TV

Queer Eye’s Yass Episode Captures Everything That’s Wrong With Aussie Masculinity

Australian men HATE hugging.

This month, Australia welcomed the Fab Five to our sunburnt country. Pretty quickly, they got down to business — in between interviews with every media organisation in the country and taking cute selfies, Queer Eye made the pilgrimage to the honorary gay town of Yass and embarked on a super secret project.

On Friday, Netflix posted the Yass episode online for everyone to enjoy, and it’s perfect. The subject of the special Yass episode was George, a salt of the earth bloke who lives alone on his cattle farm.

There is something very recognisably Australian about the whole situation. We get to see the Fab Five marvel at kangaroos, listen to Tan’s very Kath & Kim attempt at an Aussie accent, and spend a bunch of time in a pub. Jonathan takes our subject to a salon called ‘Narelle’s Hair’.

We also get to see the very unique ways that Australian men — specifically those of a certain generation — are isolated by toxic masculinity.

Meet George

George is not a particularly original subject for the Queer Eye guys — he’s a fifty-year-old lonely straight dude who has slowly become isolated due to the vagaries of toxic masculinity. In this case, we know that he’s single, but not the specifics — he has a cluster of kids, but no wife.

As with many single, rural men of his age, he’s slowly settled into a life purely devoted to working on his farm. I’m sure the economics of working on a farm in modern-day Australia more than justify this, but considering his adult son Levi is the one who nominated him, it’s clear that his family is worried about him.

They feel he’s become obsessed with the farm and isolated by work, and isn’t even really spending time with them, let alone anyone else.

However, that’s about where the similarities with Queer Eye’s usual subjects end — because once the Fab Five meet George, they discover there are symptoms of a uniquely-Australian brand of toxic masculinity at play here.

Hugs Not Drugs

“I do not think that George has ever had four American gay men with one gorgeous Pakistani-Brit ever come at him so aggressively for cuddles,” says Jonathan after the Five ruthlessly push past George’s outstretched hand and gruff “How ya ‘garn?” of a greeting.

It’s not the first time a straight dude has been put off by the level of physical contact from the Fab Five, but his aversion to hugs is like blood in the water for the big, queer sharks. They immediately sense that George is uncomfortable, both shy and not used to physical affection, and they want to know why.

The episode swiftly begins to revolve around each of them touching him.

“Can I have a hug now, like a willing one?” he’s asked by Jonathan, which George gamely pushes through and tries to deliver.

It’s kind of funny, except that it so precisely nails one of the ways straight men are punished under their own diabolical reign of power. Physical contact is so weirdly taboo between men in Australia, especially amongst older generations. It’s not only considered gay, but weak.

As the episode progresses, we watch George almost get bullied through the process of becoming comfortable with physical affection by these beautiful queer men. The interactions walk a strange line — we shouldn’t encourage non-consensual touching, but in this case it seems like George is cautiously open to the touch, just totally unequipped to respond to it.

It’s an idea that’s been termed “touch isolation” — the theory that being deprived of physical contact bleeds into other parts of a person’s life, damaging their relationships with those around them. As writers like Clementine Ford have pointed out, Australian men tend to enforce this kind of touch isolation with phrases like “no homo” threatening to mark blokes who are unafraid to touch each other as gay.

George’s interactions with the Fab Five turn this toxic masculinity on its head, because they’ve already made it clear they’re very gay, and very okay with that. The episode ends up being a crash course in a kind of intimacy many Australian men are totally denied.

When we first meet George, he uses overly back-thumping hugs or weird elaborate handshakes to diminish the emotional resonance of physical contact — even with his own son. But at the end of the episode, as both father and son have a quick moment of hot tears, you actually see them have a genuine and lingering hug.

“Breaking down toxic masculinity in front of everybody in Australia, hunny,” says Jonathan.

A Good Bloke

One of the interesting things about the episode is that without much pushing, George is able to get pretty emotionally vulnerable. It shows that the very Aussie-man practice of isolating himself through work doesn’t rule out a rich emotional life. Even though touching is confronting, he’s clearly deeply committed to his family, and willing to do almost anything for his son.

One of the very Australian facets of toxic masculinity is the concept of service as an acceptable sign of affection — instead of verbalising, touching or expressing affection, it’s socially acceptable for men to toil instead. It’s a mark of a good bloke.

There’s also this theme of toughness — George needs to be tough, and for Australian men, that means ignoring your own feelings, your vulnerability. In a discussion with Karamo, George talks about how he takes confidence from his mum, who is 95, still lives on her own, and in his words, is “tough”.

“Just thinking about my mum… she’s down there on her own,” he tears up, flinches away from Karamo’s touch, and then uses the classic Aussie catchphrase used to dispel awkward emotional moments: “Anyway, yeah, nah, that was good.”

So much of the beauty of this episode comes from how it captures the problems Australian men struggle with. Lifeline Australia say that “outdated ideas about stoicism and masculinity mean [men] often don’t reach out to our friends and loved ones during tough times”. They note that only 40 percent of callers to Lifeline’s crisis line are male, while 75 percent of people who die by suicide are male.

Outdated ideas about stoicism and masculinity feels like a good summary of why so many Australian men struggle with their mental health. This is why Queer Eye is such a blessing — because it creates a healthy space to talk about issues like this.

George left that episode with a nice new haircut, some swanky new boots and in his words, “an entirely new mindset”. It’s just so heartwarming and beautiful and important, the government should install a Queer Eye in every town.

Watch the episode here. Queer Eye season 2 is currently on Netflix.

Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.