stay on an angry, bucking horse – and he must have been a dashing and athletic figure. This photo, and the information on the history web page, suggest he became a fringe dweller in white-dominated country towns.

Today, any journalist would be wary of jokes based on racial or ethnic stereotypes – Abo jokes, Ikey jokes or Paddy jokes, or, if you're Indian, Sardarji jokes. I do, however, regret the disappearance of this hard-drinking layabout from our newspaper comic strips:

Today, it seems few would run Reg Smythe's Andy Capp cartoon strip, drawn for the London Daily Mirror since 1957 and syndicated in newspapers around the world. (Although political correctness did get to Andy – the cigarette stub perpetually on his lower lip disappeared in 1983 and he became a non-smoker.)

The image is from here and you'll find a brief history of the cartoon strip here.

Perhaps I read a better class of newspaper, so I felt most journalists had a good understanding of why blackface skits are offensive to Americans and should be to Australians too.

But if the letters and blogs I read were a fair sample, the journalists didn't carry their readers with them. Most Australians appear to have a limited contact with world opinion and still cling to some resentment of Americans from World War II – “two things wrong with them, over-paid and over here”.

Use an American expression, such as Kokoda “trail” instead of “track”, or “railroad” instead of “railway”, and someone will disapprove.

So we tend to overreact to criticism from Americans. But surely we can understand why blackface skits are offensive to Americans. The best explanation I saw was posted by intern Melanie Mahony on yesterday. Mahony also ran a Q and A interview with Kamahl in which the well-liked black Australian entertainer explained  why the skit was offensive. The Australian's media diarist Amanda Meade posted this, and in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald David Dale posted this in which he called Hey Hey host Daryl Somers an idiot.

Also on Crikey, Red Symons – the "nasty" judge on Hey Hey's Red Faces segment – had this to say: "As one who is guilty by association . . . I’m now in the odd position of seeing the segment defended by people that I don’t want in my corner."

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