The role of gender is one, if not the most perceptible, social construct that forms a given culture and the roles and norms within it. Only as of recently, however, has its very meaning been put under scrutiny. What’s been seen as rigid and inherent for countless eras prior, the concept of gender and sexual identity are only now being questioned as to whether they’re indeed much broader and more fluid than what was once undisputed. This, as a very new-age dogma, acts as the theme through Stephan Elliot’s film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Through each of the three protagonist’s personas, the audience is acquainted to a true and honest sense of fluidity to ones gender and questions the deep-rooted ways of seeing and categorizing its meaning. Through the depiction of three drag queens as the film’s main characters, each facing their own battle while living their own truths, Priscilla affirms that a person can slip across boundaries in gender skins (Better, 22) that may disrupt the notion of Western society’s conventional categories of identity.
Non-conforming gender roles and gender role behaviours are portrayed in the context of the three main protagonists in Priscilla. Firstly, Anthony “Tick” Belrose, otherwise known by his stage name, Mitzi Del Bra is a Sydney based drag queen that also happens to be married to a woman. Tick’s character is portrayed as ambiguous, caught between the life of a drag queen and his life abiding by the norms surrounding his role as husband and father (Challinor, 23). It’s also suggested that his sexual preference is both for men and women, therefore, Tick does not identify with one primary sexual orientation. Tick defies socially constructed heteronormative attitudes regarding marriage and sexual preference while, simultaneously, defying the gay community. Queer theorist Judith Butler argues that sexual identity categories, whatever they are, are unstable, therefore, no one contains or is contained by a stable sexuality (Haslam, 219). Her theory, thus, appears true in Tick’s circumstance, where he is able to shift his sexual preference between men and women without being limited by one sexual identity. Sexual identity, according to Butler, is open, fluid, and constantly redefinable (Haslam, 220). For Tick, his sexual attraction to both men and women goes beyond the physical body and is instead defined by a connection, acceptance, and mutual respect.
The second protagonist of Priscilla is Adam Whitely, whose character is that of a young, gay, egomaniacal drag queen who appears to have a pathological need for – mostly negative – attention. He takes pleasure in antagonizing others and has an affinity for promulgating his eccentric and glitzy nature with the intent to make those around him aggravated or uncomfortable. Adam appears to dramatize his drag queen persona, Felicia, at every occasion, even when he isn’t performing or in full drag attire. Adam exhibits an audacious, dominant personality, however, much of his behavior is extremely childish and immature, as depicted through his bullying of those around him.
Lastly, Bernadette, in stark contrast to Adam Whitely’s persona, demonstrates composed, ladylike mannerisms and portrays herself as the maternal one within the group. A thick-skinned, aging transgendered woman, she has forgone her previous life as Ralph, and is now fully committed to her female gender identity as Bernadette (Challinor, 23). She has faced her share of prejudice and oppression and has no tolerance for denigrating or bullying behavior, as seen throughout her and Adam’s tumultuous relationship. Bernadette exemplifies the construct of composed and graceful femininity, which derives from affectations; from her frequent habit of reapplying her lipstick and the manner of which she walks, to her delicate hand gestures, and the soft, silky tone of her voice. According to Butler, gender and sexuality are performative because it is in the act of playing an identity that that identity comes into being, therefore, Bernadette has fought to secure her internalized female identity within a performative symbolic matrix (Haslam, 221). Butler also claims “the self only becomes a self on the condition that it has suffered a separation, a loss which is suspended and provisionally resolved through a melancholic incorporation of some ‘Other’” (133). In Bernadette’s case, she has become her female “self” by experiencing the loss of Ralph, her former identity as a man, which has enabled her to fully embrace her life as a woman.
Along their journey through the Australian outback, Tick, Bernadette, and Anthony experience their share of homophobic sentiments and prejudice. One of the opening scenes of the film shows Tick, also known as his stage name Mitzi Del Bra, performing on stage in full drag attire when, subsequently, a beer can is thrown at him by a male audience member. This action is followed by an echoing of derogatory language and insults from several male audience members directed at the drag queens. This initial scene creates the framework for the rest of the film and how oppression of the LGBT becomes a focal point in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In one of their first small town stops, the group enters the local bar and comes face to face with blatant discrimination when a hostile, grungy woman declares, “we’ve got nothing here for people like you.” The next morning, much to the group’s horror, their bus has been vandalized and spray-painted with homophobic slurs. Nevertheless, the trio brushes the vandalism off and continues on with the road trip. When the bus breaks down in the middle of the desert, Bernadette is forced to seek help in the sweltering heat. Meanwhile, Tick dresses up in a glittery green dress and rehearses his upcoming dance act as Adam continues to paint the bus lavender. Bernadette returns in a jeep with an elderly couple, who, upon witnessing Tick in his gown and a shirtless Adam, speed off momentarily leaving the group stunned and helpless. The combination of queerness and cross-dressing had stupefied the couple to such a degree that prevented them from assisting the group, hindering an opportunity to put their differences aside and bond over the circumstances. In another tough, remote town with a majority of occupants being heterosexual males, Adam is nearly mutilated in his drag ensemble by a group of barbarous men. The film directly engages the struggles and conflict that the queer community faces within a heteronormative society.
The characters of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert exhibit masculinity as fluid, changeable, and shifting. A main plot of the film revolves around Tick’s reconciliation with the son he hasn’t seen since he adopted his camp identity as “Mitzy” the drag queen (Tincknell & Chambers, 149), and his anxiety and uncertainty regarding his paternal role. Although Benjamin, Tick’s son, has accepted his father’s drag lifestyle, Tick still has doubts and attempts to assert his masculinity infront of his son by spitting on the ground while drinking a can of beer, a stereotypical gesture of hegemonic masculinity. Although Bernadette has secured her female identity and femininity, her hardened, masculine side shows through in times of conflict. After enduring crude insults from an aggressive townswoman at the local bar in Broken Hill, Bernadette disgraces her at a drinking challenge and leaves as the drunk, yet, dignified victor (Challinor, 24). What’s ironic about this particular scene is that the townswoman exhibits excessive masculinity, yet degrades Bernadette, Tick, and Adam for their display of femininity. Bernadette’s masculinity also shows through when Adam calls her “Ralph” in a drunken stupor, threatening her identity as a woman. This sends Bernadette into a blind rage that results in a physical altercation between the two. Bernadette also becomes physical with a homophobic, vengeful man that harasses Adam. Although Bernadette confronts the man and his mob as a woman, she salvages Ralph from his predicament because of her strength and resilience, cultivated from a lifetime of fighting prejudice behavior. Another character of importance in the film is that of Bob, who welcomes the group warmly and without judgment. Bob’s demeanor towards the trio, however, changes once he is amongst a group of crude townsmen. When Adam unsuccessfully masquerades as a thrill- seeking woman (Challinor, 25), he notices Bob amidst the crowd and attempts to draw his attention, yet, Bob chooses to ignore Adam for fear of revealing their acquaintanceship to the mob. Bob fears that by acknowledging Adam, who happens to be wearing a wig and a short, fitted dress, his masculinity will be threatened. In that moment, Bob conforms to the brutish men in order to protect and assert his masculinity. Bob, however, is able to redeem himself by standing up to the brutality of the group when they attempt to castrate Adam. Sociologist R.W. Connell, on the subject of masculine identities, states that they “come into existence at particular times and places, and are always subject to change” (185) which is depicted by the characters ability to shift their masculinity dependent on the situation and circumstance they have been placed in at the time.
While the long road to completely disturbing the deeply engrained construct of gender in our culture remains, the stories to each character in Priscilla awakens the audience to the often-hidden truths that rest behind one’s gender and sexual identity. While the film portrays the struggles of existing outside the norm in the prejudice these characters receive and the internal clash Adam’s face with in living his double life, the film is an important addition to the discourse that is much-needed in easing the restraint of falsely concrete gender roles.
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