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The surprisingly progressive politics of terrible television

I will survive is an Australian reality show based on a premise thinner than a six denier stocking: 12 men travel across the country on the actual bus from the 1994 Australian move The adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and compete for a chance to perform in the Broadway musical based on the same. Well, they were competing for that, until the production closed right before the show went to air, so now they’re competing for $250 000, a trip to New York and maybe a Bedazzler, I guess.

I want to say at the outset that I didn’t plan to watch two episodes of this show but, like harem pants or Gina Rinehart’s poetry, some things just happen and no one really knows why. My set top box takes its fascist inspiration from North Korean TV and only allows me to see one channel at a time and, on this night, it was showing I will survive.

Off the bat there are loads of problems with this show, not the least of which being the writing for the host, the handsome escapee from Packed to the Rafters, Hugh Sheridan. His phrases all seem to have been written by a failed ESL student who only has a book of George W Bush gaffes for reference. At one point he says to a contestant, “I’ve got to see you scream”, without any context at all and no one suggests they get a room or conversely that he seek psychiatric care. But whatever, it’s a reality TV show; it’s never going to be F Scott Fitzgerald.

The show has the typical contestant tropes, the contrived ‘wow who will the judges choose when they were all so terrible’ denouement and, despite the beautiful blue skies and stunning landscapes we see in the far background of the reality TV minutiae, this show manages to showcase exactly none it.

However, there is something else about I will survive that took me a little longer to figure out which is actually fairly impressive.

There’s a long held schism at the heart of the Australian sense of identity, between the idea of the intellectual, progressive mindset of the capital cities and the rough, uncivilised attitudes of the outback. The tension has been played out in our culture and creativity since London’s captains had to share ships and supplies with convicts. It’s a seesaw that tips regularly up and down, from art and culture to politics, between Cory ‘Bestiality’ Bernardi and The Greens led by Bob Brown winning the seat of Melbourne. In the movie that this program is based on, three drag queens from Sydney are booked for a show in the middle of the desert and ‘the adventures’ are about taking their progressive sexual attitudes and freedoms right into the historically uncivilised and potentially violent outback. “It’s funny,” one of the characters, Bernadette, says at one point, “I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia’s been put there to stop them getting in, or us getting out”.

This is a menacing tension which is underpinned by the violent history of Australia we know from the convict days and all those ideas about tough people farming, hunting and shooting, while our soft city dilettante paws fondle our iPhones and clutch at our keep cups. It affects our sense of what masculinity in Australia is too. Only this month (September 2012) have we become a country that feels safe enough for the first AFL player, Jason Ball, to reveal himself as gay. At the same time we see Channel Nine (not coincidentally the station of Matt Newton and Matthew Johns) regularly playing loud laugh tracks over players dressing up as women on shows where no women appear at all – unless you count blow up dolls with female journos faces attached.

Just before I saw these episodes of I will survive, I finished reading Kenneth Cook’s 1961 Australian novel Wake in fright, which tells the story of a young Sydney teacher forced to finish his rounds in a small outback town. When he tries to make for the coast on his summer holidays, he finds himself trapped in a world of non-stop drinking and brutal, ugly kangaroo hunting. When he cannot escape, he’s raped repeatedly by a local man. It’s a distressing and violent point about the way uncivilised masculinity in Australia will always dominate the men who see themselves as being beyond it. At no point does the teacher ever use the word rape, tell anyone what happened or give voice his thoughts or feelings. Such is his shame at his displacement in the outback and the suffering induced by his forceful clash with this heinous outback ‘masculinity’ that he shoots himself in the head. This is an Australian classic book which was made into a film. With all that in mind, I didn’t have high hopes for the handling of masculinity and sexual politics in I will survive.

I had visions of terrible jokes and awkward mocking discomfort, but no. Between the stock standard reality TV tropes and the bad, bad writing it took me a while to figure out what it was that was so fascinating about this show. It turns out the truly remarkable thing about this show is the deft, mature and subtly impressive way it handles its gender politics. It shows a range of men from all manner of backgrounds (see the table from Wikipedia) including a mining worker, a teacher and a former AFL player, all seeking something different from this quest.

They are all completely comfortable in their roles as competitive performers. There’s a self-assured honesty to even the show business parts of the program, such as the difficulty of getting work in such a competitive and unreliable industry, not to mention the inherently challenging nature of creative drag performance. There’s no sense this is a frippery designed to distract from the ‘real’ world, where men work on farms and listen to Barnesy. While there are moments of ridiculousness, it’s only when one singer decides to make a sketch comedy routine out of singing Jolene and messes it up completely. But otherwise the men work hard to sing, dance, walk in high heels and win their chance to get to Broadway.

Considering Wake in fright suggests that being a teacher who likes reading books is too effeminate to even be allowed to live unpunished in the Australian outback, culturally this self-assuredness of men dressing as women seems light years into the future for Australia. They don’t dodge the reality of the Priscilla story either. Considering the movie is a comedy, it would be easy for them follow the premise of whacky and hilarious adventures without delving deeper into the tension within the tale.

To the show’s credit, the second episode featured Australian Idol contestant Courtney Act giving a ‘lady school master class’ on stage make-up and walking in heels before taking the cast for a night out in a small country town. Some of the contestants were genuinely fearful: “Am I going to get punched?” asked one, with another steeling himself with, “You can’t show any sense of fear”. The show then played a short clip from the movie featuring a pub patron telling the drag queens, “We’ve got nothing here for people like you”, unfortunately without the cutting rejoinder. I suppose once they’ve delved into this question, it’s easy to say that of course it all worked out fine. The grizzly old men in their hats and dusty boots laughed and drank with the beautiful ‘lady-men’, numbers were exchanged and many laughs were had. While this show has a PG rating, the fact this tension was approached head on, handled honestly and without underplaying the significance of such an action is not something to be sneezed at.

I fully expect I will survive not to survive to a second series as conceptually it doesn’t bear repeating. More to the point, no one is watching it – not even I watched it deliberately. Even though what the show is doing isn’t much chop and it seems to struggle to know who its audience is, how it is presented is really something. What it says about our progressing ideas of Australian masculinity is truly worth mentioning and appreciating.

In a week where someone compared gay marriage to bestiality and was only reprimanded by our possible future PM for saying it out loud instead of thinking it at all, it’s almost like seeing Australian culture in another dimension. It gave me hope. If even the trashiest, most poorly conceived piece of mainstream television can have a respectful, forward-thinking and positive attitude toward non-binary gender roles without even batting a falsely-lashed and mascaraed eyelid, then we’re not just surviving, we’re finally getting somewhere.

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