“If I’m not sure how to answer a question, I’ll just freeze and blame it on a Skype glitch.”
This is the sole proviso for my video interview with Australian actor Jackson Gallagher. Webcam is a blunt and unreliable instrument, so I expect that we will politely step through my carefully prepared set of questions and that will be that. Except what was intended to be a brief Skype quiz spills into a rich life chat about the struggles of teenage life, social media pressures, and the oppressive homogeneity of mainstream television culture. It seems like somewhere along the way, I forgot we were doing an interview.
In framing this conversation, I am aware that Jackson has been catapulted into prominence in his role as the current misunderstood bad boy character on the iconic soap opera Home and Away. Set in the fictional town of Summer Bay, Home and Away is the realization of what non-Australians seem to think life is like ‘down under’: surf beaches, babes, and endless summer. Home and Away has been a fixture on Aussie television for 25 years, making it the second longest running television drama in this country. Throughout its history, the show has somehow survived a changing social and political landscape, along with the explosion of social media. However, true to the soap opera genre, there are many aspects of Home and Away that remain stubbornly fixed in 1988.
Cue Jackson Gallagher. Born around the same time as Home and Away, Jackson ain’t no child star. As a teenager, his family relocated from his home city, Melbourne, to the neighbouring country town of Daylesford, making him well acquainted with the customary angst of finding his footing in the world and fitting in. “It’s been funny playing a 17 year-old character and connecting with that time of my life to create some sort of comparison,” says Jackson. “As you grow up, your world widens and you meet a lot more like-minded people, but in rural areas, it can be really hard for young people who sit outside that mainstream norm.”
After finishing high school, Jackson took on a job as a horse wrangler on the popular kids’ television series, Saddle Club (cue theme song for those who know it), and, shortly after, landed an acting role on the show. “In hindsight, I’m really grateful that I didn’t grow up in this industry,” Jackson reflects. “It meant that I didn’t have the pressure of appearing in the public eye while I was still trying to work out who I am.”
But although Jackson’s own adolescence was far removed from the public eye, his current teenage audience is of a very different age, broadcasting those same coming-of-age struggles through the likes of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat (oh my).
At the mention of social media, Jackson’s eyes light up. “I’m really interested in how we engage in online media and how the advent of new technology shapes our identities.” And this is where our interview takes a twist. When you combine a college education in digital anthropology with Jackson’s Insta-famous online following (“OMG first like, first comment”), it’s fair to say that this guy has a unique insight into the world of social media. “Some people argue that the digital world promotes a truer representation because we choose to portray how we really see ourselves—the flip side is that it does promote a very superficial and narcissistic sense of the self.” He also observes that the culture of editing and monitoring our online selves sets up a harsh dynamic for teens following the actors who play their favorite peer-aged characters. “You have young people watching you who are relating to the stories and comparing themselves to you, but in reality you’re in a whole different stage of your life,” Jackson reasons. “They often don’t want to see the disconnect between the character and the actor, which means that you have to be really aware of what you post and what you’re communicating.”
With his own 16 year-old sister currently in the thick of the online arena, Jackson acknowledges that social media plays a much more significant role in her life than it ever has for him. “I think it is harder for girls growing up during that time and now those difficulties are further accelerated through the media, selfie culture, and Instagram.” This is an intriguing perspective, particularly given that Home and Away itself has such an extended track record of putting homogeneous representations of young girls (and guys) on our screens. To be specific, the show’s fictional teen cohort is undoubtedly mono-ethnic, heteronormative, and highly gendered—this is definitely a somewhat oppressive dynamic.
Jackson’s comments do, however, offer some hope that mainstream television is shifting towards greater diversity for young viewers (even if the revolution is glacially paced). “I actually think the show is doing a great job of presenting some powerful female figures, both with the actors and the characters that they play,” he affirms. “There really is an opportunity to put out messages that need to be shared and start dialogues that need to be had, but there are inevitable gender roles on any mainstream television show.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at our destination: ‘Feminism.’ No wait. ‘Gender Equality?’ To be honest, neither one of us is entirely sure what to call it, but Jackson is quick to shed the semantics. “Universal equality does not exist and until it does, no matter what buzzword you use, that conversation has to be part of the current cultural agenda.” Indeed, with a recent explosion of social media campaigns advocating for all sides of the issue (#yesallwomen #heforshe #girlslikeus #womenagainstfeminism), it is refreshing to know that the conversation about gender has not been entirely eclipsed by tweets about Kim Kardashian’s posterior. There is hope for us all. Jackson agrees, arguing also that beneath the hashtags, these various standpoints are often more ideologically aligned than they may seem:
“This is about equality. It’s not a female issue or a male issue. It’s beyond gender. It’s a human issue and that’s why it’s important. We need to start that dialogue amongst younger boys and young girls and we need to shift our focus from viewing gender as in terms of binary categories and more as a human issue.”
This perspective is important, not because Jackson’s a popular actor on a television drama, but because of his readiness to initiate real talk about the true diversity of human experience, and his access to an audience who is ready to talk back. Boom.
Title image source: homeandaway.blogg.no