Down Low Down Under: Homoeroticism in Australian Cinema
As a child I was really into the Mad Max movies. I wasn’t entirely sure why yet, though I loved the noise and machines, not to mention Mel Gibson (as we were all blissfully unaware of what a terrible, terrible person he is). There was also the sight of Tina Turner being just so down-and-dirty fabulous that nine-year-old me would spend the next several years completely obsessed with her. That’s right, I love Beyond Thunderdome as much, nay, more than the others. I’m not here to change your mind but I will fight to the death anyone who hates that movie if they wanna go.
As an adult I was able to rewatch these movies with fresh eyes. Turns out not only does Thunderdome still rule (everyone’s just a hater), but I noticed an overwhelming homoerotic undertone to all of them, especially The Road Warrior. While this may not have been something I picked up on as a kid, it sure was something that made that world quite seductive to me; Muscular men in bondage gear would shape a good portion of my sexuality for years to come.
In my ongoing journey of movies (and muscular men) I've come across a lot of Australian films, and over time I started to notice a trend of homoerotic undertones with a good portion of them. Sometimes it was overt, sometimes it required a little reading between the lines, sometimes using the term “undertones” was woefully inadequate. Starting with the nearly-lost-to-the-ages cult classic Wake In Fright, I took note of all the Australian movies that featured big, hunky, burly men that often make eyes at each other. So to speak.
A more recent release from the land down under is The Rover (2014), a grim post-apocalyptic road movie that winds up being one guy's sad journey to bury his dead dog. Naturally, it's starring Guy Pearce at his most heartbroken and silent. One scene that plays out along the voyage features the proprietor of a scraped together brothel offering one of her workers to Pearce’s character. She starts by saying she’s got a few girls then segues into the boys she has without missing a beat. There’s no hesitation on her part as if she’s trying to suss out what he’s looking for, and she even mentions that the boys can “feel like a girl” if that’s what he’s into. There are tons of movies dealing with the apocalypse but in American ones (at least the ones I’ve seen) there is no speculation of what becomes of sexuality in a destroyed world. Australian filmmakers, coming from a civilization that grew out of a penal colony, accept and expand on the fact that surviving in a barren landscape with limited options for intimacy will undoubtedly lead to same-sex couplings. That may not seem mind-blowing but consider how rarely that gets included in films released in the U.S.
I was lucky enough to see The Rover with a former roommate who was from Australia. After leaving The Castro Theater, we discussed the movie and I brought up that scene in particular. When I said that I noticed a lot of homoeroticism in Australian movies, he shrugged and replied, “well, what else would people do in that scenario? It’s not like they’re not gonna have sex ever again.” His response was apt in so many ways because of the fact that it seems obvious to him yet so unexplored in other countries’ offerings.
But sexuality being shaped inside of desperation is often dismissed as a bleak situation rather than attraction. In Wake In Fright (1971), the characters are not struggling with survival at the end of the world but rather removing themselves from society and rejecting the labels imposed on them. Doc (Donald Pleasence) is a man who disagrees with limiting himself. He wants to drink and hunt and fuck anyone he finds attractive, so when he meets John (played by the gorgeous and openly gay Gary Bond) he sets out to seduce him in more ways than one. Is this the other key factor in the recurring theme of homoeroticism in Australian cinema? Is it not just desperation but a feeling of being an outsider to “polite society”? Doc zeros in on John from the beginning. He talks about being intimate with women as well and seems to be more attracted to beauty rather than genitalia. As an educated man, he must have spent a decent amount of time among people that would be considered more mainstream. Perhaps he found them unimaginative and small-minded, which formed his philosophy on the ridiculousness of rules and categories imposed by others.
Of course, there is the obvious choice for Australian homoeroticism, a movie that expands beyond being gay into the world of drag. Where would we be without Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994)? What makes Priscilla an interesting movie (especially when viewed within the scope of sexuality and acceptance) is that the drag queens characters (including Guy Pearce again) often face homophobia from massive, scruffy dudes. In a country that features movies with casual male/male sex and relationships, it seems funny that there would be such a repulsed reaction to people choosing to dress like over-the-top women. Here we encounter another layer of acceptance and hatred: the guys targeting the drag queens are disgusted that they are not behaving like men. Having sex with another man is still in their scope of “manly behavior” but wearing heels and make-up is not. We can see how these homophobes might rationalize something sexual as a necessity while gender bending is a choice.
Admittedly, my research for this piece (research I’ve been doing all my life) leans towards the male side of things but that’s not to say there isn’t a solid number of sapphic Australian movies. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) remains a classic of ambiguity and lesbian subtext. Unlike the other movies mentioned, the implied female same-sex attraction comes from restrictive Victorian era values and even the fear that is created in young girls by teaching them that being with boys makes them “easy.” A young girl hearing this logic might consider turning to her female friends with the mindset that sexuality between them is sanctioned.
This film is rooted in sexuality anxiety and the roles such a rigid society enforces. Because of this, it mirrors a lot of the themes that Wake In Fright covers. The girls from a boarding school are brought out into the outback for a day trip and several of them disappear, which spawns a mystery with no resolution. Throughout the movie there are hints at one of the girls being in love with her friend and comments about what it means when a girl walks around without a corset. (Hint: it means she’s a "slut.")
Even movies that don’t have the throbbing homoeroticism of Mad Max and Wake In Fright still feature nods to the source of this trend. The Proposition (2005, written by sage poet of alt rock Nick Cave) finds its male characters in a world almost entirely devoid of women where they undergo long journeys into a barren landscape to find even a speck of what we call civilization. Red Christmas (2016), a bizarre Christmas horror movie, features a possibly gay preacher who discusses feeling soft by comparison when facing the hypermasculine types that inhabit the country.
It seems like an odd statement to make that Australia, a place known for drinkers, great white sharks, and the massive, untamed outback, would have this unabashed streak of homoeroticism throughout its creative outputs. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. In some ways it’s like masculinity folded in on itself and emerged as a new beast; so testosterone driven that it draws no lines between genders when it comes to the necessity of sexual release but still demanding of “manly” behavior. Whether this subtext came from a history of imprisonment, a culture of fringe dwellers, or some combination of both, it remains a fixture in Australian cinema, both old and new. A fixture, I for one, plan to continue researching until my inevitable, accidental death in a homoerotic avalanche of muscular men in bondage gear.
A girl can dream, right?
A girl can dream.