It's not often we see a strong woman of colour (WOC) as the lead protagonist in scripted Australian television, but Heartbreak High breaks away from the norm with Ayesha Madon's casting. The Netflix teen drama — which is a reboot of the original 90s show of the same name — positions Madon's character Amerie as central to the drama, emotion, conflict and love that unfolds at Hartley High School across eight episodes.
But 24-year-old Madon's own experience growing up in Australia was vastly different. There was no main character energy and she didn't feel Amerie's boldness to hook up with boys or put bullies in their place. Being a South Asian woman made high school challenging and her confidence took a back seat.
"I can't speak on behalf of every first-gen brown woman, [but] my experience was tumultuous to say the least," Madon tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Obviously having body hair and being a brown woman, you're not really seen as cool or hot or anything aspirational. I guess that takes a toll on your mental health along with the fact that you never get to see yourself in media or romanticised in any way."
The entertainment industry has a history of making the woman of colour the sidekick, the victim or the fetishised love interest. But in Heartbreak High, every storyline somehow leads back to Amerie, prompting the audience to question where her involvement may have been or what impact an event will have on her throughout the series.
Further to that, her portrayal is multi-dimensional. Her moments of vulnerability and despair are matched with times of fearlessness and power. She's a confidante to her friends, desired girlfriend, a rebellious daughter and more than anything, just an Aussie teenager trying to survive high school. Playing a character as such represented redemption for Madon, who like many brown girls, hadn't felt seen or heard on TV and in real life.
"I won't go into the depths of my childhood trauma," she says, "but I will say that I'm really happy that now the narrative gets to be flipped in a way in that I get to play this amazing, powerful, young brown woman in a really nuanced and authentic way to what is real in Australia.
"And the fact that she's brown is the least interesting thing about her. She just happens to be a brown woman who's sick [amazing]."
The eight-episode series explores what happens when Amerie creates a stir at school when a secret map charting all of her classmates' hook-ups is discovered. In an attempt to then address what they see as a cohort of hyper-sexual students, the school forces them into a sexual literacy program which the teens describe as "sex jail".
The discovery of the sex map also leads to a mysterious and very public rift with her ride-or-die Harper (Asher Yasbincek) and it's up to Amerie, along with the help of her new friends — outsiders Quinni (Chloe Hayden) and Darren (James Majoos) — to repair her reputation.
Similarly, the reboot strives to embrace multiculturalism but also attempts to go deeper with representation from LGBTQIA+ and First Nations communities to allow for more nuanced storylines around topics like racism and same-sex relationships that Australian TV is still rather inexperienced in portraying authentically.
Heartbreak High will premiere globally on Netflix on September 14.