Violence, superheroes and Cleverman

Cleverman never tried to hide its political streak. Its segregated society, persecuted minority, oppressive government and profit-driven media machine offer fertile ground for social commentary, and airing the show during an election election cycle is a statement of intent in itself.

First and foremost, Cleverman is a parable of violence. The show presents its critique of violence frankly – perhaps bluntly in some instances, but always with the average viewer in mind. The limits of that critique, though, are bound up in the very DNA of the show. The superhero drama, no matter how deep the characters or how rich the sociopolitical backdrop, inevitably relies on noble violence to counter unjust violence; a feedback loop that limits the genre’s ability to make blueprints for real-world progress. If it wants to help point to the next step forward, Cleverman must transcend the boundaries of the superhero genre – a lofty ambition, perhaps, for a show already dragging under its own cultural and philosophical weight.

In the first episode of the ABC’s Indigenous superhero drama, a family are apprehended by state authorities. They are Hairypeople – a species who share many characteristics with humans but are faster, stronger, and covered in thick body hair. The Hairypeople are confined by the paramilitary Containment Authority to The Zone, a compound built in a converted railway station, from which this family have recently escaped. Araluen and Boondee are husband and wife; Djukara, Latani and Jyra are their children. It is this family which is the vehicle for Cleverman’s stratified critique of violence against minorities.

Undeniably political as it is, there has been some discussion of exactly how clever Cleverman ought to be. The show has attracted criticism for its sometimes clumsy social commentary, but a heavy hand here and there might be what’s required to get its messages across to a broader audience. Add too much nuance to the recipe and the mixture might well be too dense. Australia, like much of the world, is experiencing a renaissance of violence, both direct and structural, against minorities, and the reception of Cleverman’s critique is important. The show’s ratings are modest and steadily declining in spite of good reviews: this might be symptomatic of a nation’s refusal to talk about its own racism and xenophobia, but it also reflects the need for real talk.

The first level of Cleverman’s critique deals with direct and physical violence. In the arrest scene described above, Djukara lashes out at members of the Containment Authority, and a scuffle ensues. Jyra, both a woman and a child, is accidentally shot in the crossfire of a fight between men. Latani, another young woman, escapes by remaining hidden and learning to mask her identity and pass as human, while the rest of her family are imprisoned. When vicious beatings in prison fail to elicit Djukara’s compliance, the prison warder makes Djukara’s father a ‘whipping boy’, threatening to punish Boondee in his place before shaming Djukara with a public shaving. Araluen, meanwhile, is locked away and pimped out to men with a taste for Hairy women.

The state in Cleverman’s Australia is a Weberian one, built around a monopoly on the use of force. The fate of the family we follow from the first episode alludes to the myriad kinds of direct violence available to those with power, and demonstrates the consequences: the minority are rendered impotent and the innocent suffer most. Another level of Cleverman’s critique deals with the structural violence carried out by the media, and is similarly transparent.

Waruu West, Aboriginal community leader and liaison with the Hairypeople in The Zone, is set up during a TV appearance. In a surprise live cross to a story about a slain child, the network implies the guilt of the Hairypeople amid comments on their inherently violent nature. Later, the head of the Containment Authority frames the Hairies for another murder they didn’t commit. When his Hairy friend Harry claims that the public are indifferent to the plight of the Hairypeople, Waruu contradicts him, claiming ‘they don’t know any better because they’re being manipulated by the government.’ If there’s a veil on this allegory of media bias and governmental control of the information economy, it’s a thin one. Media and government shape what we see and how we see it, these scenes argue. Public perception is just another weapon wielded by the state.

The scene, then, is set. We can see the violence (physical, sexual, structural) suffered by this minority, but we are yet to see a Hairy working or going to school or contributing to public discourse. We can see the obvious parallels with Australia’s treatment not only of our first peoples but also of asylum seekers. What next?

This is where Cleverman’s critique of violence stalls, because its answer to violence can only be more violence. That’s what superheroes do – once you strip away all the capes and cartwheels, a superhero is the quintessential ‘good guy with a gun’. Their use of force is justified, of course, and frugal in comparison to the villain(s) of the story, but it is force nonetheless. Koen West, the young Indigenous Cleverman himself, became the show’s hero when he was handed a nulla nulla – a weapon. The implication is powerful. The tropes of the superhero genre limit Cleverman’s capacity to endorse progress outside of violence. This is not to say that marginalised peoples should be denied the use of force – perhaps sometimes there is no other way to fight injustice – but that violence alone can’t paint a convincing picture of progress.

If the Cleverman sweeps in and saves the day with a noble act of violence, we haven’t learned much about how we might deal with the real issues of race and xenophobia facing Australia today. But Cleverman was given the go-ahead for a second season before its first episode had even premiered. It still has plenty of room to develop its many storylines. What will be most telling is the role violence plays in that development.

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Matt Norman

Matt is a freelance writer, poet, educator and student from Perth.

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  1. I really liked your article and found it well thought out and substantive, but there are a few things with which I have to disagree, and for the sake of continuing the conversation, would point out.
    You stated in your article that a heavy hand has been used in Cleverman to appeal to a broader audience – but the pop-culture/ mass market audience to which you allude has never been that of the ABC, on which Cleverman aired.
    Cleverman fell over in terms of production values, character development, dialogue, and gender stereotypes – after all it took an entire series to portray an act of agency on the part of Araluen, while the men had so much power they were striding around moodily rejecting it from the start – it was pretty low quality on the whole, despite the initially great concept of Indigenous mythology trans-located into the genre of sci-fi.
    Most of the ABC’s audience will place no lower expectation on Indigenous programs to meet the broadcaster’s own quality content mandate – pretty much like all other Indigenous content on the ABC does with such breathtaking ease.
    It’s not a lack of willingness to engage in conversation around prejudice in our own society. That war is raging on every media front. It’s just a lack of willingness to watch something this poorly done, and with so many eye-brow raising stereotypes inherent in it.
    Nothing more.

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