Throughout its 37 years on TV, Neighbours has leaned into its roots and nostalgia while simultaneously attempting to reinvent itself along the way to reflect modern Australia.
This week, the country's longest-running soap comes to an end, marking a moment where we can celebrate the strides it's made in trying to better represent diverse communities, along with acknowledging the missteps made throughout the process.
If you take a look at Neighbours today, it's great to see that there's more diversity on the show than ever before — a trans woman, a gay Asian man, a Black police officer and a deaf person, to name a few. But authentic representation isn't about merely listing a string of on-screen characters from different minorities. It's about ensuring that the casting isn't tokenistic, and that diversity is embraced behind the scenes as well.
Last year multiple former cast members came forward alleging that they had witnessed incidents of on-set racism. Shareena Clanton — who portrayed a second Sheila Canning on the show — alleged that she saw "overt and covert levels of racism".
"Struggling to post anything positive about the months I endured on @neighbours after multiple racist traumas and navigating ongoing counselling from this highly problematic show," the Wongatha, Yamatji and Noongar, Gitja woman wrote on her Instagram account in April 2021.
"It’s been lonely, triggering and traumatising to work in such a culturally unsafe space."
Fellow First Nations actor Meyne Wyatt was the first Indigenous person to be a regular main cast member on Neighbours, playing Nate Kinski between August 2014 and June 2016. He claimed on Twitter that he had "experienced racism on set" and that "homophobia" was "rampant" in the work environment.
"It was exciting because being a working actor in Australia and trying to break through, I thought it was a great opportunity to help break stereotypes and promote diversity and be part of an iconic show in Australia,” she told 7:30. "To receive that kind of reaction to our casting, it cut deep, and it cut deeper than I would have liked it to."
She also claimed there was a lack of support shown by the production team when she asked for negative social media comments to be deleted.
"Apart from the expression of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that that’s happened,’ and you know, ‘Are you OK?’, which they kind of checked in at the start, but because it was a continued thing it just wasn’t spoken about. We didn’t talk about it, we just moved on," she said.
The production company behind the show, Fremantle, released a statement to 7:30, stating it had launched "an independent legal investigation" since several stars had broken their silence.
"We remain committed to ensuring a respectful and inclusive workplace for all employees on the set of Neighbours and take very seriously any questions about racism or any other form of discrimination," read the statement. "We are engaging an independent legal investigation to work concurrently with Campfire X’s cultural review and hope to work directly with the individuals that have raised concerns following which we will take whatever next steps are appropriate."
The investigation reportedly ended in December last year, but no findings have been publicly released since then.
Ana Tiwary is a director, producer and founder of the Diversity in Australian Media community and says "monocultural spaces are often not safe for anyone who does not belong to the 'in' group."
The only way to see better representation in scripted shows is for TV networks, platforms and funding bodies to work with diverse production companies that are led by Indigenous and POC producers.
Ana Tiwary, founder of diversity in australian media
"When a predominantly white production brings Indigenous or marginalised actors on board without first putting cultural safety protocols in place, it risks creating a toxic, racist and hostile environment," Tiwary tells Refinery29 Australia.
"When I heard about the allegations I can't say I was surprised, but I was deeply upset and angry for all the racism Indigenous and POC (people of colour) actors had to face on a daily basis."
While reality television has typically achieved greater racial diversity in recent years, dramas like Neighbours and its main rival, Home & Away, are still further behind. Tiwary says reality shows like MasterChef have succeeded in representation "because people turn up for open auditions where ethnicity is not mentioned".
"The only way to see better representation in scripted shows is for TV networks, platforms and funding bodies to work with diverse production companies that are led by Indigenous and POC producers," she explains.
"Otherwise we will continue to see culturally incompetent monocultural production companies trying to produce multicultural shows for a diverse audience and failing in epic fashion."
In 2018 Neighbours broadcast its first same-sex marriage between David Tanaka (played by Takaya Honda) and Aaron Brennan (Matt Wilson), with Magda Szubanski playing the celebrant in a cameo role.
Deaf actor Nathan Borg joined the show in 2021 to play deaf and gay character Curtis Perkins, while Oli Pizzey Stratford was cast this year to play the show's first character in a wheelchair.
"I never had representation of someone in a wheelchair with a disability on TV as an actor growing up," he said in May, "and the thought that someone might see my episodes on Neighbours, someone young and impressionable who has a disability and can relate to that, that’s bigger than any role that I get, I mean that’s truly amazing to me."
Stephanie Mantilla specialises in researching disability representation in the media. She's previously examined all Home and Away episodes shown across 2017 "to better understand the quantity and quality of representation given to people with invisible disability and people with visible disability."
While there's no doubt that Erinsborough will be missed sorely by many, there are so many of us who never really felt like we could step foot onto Ramsay Street.
"Considering the amount of time that both Home and Away and Neighbours have been on-air and their cultural significance, the amount and quality of representation given to people with disability has been rather disappointing across both soapies," says the final year PhD student from the University of Sydney.
Mantilla says that's not to say there's not "good instances of progress in terms of disability representation."
"More recently, Neighbours made some strides by casting Nathan Borg as Curtis Perkins. Not only did Nathan become the first actor on Australian television to have a cochlear implant, but he was allowed input into the creation of his character to ensure a positive representation of the Deaf community."
But Mantilla highlights how the burden has often been placed on minority communities to lobby for diverse roles to be created.
Take Georgie Stone's case for example. "I literally had to create this role for myself," she told HuffPost UK in 2020. "Because there are no roles in Australia. None. I had to write to an executive producer to create a role for me. That’s how scarce these opportunities are."
"It is also important to think about how the characters with disability on Neighbours came about," explains Mantilla.
"For instance, Oli Pizzey Stratford spoke about how he and his father had to email Neighbours requesting greater diversity in order for his character of Zane to be created. Similarly, for the character of Curtis, Nathan Borg called a Neighbours executive in respect to diversity representation.
"While it is good that the Neighbours executives listened to diversity requests, part of improving disability representation more broadly on screen also means that people with disability should not have to reach out to shows like Neighbours or Home and Away to be represented. Instead, the shows should be the ones reaching out to the communities."
As Neighbours airs its final episode on Thursday, July 28, some say it marks the end of an era for Australian television. After all, it helped launch the careers of some of the most recognisable faces in showbiz, including Margot Robbie, Jason Donovan, Delta Goodrem, Kylie Minogue and Holly Valance.
But while there's no doubt that Erinsborough will be missed sorely by many, there are so many of us who never really felt like we could step foot onto Ramsay Street.
As Tiwary bluntly puts it: "While Neighbours might have been a blessing for the white creators, cast, crew, and audiences, it will go down in history with a complicated legacy with sadly not much to celebrate for most Australians."