Throughout the history of Australian mass media, migrants have provided sensational opportunities for exciting news. Migrants have played the reliable fall guys, the ones that could be hauled out to boost newspaper circulation, or encourage widespread and divided debate about the troubled state of the nation.
Headlines about migrant thugs and crooks who are getting “shipped” back to their countries make great copy, and fit easily with well-known migrant stereotypes, particularly those of migrant men as aggressive and violent. When it comes to migrant women, the common stereotype that media reaches for is almost the complete opposite. Migrant women are depicted as passive, hyper-oppressed and in need of protection… mostly from migrant men.
Of course, these two corresponding stereotypes of migrant men and women feed into and reinforce the belief that migrant cultures are more traditional and backward. And of course this picture fits neatly into our favourite Australian narratives, including those that celebrate our egalitarian approach to life and our superior level of respect and equality for women.
Once you start to read between the lines, it’s clear that the tabloid kit bag is full of migrant stereotypes. And like all stereotypes, messages that rely on fixed narratives are limiting and ultimately do harm to those who are described in this way. If migrant women are represented as inherently passive and oppressed by their virulently patriarchal cultures, we overlook immigrant and refugee women’s active agency in their lives. Migrant women who identify positively with their cultures and migrant communities are sometimes wrongly represented as promoting violence against women. None of these stereotypical narratives treat immigrant and refugee women with respect or individuality, nor do they promote immigrant women’s strength and resilience in determining the course of their own lives.
Let’s create some new narratives and images of migrants and our diverse and valuable cultures and communities. Most importantly, let’s encourage the Australian media to elevate the visibility and voices of immigrant and refugee women as an important strategy to promote gender equality and to prevent violence against women. That would make sensational reading.