The Radical Queer Horniness Of ‘While The Men Are Away’

'While The Men Are Away' sets new standards for lesbian Australian representation.

The protagonists of 'While The Men Are Away', 4 women and one man in World War 2 era attire. The middle woman is dressed in a bright red dress and hat. 2 women are in Women's Land Army overalls. An Aboriginal woman wears a hat and farm clothes. The man carries a basket of apples.

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When was the last time you saw romantic, unabashed lesbian sex on Aussie TV? Never? SBS Original series While The Men Are Away is here to change that.

No longer limited to the gritty purview of prison dramas like Prisoner and Wentworth, lesbian and queer women’s representation in Australian media is finally taking the spotlight. Series like Deadloch, the Heartbreak High reboot, and now, While The Men Are Away are setting a new standard.

While The Men Are Away dropped its first season on SBS On Demand last month. Over eight 30-minute episodes, the World War II period drama packs in a hell of a lot of hijinks, mystery, and melancholy. The premise? Italian immigrant Frankie, the wife of a wealthy farmer who’s (supposedly) away at war, employs two farmhands from the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and an Aboriginal farmhand to help cover up the real truth about her husband.

Between its four main characters, WTMAA offers a multicultural perspective on the Australian World War II homefront unlike anything before it. While railing against misogyny brings them all together, the women’s experiences are portrayed with outstanding cultural nuance. Kathleen (Phoebe Grainer) is an Aboriginal woman exiled from her mission and paid in rations by the government. She’s told by the white woman who oversees her mission that she can only return if she’s married. Jewish-Australian Esther (Jana Zvedeniuk) is sexually repressed and dealing with gendered expectations of desire and domestic life while learning the horrors faced by her family in Europe. Leading the gang is Frankie (Michela De Rossi), a closeted Italian lesbian avoiding incarceration in the local internment camp for Italian migrants and fascist sympathisers.

Finally, there’s staunch middle-class feminist and closeted lesbian, Gwen (Max McKenna). Having come into her own whilst employed by the WLA, she doesn’t want the war to end (a sentiment definitely not shared by her comrades). With her fiancé fighting overseas, Gwen finally embraces her sexuality and joins Frankie in a passionate affair. But Frankie and Gwen are far from the only ones getting some in wartime. With her fiancé enlisted too, Esther grabs the opportunity to discover the joy of 1940s kink with bisexual draft dodger Robert (Matt Testro).

With so much cultural commentary on gender, sexuality, race, and history, it would be patronising to imply that While The Men Are Away is just about sex. But it is radically sexy. In the series’ opening montage, scenes of women fingering one another, and otherwise enjoying sex with one another whip by between depictions of the WLA working the land and Italian-Australians being filed into internment camps. Right from the drop, While The Men Are Away establishes women are horny and enjoy sex, including with one another – even, and maybe especially, during wartime – imagining a small part of the long-repressed history of marginalised women’s sexualities in Australia.


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Almost every episode features scenes of Frankie and Gwen enjoying lesbian sex — something relatively radical for an Australian series. The camera doesn’t shy away. No door closes for the viewer to be pulled swiftly away and we never cut to another scene right as things get going. The intimacy between the women in the series, as well as their intimacy with men, is portrayed proudly and beautifully. When Frankie and Gwen first have sex, Hozier’s iconic sultry track ‘From Eden’ accompanies the warmly lit scene of the two women going down on one another. And this too, is gloriously intercut with Esther using the vibrations of the farm’s tractor to masturbate for the first time ever (you do you, girl! Literally!). Each of the scenes is crafted with care and compassion for the experiences of the women of the time and for how those experiences still resonate today.

Such breathtaking, even ground-breaking, portrayals are partly the responsibility of co-creators and queer Australian filmmakers Kim Wilson and Monica Zanetti — and the show’s intimacy co-ordinator Michaela Carattini. Speaking to SBS on her role in shaping intimate scenes, she said, “This is their body being used and we have to be very respectful of their consent and what is going to be the safest way for them to tell this story for them. We’re really specialists in the area of consent.”

While The Men Are Away is an exciting, hilarious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and yes, sexy new series. But what makes it so special is that it dares to imagine the hushed, complicated, forgotten histories of women from many walks of life. It’s a delightfully poignant show that reminds viewers that women formed communities, families and felt desire for one another – and I can only hope we see more shows like it.

Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they yarn about LGBTIQ media. Either way, they hope you ate something nice today.