I’m generally a shitty Australian. I don’t watch much TV. If I do, I always skip the sports games in favour of Masterchef. I don’t even barrack for an AFL team (I’m sorry, Melbourne).
But my god, I have never felt so proud and patriotic as when Ninja Warrior Australia started airing.
Watching the show reminds me of the Australia I love. The good-natured ribbing. The terrible puns. The Aussie pride. But for me, what brings tears to my eyes is the diversity of the contestants. Yes, I’ve seen actors and people of colour on Australian television before. And I’m so glad I have. But usually they’re either a token effort or they’re in competition with each other, like in Masterchef.
That’s the beauty of Ninja Warrior and Ninja Warrior Australia. While each individual is technically competing with each other for the title, the actual conflict that draws the audience in is between each contestant and the monster of a course. For the period of their run, it makes each person the hero of their own story. You want to see them succeed. That’s why when deadly ninja Jack Wilson shared the story of his Aboriginal Australian heritage, his past struggles, and how he wants to be a role model for the community, his run became a sublime moment in the history of Australian television.
It was right. Everyone was with him as he eyed each obstacle carefully and completed it. Everyone was with him as he strained and struggled. And when he became the first to triumph over the Australian course and went straight into a traditional dance… for me as an Australian, it was a magical moment. I can only imagine how powerful it was for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watchers.
For me as an Asian Australian, that powerful moment came a few months ago watching Ultimate Beastmaster, Netflix’s amped up take on Ninja Warrior (it’s incredible – seriously, go watch it right now while you’re waiting for the next episode of Ninja Warrior Australia). Ultimate Beastmaster shakes it up with three super-hard courses and contestants from six different countries, with each country getting their own commentators and hilarious rivalries sprouting up between them. Two of those countries were Japan and South Korea. And when I sat down to watch the first episode of Ultimate Beastmaster on a whim, I was blown away.
It’s rare in Western mainstream media to see Asian men get to be strong, or Asian women get to be anything but delicate and submissive or deadly and treacherous. That’s why I actually found myself tearing up when the incredible South Korean ice-climber Heeyong Park did his run of the course and wowed everyone with his physical and mental strength. Outside of kung fu movies, it was the first time I’d ever seen an Asian man get to show off how amazing they were without being forced into playing either the sidekick for a clearly inferior white guy or the villain (don’t talk to me about Iron Fist).
Now, I know my fellow people of colour will probably get what I’m talking about, but sometimes it’s harder for my other friends to understand why this is so important. After all, representation is definitely getting better. But we’re not there yet. Not until there are heroes of every colour and gender and sexual orientation and class, so that everyone has someone to look up to. Because I’ll bet you’ve seen plenty of people who love Belle from Beauty and the Beast so much that they dress up as her, right? But have you ever seen anyone willingly dress up as Claudette?
Who’s that, you ask? Oh, you know, just one of the three supporting female characters in the movie who’s only purpose is to provide a contrast to Belle’s independence and distrust of Gaston by swooning all over him (and who are charmingly referred to collectively as The Bimbettes).
Nobody wants to be a Bimbette. They have no character. No dreams or aspirations other than marrying Gaston. The sole reason they exist is to provide a contrast so that Belle looks smarter. Of course no girl wants to dress up as them when they could be the hero.
But if you are a person of colour in Western media, you are almost always the Bimbette. We are the sassy or angry black friend. We are the nerdy Asian girl or boy, who might be good at maths but is either the main character’s ‘pity friend’ or the hated teacher’s pet. And let’s not beat around the bush here, it’s an absolute travesty that Middle Eastern actors struggle to find any roles other than Terrorist #4.
But in shows like Ninja Warrior Australia, men and women of colour finally get to be their own protagonist. They get their own backstories. Andrea Hah gets to incredibly make history as the first woman to make it up the Warped Wall in Australia (take that, USA and UK!). Luke Ha gets to be an epic stuntsman and devoted father. Karim Kamara gets to be an incredible drummer who learned English from scratch when he immigrated. Amanda Zakharia gets to be known as a karate champion. Kadeem Aarons gets to be a sports science student. Let’s not even get started on the fantastic gender politics, and how so many of the contestants have faced challenges ranging from mental illness to physical disability. And instead of being shunned or ignored for these challenges, they get to show us how resilient and incredible they are. It’s an Australia I wish I saw more often. One I want to see more often.
So thank you, Ninja Warrior Australia. Thanks for being one of the first times I’ve seen my actual country represented back at me on Australian television. Thank you for creating an inspirational show. Thank you for making the only villain the obstacle course. Because that way, everyone’s there to test their own strength and be the hero of their own story.
And that’s why I’ll be watching every Ninja Warrior Australia episode I can get my hands on, yelling “WOOOO! ‘STRAYA!” at the TV, and generally acting like a fair dinkum Aussie.