Why We Must Protect the Mullet at all Costs

When private schools recently started banning a particular hairstyle they sparked a conversation about the nation’s cultural identity, writes T Australia’s style columnist Christopher Riley.

Article by Christopher Riley

Photography by Nick Demou.

When I was in Year 5 — which means I would have been about 11 — yo-yos were all the rage. Within one summer the handheld toy had become the ‘in’ thing on the playground. Everyone had one. Except me, that is.

I distinctly remember the feeling of being left out, as seemingly every kid I knew was waltzing around, wide grin on their face as they performed cool tricks with their new favourite toy. The kids capable of performing the best tricks were rock stars. Without a yo-yo I could feel myself drifting into obscurity; to my young mind I was as good as finished.

All this changed when my father returned from a business trip to the States with a brand spanking new, state-of-the-art piece of kit that I had never even seen before. This was no ProYo. This elegant contraption was called a Black Mamba and came with eight clutches, which in yo-yo parlance is like… well, it’s really good, trust me. Walking to school the next day, the Black Mamba clenched in my hand, I could feel my luck was about to change. This excitement, however, turned out to be short-lived. During assembly, the headmaster informed us that yo-yos were banned. So, I never did get to show off my new skills, and, truth be told, it took a good few years for me to get over the sense of injustice I felt.

Until I grew up, of course, and realised why the headmaster had made such a decision. Yo-yos were being used as a means of social capital. And so, in banning them, our headmaster was ensuring that the playground didn’t get split into a social hierarchy based on how much disposable income one’s parents had. Fair enough.

All this is to say when I first heard schools in Australia were banning the mullet, I thought back to the hard lesson I had learnt in primary school and figured it a good call. After all, we can’t bring about a society divided into the have-mullets and have-not-mullets, right? Then I realised this is, in fact, the opposite of what’s happening. Because everyone can have a mullet if they want one. It’s one of the most DIY haircuts imaginable; you barely even need a hairdresser — just pick up a pair of scissors and have at it. This isn’t about protecting marginalised kids, it’s about protecting dated notions of propriety.

“While personal expression, fun and creativity are important parts of who we all are as individuals, it needs to fit within the bounds of what is acceptable and required of us,” explained a spokesperson from Waverley College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. A suitably vague explanation. Essentially, the powers that be at Waverley just don’t like the mullet and being that it’s a private school, that’s their prerogative. But I wonder if they have taken the time to think about what the mullet represents, particularly at a time as challenging as this one? The “business at the front, party at the back” cut is uniquely Australian, even more so than snagging a sausage sizzle at Bunnings on a Saturday morning.

It encapsulates the larrikin attitude. In the mullet we see Shane Warne, a masterful athlete who, ciggie in hand, refused to be told how to act, knowing that all that mattered was how many wickets he took. It’s the stylistic incarnation of Bob Hawke, a man who would manage the affairs of the nation by day and down schooners by night. Just like Aussies at large, the mullet’s irreverent aesthetic refuses to take itself too seriously.

Stop me if you think I’m overthinking this one, but could the spirit of the mullet have helped Australia abide by Covid-19 social distancing rules and travel restrictions? We are a people who follow the rules (call this the business side) while also giving a cheeky two fingers to the powers that enforce them (the party side). It’s not about anarchy, it’s about having a sense of humour even when times are tough.

Maybe this was lost on the Waverley College board. Or maybe, unlike me, they simply didn’t have spare hours in their day to overanalyse the cultural implications of a mere hairstyle. (Perhaps both.) But they should have. Because while Australia’s identity has a lot of things that require updating, the mullet isn’t one of them. Yo-yos come and go, but mullets are for life.