There’s a new show on Channel 7, an Australian production, called Winners & Losers. It’s about high school friends were nicknamed “the Losers”. They’ve mostly drifted apart now, and are living their lives in various degrees of happiness. Bec’s engaged and has her own beauty salon. Jenny’s the one who “never grew up,” which apparently involves wearing cute pyjamas, calling Bec all the time, and not having moved out of home yet (which actually isn’t hugely unusual for an Australian in what is presumably her mid to late twenties, but okay). Frances was a Fulbright scholar and now co-runs her own successful business, often staying overnight in her office to get her work done. Sophie was the fat dux of the school who was set to become a doctor, but, after the death of someone (as yet unidentified) close to her, dropped out of uni and became a personal trainer. They reunite at their 10 year reunion, Jenny gives the school bully a piece of her mind – in front of a microphone! – and they ditch the reunion to enjoy themselves. That’s not the only kind of winning that happens for the Losers that night, but I don’t want to spoil the whole first episode, and, thereby, the hook for the series, for you.
I’m a great fan of stories about women’s friendships, and I am not too sure how good this show is going to be, but I’m hoping for the best. I’m going to tackle a couple of issues in the show’s representation – maybe more, but only one episode has aired thus far, so my thoughts are still nascent for the most part! Next time, I’ll talk about representations of queerness, but, for now, let’s take a look at she who is so far my favourite character, Sophie.
With the launch of each new Australian TV show I give a hoot about, I start off wondering whether there are going to be any non-white people in it. This is a country with a ninety per cent white population, but inclusion of much less than 10% non-white actors and characters is quite usual for our drama programs. (Last year, iconic soap Neighbours introduced an Asian character in response to criticism, but she was an exchange student who left the show after a few months.) That’s why I was so pleased to encounter Sophie Wong (Melanie Vallejo), an actual non-white main character! And the very likeable Sophie is throwing up some conundrums already.
As I mentioned above, Sophie was our requisite Super Smart Asian Schoolgirl stereotype at Renwood Girls. I’m interested to see her go off the map and break out of that stereotype by pursuing a fitness rather than a medical career, a dimensionality I’ve not seen for an Asian character on Australian TV in a while (hi Neighbours!). Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes Sophie is slotted right back into. She had to transform from an ugly fat girl into a really, really hot (I can’t even remember how many times she was referred to as hot in just the first episode) skinny, fit lady. ‘Diet and exercise, who knew?’ she tells the school bully, Tiffany.
The thing that bothers me the most is the framing of her sexuality. Sophie has lots of sex with blokes she picks up here and there, whose names she can’t remember. She doesn’t care that one guy she’s slept with has a girlfriend. At one stage, she asks, indignant, if the others think she’s a slut, and the audience is meant to think that she is. Later, Frances privately comments to her assistant that just as she herself buries herself in work, Sophie buries herself in men. Look, I don’t really care about how much sex she has and who she has it with; I do care that her sexuality is therefore framed as bad and empty. The rather textual subtext is that she should be with her best friend, the person who looks after her, tucks her in, and sorts out her bills; the guy with whom, she drunkenly comments, she won’t sleep because he’s such a nice guy.
You know what I’d like? I’d like a show in which a lady is free to have sex with whomever she likes without fear of being called a slut. I’d like that sexual freedom to not be predicated on her new physical state, because fat, smart Asian ladies are desirable, too. This brings me to the part that bothers me the most of all: while it’s great to see a representation of a woman so in charge of her sexuality, this representation is ringing with stereotypes about East Asian women’s sexuality for me. She’s in charge, she’s passionate, she’s sexual, she’s animalistic in her loveless lust, she will seduce those white men and discard them just as quickly! That exotic, unbalanced, sexual power of those ladies of the East, eh, eh? Yeah. No.
Sophie’s such an intriguing mix of stereotype conformity and explicit breaking away from stereotypes that I’m really interested to see where her character might go.