From Domestic Violence to Violence in Custody: Exploring the Media Representation of Australian Aboriginal Women in the Mainstream Media

From Domestic Violence to Violence in Custody: Exploring the Media Representation of Australian Aboriginal Women in the Mainstream Media

Bingchen Li


Over the past decades, it has been determined that media representation of Australian Aboriginal has not changed significantly. In the 1990s, the voices of the Australian Aboriginal could rarely be heard in the news as only one-quarter of Aboriginal-related articles were retrieved (Korff 2016). This was further aggravated when a 2015 survey revealed that only nine per cent of the Aboriginal people believed the media had represented Aboriginals with a balanced perspective while 75 per cent of the news articles were found to be negative (Korff 2016). This previous data established a conclusion that media representation of Australian Aboriginal is skewed which Korff (2016) attributed to the lack of Aboriginal representation in the media industry. Such flow of information concerning Australian Aboriginal appeared to be unchanged with only minimal transformation particularly in the analysis of media representation of the Australian Aboriginal women. In the past, social evolution theory introduced women of non-western modern society as oppressed helpmate to their husbands (Hyndman 2000). They were highly sexualised through the continued publication of nude images while the media failed to associate them with motherhood. The photograph “marriages of democracy” that featured the image of a husband with his 11 wives and 52 children did not successfully advance the issue of cultural differences and motherhood but rather commodified and promoted the culture of polygyny (Hyndman 2000).

Such patriarchal and masculine ideology purveyed by the media is still represented today which supported the “male world” of the Australian Aboriginal (Hyndman 2000). This masculinity, as it appears, established a culture of violence in which Australian Aboriginal women commonly become victims. In order to prove this, an analysis of several news articles as outlined below, will be explored.

“Australia could learn a lot if it actually listened to Indigenous women on domestic violence” – SMH

“Police refused Indigenous interpreter for witnesses to shooting, says legal service” – The Guardian

“Ms Dhu’s death in custody: the shocking footage that Australia needs to see” – SMH

“The abuse of Indigenous women and children is our greatest shame” – Herald Sun

“Two victims, no justice” – The Monthly

“If you think Aboriginal women are silent about domestic violence, you’re not listening” – The Guardian

“When will we say ‘no more’ to family violence?” – SMH

“Do police dismiss Aboriginal women experiencing domestic violence?” – ABC News

Through this, it can be viewed that media representation of Australian Aboriginal has two faces. First, Australian Aboriginal women are oppressed victims of domestic violence, and second, Australian Aboriginal women are oppressed victims of their society, authorities, and the legal system as they become victims of violence and death in custody. In both of these representations, it has been clear that the society, the authorities, and the government have been deaf about their plights. Evidence of which will be discussed below.

Headlines fulfil both pragmatic and semantic functions which provide the audience not only the summary of the main content but also aid in forming the reader’s understanding of the meaning of the texts (Bonyadi and Samuel 2013). This is evident in the aforementioned headlines. A quick analysis of those signifies the recurring pattern of oppression of the Australian Aboriginal women by their own families and the authorities. The referential texts which helped in readers’ meaning-making process were “Australia could learn a lot if it actually listened…”, “police refused”, “no justice”, “you’re not listening”, and “dismiss” – all these communicate to the reader the lack of response on the issue. Meanwhile, the understanding that oppression and abuse develops through the use of blatant texts such as “domestic violence”, “abuse”, and “death in custody.” Such ways of forming headlines can cause problems and put Aboriginal women in danger. By stereotypically casting them as common victims of domestic abuse, these women can easily become the target of criminals. According to Tucker (2016), when media depicts Aboriginal women as disposable, this may trigger criminals who prey on victims to commit crime against Aboriginal women since they are perceived as disposable citizens who are less valuable to the society.

In order to broadly analyse and evaluate this media representation, it is necessary to conduct a detailed examination of some of the news articles above. Australian Aboriginal women are often rendered invisible in the mainstream media as is shown in Barson’s (2016) article which details the horrifying case of death in custody of Ms. Dhu, a 22-year old Aboriginal women who was never held in custody before but died in the hands of authorities after being locked up for days for failure to pay her fines. Barson uses mostly emotive languages, statistical statements, and appeals to the government, authorities, and the public to represent Aboriginal women as people who need saving by legal justice system. The article clearly describes the horrific situation that the victim had experienced using words such as “dying a cruel, unnecessary death…”, “harrowing footage”, “poor”, and also “a victim of domestic violence”, these descriptive languages appeal to the readers by positioning Aboriginal women as hapless individuals who are neglected by the authorities. These same languages also reinforced what Tucker (2016) initially called as a reproduction of racism and sexism that portrays Aboriginal women as low-level citizens, thereby making them vulnerable to the preying criminals. On the other hand, Barson (2016) validated Aboriginal women’s invisibility and discrimination in the treatment of Aboriginal women, and the failing criminal justice system when he stresses “we should not be shocked by the brutality of Ms Dhu’s death when for so long we, and our elected representatives, have ignored the evidence.” The use of the pronoun “we’ highlights the gap between white Australians and the Aboriginal people in which it implies that Aboriginal’s existence is largely dependent on how white Australians desire to acknowledge them. In the case of Ms. Dhu, Aboriginal women, so it shows, do not exist in the eyes of the police who brutalised her.

Similar to Barson, Cunningham (2016) has represented Aboriginal women as invisible, helpless women who died at the hands of their abusive partners while the government and its politicians look away.  Utilising statistical evidence, strong statements of protests, media tirades, and graphic languages, his representation of oppressed Aboriginal women through his description of Wendy Murphy’s death employs languages such as “fractured ribs”, “bruised lungs”, “numerously punched, kicked, and stomped on”, and “numerous internal haemorrhages” positioned readers to perceive Aboriginal women as desperate struggling victims of violence whose cry for physical survival is ignored.  This problem of violence committed against Aboriginal women constitutes several factors such as gender, race, and post-colonialism effects in which minority status afforded to the Aboriginal community may have trigged men, either Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal to commit crimes to the individuals – the women – who fare the worst in terms of disadvantaged positions (Andrews 1997). Andrews (1997) analysed that the issue of domestic abuse in the Aboriginal community may have been driven by the idea that white feminists have been reluctant to raise the issue for fear of creating division in the community while the victims themselves also remain reluctant to expose their plights for fear of not only disintegrating their group but also for fear of causing denigration to the already besieged community. This was supported by a panel of commentators in one of the ABC News (2016) clips in which they responded that it is impossible for the police to dismiss cases of domestic violence in the Aboriginal community. The panellists also added that despite the tremendous reports aiming to raise awareness on domestic violence, the case still continues because victims themselves are finding it hard to save themselves from the abuse. This justification was reached when one of the commentators in the clip stated that Aboriginal women “are not only dealing with the perpetrator, they deal with their family and the entire community of the Aboriginal given that they have close family ties.” Such clip positioned Aboriginal women who were victims of domestic abuse in a negative perspective. In a way, it appears similar to victim-blaming which might influence the readers’ understanding that domestic abuse occurs because Aboriginal women tolerate it, when in fact, Aboriginal women have not remained silent contrary to the claims of the commentators and Andrews. In fact, it could be that the media and the politicians have not truthfully paid attention to their cries. This could be reflected in the words of Cunningham when he said, “…these words alone should have been enough to prompt outrage, if not action. But it couldn’t distract our federal politicians from their playfight over same-sex marriage or the southern media from the latest Brangelina development.” Cunningham also incorporated statements of protests which magnifies the understanding that authorities, politicians, and Australia might be committing structural violence against women by keeping silent about the issue despite their attempt to go public. These statements were strong in the article as Cunningham states, “there were no outraged politicians calling for enquiries or smarmy southern journalists tweeting their disgust…”, ‘Australians have become gold medallists at campaigning against domestic violence…yet when the victim is black…we want to turn the other way…” Such silence contributes to the marginalisation of Aboriginal women. It makes them feel more inferior, stupid, or less valued when trying to raise awareness about their true condition (Kurtz et al 2008). In return, this silence dangerous both to the readers and the victims themselves because it could lead to readers’ apathy and Aboriginals usually depend their self-esteem to how they think the dominant culture perceived them (Sweet 2009).

McQuire’s (2016) article supports the analysis of Cunningham in a sense that the latter recognised the voice of the Aboriginal women, and argued against the points raised by Tucker and the commentators in one of the ABC News clips presented in this analysis. She portrays Aboriginal women as brave and strong defenders of the Aboriginal community, people who pursue justice despite Australia’s apathy and the government’s lack of solution, women who will fight on to destabilise the continuous colonial project of the white Australian. This characterisation is evidence in her following statements, “Aboriginal family violence is very different from domestic violence within non-Indigenous communities. It comes from a different place, from a different history, and therefore, will require different solutions.” This proposition challenges readers’ true understanding of the issue as it invites them to revisit the tormenting history of the Aboriginals. For example, McQuire (2016) presents strong statistical evidence that shows 40 per cent of men who have died in custody were also among those children during the times of Stolen Generations. She also cites that during her interview with 58 men from the Aboriginal community, it has been revealed that majority of these incarcerated men displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders which were rooted from the historically traumatic experience they had following Stolen Generations and other abuse against Aboriginals in the early history. Such stressors are being passed on from one generation to another. In this context of evidence, McQuire has tapped into the potentiality of evoking a different kind of interest among her readers, a kind of interest that will influence them to understand that the issue of Australian Aboriginal domestic violence is more than the domestic violence that non-Aboriginal women are experiencing, hence, it requires solutions that are fit for the Aboriginal community. To come up to this, McQuire challenges her readers to dig deeper through the connection between how the media and the society have demonised Aboriginal men and its effects on the Aboriginal women. Meadows (2001) had initially recognised this argument when he stated that Aboriginal’s behaviour could be the effects of the dispossession of land, alienation, and abuse they suffered from their long battle for Australia and for recognition – a battle that had caused deep wounds etched in their consciousness.

Subsequently, McQuire (2016) also raises her positive representation of Aboriginal women by condemning the concept of victim-blaming that some media and politicians are trying to instil the public. She uses the stern-looking photograph of Warren Mundine, head of the prime minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, who was quick to blame the supposed silence of the Aboriginal communities for the proliferation of domestic abuse in the community. McQuire (2016) later on warns her readers about the media’s failure to do their jobs. As she says, “…the media construct false narratives around silence in order to ironically, silence others.” This strong call out against media’s misrepresentation of the Aboriginal issue posited Aboriginal on a positive note as McQuire redeems their credibility from the initial representation that Aboriginal women are helpless being who refused to be saved because of their loyalty to their community. McQuire’s different take on Aboriginal issue is understandable as she is an Indigenous herself and therefore, she has wider knowledge of representing Aboriginal women compared to the non-Indigenous journalists previously mentioned in this analysis. This remains true despite some journalists like Barson who attempted to incorporate the side of the relatives of the victims. Barson’s attempt appears rather descriptive and done only for the purpose of adding emotive and / or dramatic appeal, but less to seek or add value to the true issue of Aboriginal women. While McQuire uses statistical facts, Barson (2016), in an attempt to represent the voice of Aboriginal, uses descriptive language such as “they held their breath, watching their beloved daughter, sister, cousin and granddaughter crying out in pain, being dismissed and ignored by those who owed her a duty of care.”

Analysis and comparison of the articles concerning the domestic violence in the Aboriginal community reveals that media representation of Aboriginal women varies depending on the journalists. Non-Indigenous journalists tend to represent Aboriginal women as oppressed victims, helpless, and struggling for physical survival, while Indigenous journalist like McQuire represents Aboriginal in a more positive tone. In her words, Aboriginal women are fighters and defenders of their community who continue to struggle against equality. She challenges her readers to the historical roots of all these violence, thereby linking, the abuse of Aboriginal men inflicted by the society and the media, to the abuse that Aboriginal women is experiencing. Despite the differences, the articles presented in this analysis established the culture of silence and ignorance on the side of the media, the authorities, the politicians, and the government.













ABC News 2016, ‘Do police dismiss Aboriginal women experiencing domestic violence?’, 13 June, viewed 21 October 2016, <>.

Andrews, P. 1997, ‘Violence against Aboriginal women in Australia: redress from the International Human Rights framework’, CUNY Academic Works, viewed 16 October 2016, <>.

Barson, R. 2016, ‘Ms Dhu’s death in custody: the shocking footage that Australia needs to see’, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September, viewed 16 October 2016, <>.

Bonyadi, A. and Samuel, M. 2013, ‘Headlines in newspaper editorials: a contrastive study’, Sage Open, viewed 15 October 2016, <>.

Cunningham, M. 2016, ‘Matt Cunningham: domestic violence is a contagion’, NT News, 4 October, viewed 21 October 2016, <>.

Hyndman, D. 2000, ‘Postcolonial representation of Aboriginal Australian culture: Location past to location present in National Geographic’, MC Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, viewed 16 October 2016, <>.

Korff, J. 2016, ‘Mainstream media coverage of Aboriginal issues’, viewed 14 October 2016, <>.

Kurtz, D., Nyberg, J., Van Den Tillaart, S. and Mills, B. 2008, ‘Silencing of voice: an act of structural violence’, Journal of Aboriginal Health, viewed 22 October 2016, <>.

McQuerie, A. 2016, ‘If you think Aboriginal women are silent about domestic violence, you’re not listening’, The Guardian, 5 October 2015, viewed 21 October 2016, <>.

Meadows, M. 2001, Voices in the wilderness, Greenwood Publishing Group, California, U.S.A.

Sweet, M. 2009, ‘Cause or effect? How media affects indigenous people’, viewed 21 October 2016, <>.

Tucker, A. 2016, ‘Media and the perpetuation of western bias: deviations of ideality’, Institute for Community Prosperity, viewed 16 October 2016, <>.


Author: 5077115

Media student in UNSW.

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