On hearing about the Hey Hey It’s Saturday sketch that has garnered so much criticism, I was immediately, naturally disgusted. Make no mistake, it was racist. It should not have been allowed to air. Educated producers knew exactly what it meant and what the reaction would be, and they aired it anyway. That was both irresponsible and fundamentally unacceptable.
Yet in reading some of the American reactions to the skit, I feel a defense of Australia rising in me. Not a defense of the act, by any stretch of the imagination. But many critiques of the public’s reaction are quite culturally unaware and fail to understand any of the nuances of the Australian experience.
Some of the reactions have been very dismissive of the “we didn’t know” explanation. While it may sound absurd, there’s something to it. Most Australians have no idea of the United States’ deep scars caused by slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. This isn’t an excuse, but it does make the reaction slightly more understandable. I lived in the US for 3 years when I was younger, I’ve traveled there many times since, but it was only when I took the amazing Stephen Robertson‘s Key Issues in American Culture- a masters level course- that I truly understood, for the first time, the centrality of race to the American experience. Many of those responding to the performance would genuinely not understand the significance of what was presented. It seems odd to accuse Australians of ignorance for not understanding American history: truly, when would they have had that chance? And why is an understanding of American history to be expected of Australians?
But beyond that, American commentaries on the incident demonstrate their own ignorance by fail to understand the role of class in Australia.
Class is a central part of the Australian experience. While good public education, and public university education that is affordable for all* ensure that it’s comparatively easy to move between classes, Australia has very distinct working versus professional class groups. And there are very much regions that identify more strongly with one area or the other. Consequently, you have whole areas that are a sort of insulated experience of that one kind group.
There are, naturally, cultural associations that accompany being a member of the various classes. The term largely used to refer to that working class culture, “bogan”, is both derogatory and celebratory. We have a strange habit of celebrating this culture- which is part of the reason “Kath and Kim” was a cultural phenomenon here, while it didn’t last past a season in the US.
So a show like Hey Hey it’s Saturday (or Today Tonight, or a considerable number of other Australian-produced shows) is designed to appeal to this sensibility and this audience. It’s part of “bogan culture”. When it was on in the 1980s, it was part of bogan culture, and now it’s back, a kind of naff bogan nostalgia.
Consequently, when the show is criticized for being racist- which it definitely was, make no mistake about it- it can feel like a criticism not just of the skit, but of working class culture more broadly. We professional liberals are good at telling the working class how to act- and I’m certainly guilty of it. Consequently, a legitimate criticism like this can be lost among the countless others. It feels like an attack on bogan culture.
And the divide is only highlighted by news media outlets, some of which are excellent at highlighting the divide cultural gap between the working and professional class, and turning the working class individual into the glorified Australian “battler”.
Which is one other important thing the US commentaries on the incident got wrong- they failed to understand that we too have a variety of media outlets, much the way the US does, that appeal to different segments of the market. Again, the segmentation is probably more class-based than in any way reflective of political ideology. So a News Ltd online poll is about is indicative of broad public opinion as a Fox News poll.
Yes, the skit was racist. Yes, it was especially culturally insensitive. Yes, the producers should have known better. But reactions to the Australian public’s reaction have been largely off base demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to our own culture and history, in which class plays a central role.
*The government pays upfront, and the cost is deducted from income at a reasonable rate only after graduates start earning over a set amount- around 4% at 50k through to 8% for over 80k