Migrant life on TV: The case for bringing back Heartbreak High

Dunja Cvjetićanin was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Repeated family trips “back to the old country” throughout her childhood ensured that Dunja’s love for and connection to the Balkans always stayed strong.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-editors of be:longing and enjoys connecting with others who feel a similar connection to other places and cultures as she does.

2017.03.19 - Thought piece - Dunja Cvjeticanin - Heartbreak High - Black box

A few years ago, Danielle Binks wrote an article on Daily Life considering the cuts being made to funding for public television and radio broadcasters in Australia, like the ABC and SBS.  Reflecting on the important social and cultural contribution that public broadcasting has made in Australia since its inception, Binks turned her focus to a particular example of this contribution – the cult classic 1990s ABC series, Heartbreak High.

I loved Heartbreak High growing up.  I was born in the late 1980s, so when the show first came out in 1994, I was too young to be able to really understand what was going on.  Luckily for me, by the time the Anita-Drazic phase came about around 1996/1997, I had started to cotton on in earnest, and to enjoy the show for what it was – a fascinating window into 1990s life in Australian urbia/suburbia, as well as delicious teenage-y viewing featuring angst and excitement and all sorts of high school drama.

Despite not fully comprehending everything in the show as a kid, I was always aware that it represented a part of Australian society that I was kind of a part of, too.  In addition to having a total crush on Drazic for his looks, for example, I loved that his name was Drazic – Dražić, to be precise.  Bogdan Dražić – a Yugoslav of some kind, just like me.  I grew up in a Yugoslavian family – parents with their roots in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary and Montenegro – and had a Yugoslavian name to boot, which stuck out like a sore thumb in the sea of Sarahs and Jessicas that was my primary school classroom.  Seeing Drazic as one of the stars of this show that I loved made me feel warm inside; like I had some kind of secret connection to Drazic and the world of Heartbreak High that no one around me did, or could.

Yugoslavs weren’t the only cultural/ethnic community represented on Heartbreak High, of course.  There were the Greek cousins, Nick and Con; the Vietnamese-born Jack Tran; Peter “Despo” d’Esposito, the Italian owner of the Shark Pool; and who could forget Mai, the Chinese-born new kid who stomped into school on her first day wearing head-to-toe leopard print?  Seeing the olive, black, brown faces of these students, but also snapshots into their family lives – preparing for school in the morning, getting lectured to by their parents over dinner, attending church or other cultural events outside of school – made me feel like my own minority culture family life was part of the mainstream in a way.  It made me think that I did indeed belong in Australia, even though I lived in the less culturally diverse makeup of my own primary school and broader community in the south of Canberra.

In her article, Binks poignantly argues that maybe this is the perfect time for Australia to have another go at Heartbreak High.  In her words, there’s:

“… a case to be made for a new Heartbreak High for the same reasons that the original show was created in the first place – to reflect on contemporary Australian culture.  The series ended in 1999, and since then we’ve become a country shaped by the 2001 Children Overboard affair, 9/11, the Pacific Solution, and the 2005 Cronulla riots.  Heartbreak High would provide opportunities not only to showcase a truly multicultural Australian cast, but to explore important storylines – like the extent of racism in Australian schools – in a contemporary teen drama.”

I agree.  And I wholeheartedly support a rebooting of Heartbreak High.  With ongoing global movements of people caused by war and conflicts, economic shifts, geopolitics and even just the rise of “wanderlust” travelling, migration is a continuing phenomenon in our world.  It’s also a continuing part of Australian society.  Since colonisation, Australia has been an extensively migrant country.  Migrants have brought issues of national identity, assimilation, religion and integration to the table to be discussed, argued, fought over and reversed – not to mention Latin dancing clubs, delicatessens, yoga and Halal snack packs.  Personally, I think we’d be a poorer country without any one of those or the beautifully diverse people who brought them.

But while TV shows like QandA and Insight and radio programs like Triple J’s Hack help to keep the focus on these issues, what’s missing, in my opinion, is a more extensive creative engagement with this subject.  The arts – in particular, a dramatic television series like Hearbreak High – would be a great vehicle for such an engagement, because the arts can do what journalistic, non-fiction television and radio can’t – they can delve into the everyday lives and homes of us all, and explore the issues we sometimes feel, but don’t talk about.

And while I do think we have a pretty good rate of culturally diverse programming these days, from Lost in Pronunciation and Tales from Around the World to Maeve O’Meara’s Food Safari and the Once upon a time in… series in Western Sydney – which feature and/or are created by people with migrant backgrounds – what I think is still missing is an ongoing dramatic engagement with these issues.  And while I love that The Family Law, for example, presents a comedic picture of what it can be like to be a migrant in Australia, the truth is that sometimes migrant life is not funny.  Sometimes comedies, food shows and hard-hitting documentaries exposing the difficulties of life in Western Sydney aren’t enough.  Moreover, having only these kinds of programs can actually serve to make migrants feel more different from the mainstream than they already do.  Sometimes you just need to see people who look like you going through the ups and downs of everyday life, because those are all part of the experience of life as a migrant Australian.

So let’s reboot Heartbreak High today, or start a similar show in a similarly culturally diverse neighbourhood.  Let’s explore the issues that still exist there: racist comments casually thrown in schoolyards around the country; the complexity that can occur when dating or marrying outside of your cultural minority (or struggling to date inside it even though your community expects it of you); that inexplicable feeling of being left out when you’re 15 and your white friends can get a job at Woolies, but you can’t.  Let’s reopen the gates of Hartley High and explore what it is that breaks the hearts of migrants today – and what can paste them back together.  Maybe this is exactly what new generations of migrants need – to feel, like the teens of Heartbreak High helped me feel back in the 1990s, that their life is part of the mainstream – or at least a creek nearby.

© Dunja Cvjetićanin, 2017