Ready to Soar! ‘Ready for This’ Offers New Stories of Aboriginal Australia

This new teen drama provides authentic and nuanced stories that don’t shy away from the uglier issues of racism and colonialism in Australian society.

Ready for This, billed as Australia’s first Aboriginal teen drama, kicked off on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) 3 in October; six episodes in, it’s made good on its promise to tell a nuanced, engaging story about what it means to be a young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) person in Australia today. The show follows the lives of five “elite” teenagers from different parts of the country, negotiating life in Sydney as residents of a lodging hostel called Arcadia House.

As with all shows that take on the almost impossible task of telling “authentic” stories about minority communities, Ready for This has to walk a fine line between crafting individual narrative arcs while also engaging with the broader realities that plague them; in this case, the almost overwhelming weight of racism and discrimination within Australian society. That the show has so far largely succeeded in negotiating these tricky waters is a testament to the work of producers Joanna Werner and Miranda Dear, backed by a stellar team of writers, including Liz Doran, Jon Bell, Nakkiah Lui, Josh Mapleston, and Kristen Dunphy.

The cast of characters includes Madeleine Madden as Zoe Preston, a champion sprinter from Darwin who struggles to make her mark in a new and hostile atmosphere; Aaron McGrath as Levi Mackay, an aspiring AFL football player; Liam Talty as Dylan Brockman, the violinist son a prominent Aboriginal politician who yearns to break out of his father’s shadow; Majeda Beatty as Ava Ban, supremely talented Torres Strait Islander singer who suffers from shyness and stage fright; and finally, Leonie Whyman as Lily Carne, a strong-willed rebel haunted by her mother’s death. Mick (Lasarus Ratuere) and Vee (Christine Anu ) run the hostel and provide a steadying influence to the teens as they explore their new world.

The show follows themes that are the staple of young adult shows, including forbidden love, fraught friendships, and figuring out the futures. What makes these narratives fresh and original is the way in which they break down harmful stereotypes about Aboriginal life and coming of age in the mainstream media that inevitably focus on crime, drugs, and despair.

Ready for This sparks off the screen because its talented young actors are given nuanced material that doesn’t ignore the specific challenges faced by their community or ignore their history for a dreamy-eyed idea of a tolerant Australia, but also allows them to deal with the mundanities of teenage heartbreak.

Several themes have emerged so far: the importance of family, kinship, and community even as all those bonds are put under stress; intergenerational conflict; and the ways in which the constant presence of racist aggressions (micro and macro) affect young people. All of these issues are framed by a consistent exploration of contemporary ATSI histories and traditions, specifically in an urban context.

A Laying of Ghosts

The opening episode offers a particularly deft use of the idea of haunting, as a suspected angry ghost makes Ava’s life difficult in her room at the top of the house. Although initially hesitant to confide in the other girls, Ava is finally too terrified to keep silent, and tells Zoe and Lily about her suspicions. While typically this might be expected to lead to mockery, both girls take her pronouncement at face value and swing into spirit-cleansing mode. Zoe claims to be especially equipped to deal with the problem, as her grandmother is a respected elder in Darwin and has experience in conducting smoking ceremonies.

Smoking ceremonies are, of course, a vital part of historical and contemporary ATSI cultural practices. They are conducted as signs of welcome, as cleansing rituals for people or spaces, and as signs of respect for those elders who have passed away. While Zoe is confident in her ability to conduct the ritual, she does admit that she doesn’t have access to the “right leaves” that are required. The ceremony seems to fail as the ghostly activity continues apace. Lily also tries to communicate with the spiritual presence, hoping that it is her mother.

Later in the episode, it’s discovered that Dylan’s experimentation with electronic equipment (as part of his exploration of a more modern musical style) has been the cause of at least some of the unsettling happenings, but no one (including Levi who professes not to believe in spirits at all) is quite convinced. The episode ends with Vee conducting another smoking ceremony, this time with the right leaves, something she says she should have done as soon as the teens moved in. The scene closes with all the characters participating in the ceremony, and the spirits presumably having been encouraged to move on.

As mentioned above, this use of haunting sets up a narrative theme: each character is haunted in their own way by loss or specific fears, as well as collectively by the parallel erasure and exoticisation of everyday and sacred practices that make up their cultural heritage in modern Australian culture. The framing of the presence of a ghost as perfectly believable, and the subsequent smoking ceremonies as domestic and accessible while enclosed in a narrative of shared knowledge, is significant. It stands in stark contrast to the ways in which these ceremonies are often only seen in larger Australian society when they are “performed” for an audience with no lived connection to them.

Another example of this is when Dylan is asked to perform a traditional Torres Strait Islander dance for his school for the second year running. He is frustrated at being bulldozed into it, especially as it is an event that he feels is being organised purely to prop up the school’s reputation of being “diverse”. When he voices his frustration to his father, Nat (Jimi Bani) — equating the exercise to behaving like a “performing seal” — he is chastised. For Nat, Dylan’s frustration is equal to a rejection of his heritage. His father asks angrily, “Is this what we fought for? So that the next generation could whine about celebrating our culture too much?”

This is a poignant reflection on the impact of intergenerational differences in engaging with cultural traditions. Dylan clearly does feel a connection to his heritage and dances with power and grace, but the conflict between “feeling it” and being asked to perform it as an empty signifier of “diversity” is a valid one. I think it is significant that we do not see the actual performance to the school audience, concentrating instead on the rehearsal space. This allows the focus to remain on the interplay between Dylan and his father as they dance together, bridging the gap between them in a moment of understanding, while again framing it in a non-exploitative space.

A Call to Anger

The haunting in the first episode also introduces another overarching theme in the show: the spirits aren’t just present; they’re also clearly identified as angry. This formless rage is perhaps an amplification of the anger felt by each character at various points of their narrative arcs as they are baited, either overtly or subtly, by a deeply racist society. Although it doesn’t take centre stage, the writers do a terrific job of showing how this anger remains like a constant, humming rhythm in the background for each character in different ways.

For Lily, it manifests in a deep alienation from her peers and her father. Her confrontational nature means that she doesn’t back away from any perceived slight, and as a result is labeled a troublemaker. While Lily’s issues with anger partly stem from personal trauma and loss, the show also focuses on how issues like “free speech” and “open debate” are rarely free or open for people like her. In one incident she takes part in a classroom debate on the topic of “Refugees are a burden”.

The debate, framed as an academic exercise, is nonetheless a highly loaded interaction as the opposing debater engages in highly racist arguments that reflect commonly held and trumpeted opinions of conservative pundits. Lily interrupts this toxic discourse numerous times but is shut down by the teacher, being told that while she has good points she has to “wait for her turn” to respond. The debate quickly turns from a hypothetical exchange to a direct attack on Lily as the opposing student accuses her “lot” of “never being grateful” despite being “let into our school”. Understandably, this provokes Lily into action, and she’s only stopped from committing violence through the intervention of another student.

The whole sequence reflects accurately the costs of “civil debate” on individuals whose identities are enmeshed in centuries of colonialist exploitation. Lily’s justifiable anger is parsed as dangerous and reflective of her “inherent” nature as a violent troublemaker. The fact that the teacher initiated a fraught situation and then failed to control the vitriol being spewed, excusing it as an intellectual exercise, again depicts situations that are commonplace in modern Australia. The well-reasoned arguments that Lily brings to the debate are framed as disruptive and in the end, while all parties are sent to detention, it’s Lily who is alienated even more from an education system that she, rightly, sees as hostile.

A Map of a City

That is not to say that alienation and anger are the only emotions expressed by the characters. In Lily’s case, there’s also a desire to reconnect with the memory of her mother, whose loss she clearly feels very deeply. One day she tries to track all the places that her mother mentioned in her stories about Sydney, a city she had lived in once and obviously loved deeply. Running parallel to Lily’s story is a “scavenger hunt” in which the other characters participate, creating a narrative of exploration and, perhaps more importantly, claiming equal ownership of some of the most iconic landmarks of modern Australia.

This is significant because as Larissa Behrendt, a professor of law at the University of Technology in Sydney observes, there are:

popular misconceptions that “real” Aboriginal communities only exist in rural and remote areas. And it is a reminder of how invisible our communities are to the people who live and work side-by-side with us. I suspect there is an element to this view that sees Aboriginal people as only having cohesive communities outside of our cities that finds its genesis in the once orthodox view of that Australia was peacefully settled, with Aboriginal people simply giving way naturally to a far superior (as the story would be told) technology of British civilisation. (Behrendt, Larissa. “The Urban Aboriginal Landscape.” After Sprawl: Post-suburban Sydney, E-Proceedings of the Post-Suburban Sydney: the City in Transformation, Conference, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. 2006)

The places that Lily seeks to connect with are all intimately bound up in this continually ignored urban Aboriginal history of the city, centering around the famous neighbourhood known as the Block in the Redfern locality. Historically, the Block was the focus of the urban land rights movement during the 1970s, when Aboriginal urban communities fought against forced evictions and were eventually successful in purchasing a large number of houses in the area and creating low-cost accommodation options for a disenfranchised community. The area has continued to be an important touchstone for the Aboriginal community, and saw unrest and protests again in 2004 following the death of a teenager during a police pursuit.

Lily’s quest is one that seeks to access those idealistic spaces and connect to a different kind of heritage that has been passed down to her, but one that has no surviving material presence. Her disappointment in the reality of gentrification and its accompanying gradual erosion of once-powerful symbols of resistance is a powerful reminder of how easily these histories can erased.

However, the narrative also underlines the idea that symbols of resistance can morph and change, and thereby retain their dynamism. Lily finds this dynamism, quite literally, in the form of a football team: the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The club has a storied history and a special connection to the urban Aboriginal community based in Redfern, and has nurtured the careers of many young players from the area. Lily’s discovery is not just of a club but of “cohesive communities” and kinship structures that have survived, perhaps in forms not at first easily recognisable, but still very much in defiant existence. Not unlike, perhaps, what it means to be a young Aboriginal person in modern Australia.

Rukmini Pande is currently avoiding writing her PhD thesis on fan communities the University of Western Australia. Apart from using TV shows as effective procrastination tools, she is interested in analysing intersections of identity in them, especially around the axes of gender, race and sexuality. Her critical work has been published in Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (ed Anne Jamison) and various scholarly journals. She has also written about Empire‘s provocative first season at The Conversation. She can be found on Twitter @rukminipande, usually ranting about That Show You Like.