In Cleverman, Representation Matters

If you watched Cleverman this summer, you understand why this post-apocalyptic drama is under consideration for Best Drama Program at the TV Week Logies. The first season of the Australia-based program offered something audiences had not seen before: The first indigenous Australian superhero (Gateway and Eden Fesi notwithstanding).

Aboriginal writer and producer Ryan Griffen created Cleverman with representation in mind. He wanted to honor Aboriginal cultural traditions and create a superhero with whom his son could identify. With Cleverman, he has achieved his goal.

The Aboriginal tradition of the Dreaming features prominently in the plot of Cleverman. The Dreaming refers to the beginning of time in which mystical beings created humans, animals, and the natural environment. These beings alternately take the form of humans and animals. They remain spiritually alive today because they are manifested through ritual objects. The titular character in Cleverman, Koen West, is a shaman responsible for maintaining the balance between the spirit realm and the natural world.

In Cleverman, a propaganda campaign functions to disempower certain segments of the Aboriginal community, adding immediacy to the narrative. The government establishes boundaries between city residents and a species of human called the Hairypeople. These so-called hairies have thick coats of body hair, razor-sharp nails, and super-human strength. The government mandates that Hairypeople be contained in a secure segment of the city called The Zone. Because their segregation is based solely on physical differences rather than behavior, the government relies on media narratives to criminalize Hairypeople.

Reporters who cover Hairypeople call them subhumans, situating them as outsiders. Some hairies internalize the damaging messages, shaving in order to pass and live outside the Zone. By the time the media begin covering a series of gruesome murders in the city, the presumed guilt of the Hairies is a foregone conclusion. The government uses the killings as an excuse to remove Hairies from the Zone by force. It is not until the Zone shut-down is imminent that Cleverman reluctantly emerges.

Koen West undergoes a significant transformation to become Cleverman. When viewers first meet him, he is an ardent supporter of the anti-Hairies campaign. He lacks any connection to Aboriginal tradition due to an estrangement from his family. He is so far removed from his culture that he works as a government informant to capture Hairies attempting to escape from the Zone. Once he finally embraces the Dreaming, he is prepared to navigate the spirit realm and natural world as Cleverman.

Resistance fighters have a storied history, but it remains to be seen if Koen can aid Hairypeople in escaping government occupation. No doubt the anti-Hairies campaign will continue unabated during season 2.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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