The monobrow and persistent racism in Australia


You don’t get that many Toulas around anymore. A name that was once ubiquitous within the Greek community has now, to all intents and purposes, vanished or become disguised under more acceptable forms. This eradication commenced when Mark Mitchell drew a monobrow on his countenance and parodied the migrant Greek working class and their children.

This was the observation turning in my mind as I attended my local souvlaki shop a few weeks ago, my three children in tow. The owners are Greek, and after chatting with them briefly, I took my leave of them. «Γειά σου Κων» (Hello Con), the owner farewelled us" «Γεια σας παιδιά» (Goodbye children). As we turned to leave, a middle-aged Anglo-Australian, waiting to collect his order, hooted: “Con? You don’t look like a Con. Where’s ya monobrow Con the fruiterer? D’ya shave it off?” Turning to my children, he shouted: “And who is this? Is this Toula, Soula, Moula and Agapi?”

“Who are these,” I retorted. “Are these Toula, Soula…. If you are possessed of the predilection to insolence, you might as well exhibit this with regard to the rules of grammar.”

The response is unprintable.

«Γιατί με λέει Τούλα;» (Why does he call me Toula?) my younger daughter asked me, as we exited the shop hurriedly, for she has been hitherto kept blissfully unaware of the apogee of Australian comedy.

«Δεν νομίζω να είχε καλό σκοπό» (I don't think he had good intentions), my eldest daughter responded. «Νομίζω ότι μας κοροϊδεύει, αλλά γιατί; Και τι είναι monobrow;» (I think he's kidding, but why? And what is monobrow?)

My family has been in this country for seventy years and I did not particularly relish the opportunity of revealing to my offspring that in the land in which they are being brought up, in whose schools they are taught about “Reconciliation,” “Healing the Nation,” and “Harmony,” some people harbour fixed and oversimplified images, not only of what they should be called, but of what they should look like and of how they should act. I did not want to explain to them that such images are called stereotypes and that they are created by the dominant group in order to neutralise any subversion to the pre-established order through our trivialisation, and it is only by playing to or conforming to this stereotype that we are deemed to be socially acceptable. Most of all, I did not want to explain to young children who look upon the world with wonder and optimism, that they have absolutely no choice in this matter and that whatever they do in their life, whatever their achievements, for some members of the dominant class, they will never be more than caricatures.

For this reason, I ignored the question and instead launched into a long disquisition about the most famous of all monobrowed Greeks, the Emperor Alexios V Doukas, surnamed “Mourzouphlos” or “the mono-browed,” and depicted as such in the surviving manuscripts of the time. We do not know if it was his bushy monobrow or his sullen melancholy disposition that caused him to stage a palace coup killing his predecessors in the process. We do know, however, that he made vigorous attempts to defend Constantinople from the army of the invading Crusaders of the West, who having sacked and taken the City, propagated not a few racial slurs of their own about its inhabitants, none of which surprisingly, had to do with the pilosity of their eyebrows.

It is within this context that I viewed Australian television personality Karl Stefanovic’s recent Instagram post, wherein he uploaded a photograph of his young daughter Harper, with a black line drawn across her brow, effectively creating the “monobrow” for which apparently, all Greeks are renowned, even my aunt Soultana who has no eyebrows and delineates them with a pencil. Accompanying the photograph was a caption which read: “my daughter..Toula.”

It is not known what purpose the two dots separating the words daughter and Toula serve, whether this be to create suspense in order to provide the punchline, or merely evidencing the author’s pregnant pause as he was trying to work out how to spell the name. Possibly, the doting dad was experiencing a moment of trepidation before co-opting his youngling into perpetuating a racial stereotype, in the process, seeking to humiliate all synophrytic people throughout the world.

As young Harper grows older, our community may ponder whether her father will take exception to her appearance, perhaps her coverage of body hair, or the shape of her eyebrows, or indeed anything that reminds her of the Greeks, especially those of the Toula variety, and compel her to make the requisite alterations so that she conforms to the stereotype set by her esteemed pater familias. After all, women and increasingly, young girls, are constantly being bombarded with directions and expectations as to how they should look and act. Why should little Harper be any different?

By the time Harper reaches the age of majority, one of Toula’s cousins, Sophia, will have lapsed into obscurity. Yet Foula, also known as Sophia Hadjipanteli, a British model of Cypriot extraction, has turned her monobrow into a source of pride, even going to the extent of giving it a name, not Toula sadly, or Voula, but rather Veronica. While Karl Stefanovic may employ his daughter’s photograph as a means to sneer at the monobrow, Sophia has appeared in Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, New York Times and Vanity Fair, her luxurious brow in no way hindering her from working for such fashion brands as Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Fenty Beauty.

In response to the Karl Stefanovic's of the world and in order to address their public backlash, Sophia founded the #UnibrowMovement to “normalise what society pressures us to hide or fix,” defining her movement as “a safe space for people who want to share something but are scared”, not limited to brows but relating to “anything in terms of freckles, hair colour, body size, body shape or colour”. As a result of her spirited stance, she has received a barrage of insults and death threats because this is the kind of behaviour, violence and threats of violence against women, that “jokes” like those made Australian morning show hosts, have the possibility of enabling.

Despite such threats, Sophia remains undaunted. “My parents taught me and my brother to value what’s in our minds, learning, and being a good person. I think that mentality has given me a thick skin,” she comments. For if we are dealing with stereotypes, here is one for Karl: The Toula's and Sophia's of the world and indeed all Greek women are formidable.

For millenia they have stood up to injustice, protected the powerless and feared no one. They are immensely proud of their lineage, the women who have come before them, and the struggles they have undertaken to keep their families and their people alive in the face of the threat of annihilation. It is these Toulas, monobrowed or not, who nod with understanding when Sophia reveals: “I always say I’m Greek… above all because my family lost everything.” And they feel immense compassion, love and pity for poor little Harper, for tragedy too, is a Greek invention.

Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.

READ MORE: Deconstructing Pavlos Melas.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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