How to tell the difference between a stereotype and a positive image: putting Priscilla, Queen of the Desert into history

Uploaded 1 March 2000

Introductory paragraph

In 1994 Australia’s Celluloid Closet burst into quite unexpected, and spectacularly colourful, flames (as old nitrate film stock is liable to do). With a cinematic flourish, the firm and sensible homosociality underlying Sunday too Far Away (Hannam, 1977), We of the Never Never (Auzin, 1982), and even (in a different key) Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975) was replaced with a visible and popular Australian filmic homosexuality. [1] [1] One of the most popular films of the year was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot); together with The Sum of Us (Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, 1994), this hugely visible and successful film began to rewrite the sexuality of “Australia”, and radically to alter the circulation of this elusive quality in an international context.

But what exactly should be said about Priscilla? In short, it is the most successful representation of gay men ever produced in Australia. As Simon Hunt suggests in the Sydney gay community newspaper, Sydney Star Observer:

Within a national film culture bereft of images of gay men, lesbians and tranys, and faced with an entrenched set of film-funding script assessors who glorify suburbia and search for an historically guiltless identity, the makers of The Sum of Us reduced ideas of difference to their bare essentials, working with dramatical opposites to perceived stereotypes in familiar, non-threatening environments. But honey, we’re not all the same … Priscilla starts with the stereotypes, then dismantles them piece by piece to the point where sexuality and gender are accepted as part of a broader series of notions of difference. It’s a defiant, strong film, and also has some of the best frocks ever committed to celluloid … [2]

Introductory paragraph number 2

In 1994 Australia’s Celluloid Closet burst into quite unexpected, and spectacularly colourful, flames (as old nitrate film stock is liable to do). With a cinematic flourish, the firm and sensible homosociality underlying Sunday Too Far AwayWe of the Never Never, and even (in a different key) Picnic at Hanging Rock was replaced with a visible and popular Australian filmic homosexuality. One of the most popular films of the year was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; together with The Sum of Us, this hugely visible and successful film began to rewrite the sexuality of “Australia”, and radically to radically alter the circulation of this elusive quality in an international context.

But what exactly should be said about Priscilla? In short, it is the most offensive representation of gay men ever produced in Australia. As Andrew Mast suggests in the Melbourne gay community newspaper, Brother/Sister:

Writer Stephan Elliot presents a very limited, old-fashioned and unconvincing depiction of a drag show trio on the road in the Australian outback. The clichés of smiles and make-up hiding sad and tragic lives are rolled out, in this case read it as ‘no queen can be truly happy’ … here we have a group of queens for all the world to laugh at … look down upon and even despise, with very few positive aspects for audiences to see (unless you consider the continual consumption of vodka to be an admirable trait) … [3]

Introductory paragraph number 3

It is commonsensical in film studies to acknowledge that film texts are polysemic: there is no single “correct” reading of a film. Commonsensical, of course. But …

Mark Gibson has suggested that “being political” in academic writing about culture often involves certainty. His case study is the concept of power: he points out that while the academic community has accepted the discursive nature of such categories as truth, we retain a blinkered certainty that this thing called “power” exists in quite a different way. It forms the “reality” of oppression, the base upon which superstructures of culture are built. To deny the “reality” of power is, apparently, to refuse politics. [4] It is such a perception which has lead to the figure of John Fiske – a writer well known for insisting on the polysemic possibilities of texts – being denigrated for demonstrating an “easy optimism” which is somehow not quite aware enough of the reality of power, politics and struggle. [5]

Pamela Robertson summarises academic writing on Priscilla: she refers to: “the film’s misogyny and racism”, citing other academic writers who have made the same points. [6] Now, of course, we know very well that, as Elizabeth Grosz has formulated it: “one and the same text can, in some contexts, be regarded as feminist, and in other contexts as non- or anti-feminist”[7] . We know this very well – but all the same …

Robertson is not suggesting that Priscilla can be read in ways which are disadvantageous to women, or to Asian people. She is not suggesting that an account of the film’s reception and the ways in which its ideas and tropes were disseminated into wider culture will reveal that it contributed to oppressive movements. Her account is much simpler than that: it is not that the film may be read in these ways; or that it was read in such ways. It is a simple, ontological, statement: the film simply is racist and sexist.

The tone is familiar: in identity politics, one must always be ready to condemn the racist, the sexist, the homophobic. To refuse to do so is to open oneself to attack [8] .

The linking of politics with certainty – here, the certainty of interpretation – is common in writing on culture which emerges from identity politics. But, as suggested above, attempting to explain such an approach necessarily relies on a form of disavowal. For it is well recognised in writing about, certainly, gender and sexuality (I sense that this is less the case with writing on race) that the terminology of “positive image” and of “stereotype” is problematic [9] . Similarly, simple accusations of the “misogyny” or “racism” of a text must be approached sceptically [10] . Despite this, successful writers – committed to identity “politics” – insist on using such terms in order to denigrate particular representations. [11]  In order to do “politics”, we must always, it seems, retain certainty: about what is good and bad in culture, what is good and bad in representation.

This is the starting point of this paper: a belief that the attempts by critical writing to label Priscilla as “racist” or “misogynistic” or “homophobic” are sacrificing too much of our understanding of the polysemic nature of texts in order to gain their “political” leverage. What interests me is that acknowledging the radically polysemic nature of texts does not, in fact, lead to “easy optimism”: it does not mean that “anything goes”. Dominant discourses are put in place about films at various times, in various contexts. Outside of such context, films are indeed infinitely open: it is possible to imagine that Priscilla could be read and used within a culture in an infinite number of ways. In order to understand which interpretations are favoured, it is necessary to look at the ways in which films have functioned: to place them into history.

My use of the term “history” here is not a rigorously disciplinary one. Rather, I am drawing on the work of Raymond Williams, who, in relation to investigation by “the cultural sciences”, states that “all such studies must be historical”.[12] In this sense, “historical” may be contrasted with “ahistorical”: attempts to make sense of cultural texts which do not take account of the ways in which they are circulated in particular cultures.

This is by no means a new suggestion. It forms the basis of Janet Woollacott and Tony Bennett’s attempt to trace the various meanings ascribed to James Bond narratives, for example. [13]  An object of study similar to my own can also be found in Jane Feuer’s work on Dynasty:
[w]ithin the gay male subculture, Dynasty functioned more as a ritual than as a text: it was enacted rather than consumed … the criteria being applied are aesthetic rather than moral, the standards of community for whom aesthetics and morality are not mutually opposed categories of thought [14]

Feuer suggests that particular uses are made of this text, particular interpretive structures brought to bear, and particular meanings produced, in the context of public viewing in gay male venues. This is certainly not to insist that these readers can do anything they want with the texts of this television program: indeed, the gay male community is not known for being particularly tolerant of difference in opinion or aesthetic judgement. And Feuer does not attempt to insist on the “reality” of the interpretations being produced by individuals (she claims no insight to the interiority of their mental processes before their interpretations are performed in discourse). Rather, she maps the discursive situation in which meanings are produced: the possibilities of interpretation which are offered to a particular (gay, male, American, mid-80s) audience.

Using reviews

(Do the thought police have a lesbian and gay liaison officer?)

In order to get some sense of the varieties of interpretations which were offered around Priscilla, I look at newspaper and internet reviews of the film that were offered at the time of its release in Australia.

Meaghan Morris describes the function of newspaper reviews of films, with a knowing touch of melodrama:

in the heterogeneity of a post-industrial culture, reviewers of films are not arbiters of taste, or even representative consumers, but mercenaries in the stabilising force of the Thought Police[15]

Even if the Thought Police are not out in force, it is useful to acknowledge the discursive productiveness of reviews. They provide frameworks for interpreting films, suggestions of the terms in which debate might be conducted, posit plausible explanations of textual matter. They do not determine, as Morris’ terminology might imply, the precise readings which will be made of a film by every viewer. But even if we do not insist that these public interpretations control the work of meaning-making performed by viewers of a film, these texts can still be acknowledged as important. Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott write about “reading formations”:

[A r]eading formation … is the product of definite social and ideological relations of reading composed in the main of those apparatuses – school, the press, critical reviews, fanzines – within which and between which the socially dominant forms for the superintendence of meaning are both constructed and contested[16]

If the verb “enable” is put in the place of “superintend”, this quotation provides a useful approach to the importance of film reviews in researching a history of the possible meanings of The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in Australia. I hope to demonstrate in my approach to these interpretations that a full acknowledgment of the potential polysemy of film texts, and a refusal to make ontological statements which simply claim that it “is” racist, sexist, homophobic, do not lead to simple celebration, nor to the impossibility of critical engagement with these representations. In analysing the ways in which these reviews operate, I will suggest limitations, other interpretations, different things which might be done with Priscilla.

“Notorious heterosexual”
(what do straight people do in their newspapers?)

What is Priscilla about?

What are the important elements of the text to consider as we set out to make interpretations of it? What is worth saying about it?

Analysing the ways in which Priscilla is discussed and distributed in the Australian press, it is easy to agree with Colin McArthur that newspaper reviews “define the terms in which cinema is discussed and understood”: a limited number of controversies are visited and revisited, set as the points of interest in the film, to be either agreed with or virulently attacked. Interestingly, these controversies are unequally distributed in the “lesbian and gay” and the “mainstream” press.

Particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, the sexuality of the “authors” of this text become vitally important for the “straight” press: while the issue is almost ignored in the lesbian and gay press. Interpretive communities may be mapped around this distinction: it is not the “queer” press who are obsessed with sexuality.

Obviously unconvinced of their readership’s capacity to identify across sexualities, the straight press finds it necessary to insist and insist again on the heterosexuality of those involved in this production whose final textuality is so dangerously queer. Darren Devlyn interviews Terence Stamp, and notes in his introduction to the actor that he: “has been romantically linked to women such as Jean Shrimpton, Julie Christie and Naomi Campbell”. For Vicky Roach, more than being simply “the one-time lover of 60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton”, Stamp is a: “long-time icon of rampant … heterosexuality”. In fact, he is “notoriously heterosexual”. [17]  Comments from Hugo Weaving are introduced with the disclaimer, “As a heterosexual man, Weaving says …”; while another interview describes Weaving through his family circumstances: “The 34-year old father of two … Weaving lives with his long term partner Karina Greenwood”.[18] Guy Pearce is “divine and very straight”.[19]

The only flaw in this attempt to insist on the straightness of the leading men is the slight problem of Stephan Elliot’s “self-proclaimed” bisexuality. Most of the straight press ignore this inconvenient fact: in the discursive arena of mainstream press writing authorship in Priscilla, the film is produced by heterosexual men. It is instructive that the only reviewer to mention Elliot’s non-heterosexuality also finds a neat way to write the director back into the dominant heterosexualising of the film’s creative personnel. In the West Australian, Mark Naglazas states that:

Though a self-proclaimed bisexual, Elliot demonstrates the same fear of showing intimacy as any of the more hard-bitten heterosexual Australian directors .. [20] .

For the mainstream press, then, it is important for its community to see Priscilla armed with the knowledge that the film is the creative output of three heterosexual men, and one almost-heterosexual man.

By contrast, most coverage in the gay press makes no mention of the sexuality of those involved in the production; and those points at which the issue does slip into discussions of the film are not charged with any militant sense of outrage, or any attempt to centre the information as essential in making sense of Priscilla. In an interview with Outrage, Guy Pearce is asked if he has ever had a homosexual experience: “No, I haven’t actually had a homosexual experience, although most of my male friends are gay … I consider myself to be straight only because I’ve never had a homosexual experience”.[21]

An interesting example of the lack of stridency around this issue is the way in which an interview with Stephan Elliot is presented in the Sydney Star Observer. Despite the publicly available information of Elliot’s supposed “bisexuality”, Simon Hunt does not explicitly state this information, nor does he insist on its importance. Rather, Elliot’s sexuality emerges in the article as something implied, almost taken for granted – in a series of cultural competencies the filmmaker evinces, and the terms in which he is described by the interviewer: 

Stephan Elliot has a voice like the notorious [drag queen] Lana Turnip. He’s bitchy, outspoken, gossipy, loud mouthed … ‘So what the fuck’s happening back there? [asks Elliot of Sydney] Who won the Diva awards?’ [22]

The particular knowledge Elliot displays of gay and lesbian community awards, the description which ascribes to the director precisely those qualities of the gay men in his film, suggest a casual identification with the community represented in Priscilla; but this is not centered as necessary information in understanding the film.

For the mainstream press, this is a “gay” film; it is a film which is about sexuality, a concern signaled by raising the sexuality of the “authors” involved with the text. The audience is provided with a reading position – identifying with the heterosexual production staff in making sense of a mutual “other”. The strategies by which the gay press in Australia renders Priscilla meaningful are quite different.

“Our bus goes bush”
(and what do poofters do on the scene?) [23]

In gay and lesbian newspaper reviews of the film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is taken up and written into the gay community as “our” film, as a source of images and ideas which are distributed as part of “our” community. The film’s “reading formation” interacts with (what turns out to be an equally textualised quantity) the queer “community”.

This “community” is not a physical space, nor even a conglomeration of individuals. It exists in a variety of non-physical states. It is partly the “scene”, including pubs, clubs, cafes, attitude, music and fashions included in that term. It is partly the institutions, the AIDS Councils, the Health Centres, the Bootscooting societies which support and provide an infrastructure to the sense of belonging experienced by queers. And, importantly for this work, it is also partly the readership of queer newspapers. John Hartley has suggested that readerships are vital communities in both modern and postmodern societies. Media connect people in imaginary groupings such as nations, states and queer communities: as he puts it: “the connection between the individual and the social is textual”.[24]  The queer press of Australia do not “reflect” the queer community; nor is it simply enough to say that they address that community. More than this, in a very real way, the queer press construct the community through their very address to it as a readership.

Accepting this axiom, it then becomes possible to say that Priscilla is embraced by, not necessarily all lesbians and gay men, but by the textualised queer community.

An advert for the Albury Hotel, a renowned strip joint in Sydney, proclaims: “Priscilla – the bus stops here!”, above a photograph of two drag queens: “Albury Hotel, brand new show – coming soon!”. [25]  The opening night of the film functions as, and is reported as, a community-building event in Sydney. Capital Q‘s “Photo report” features photographs of queers in various local venues, including drag queens captioned as: “Priscilla bash – Les Girls”. Another photograph, captioned “Audience reaction – Priscilla” shows a madly smiling poof. “The movie about drag queens who trek across the Australian desert has generated $25,000 for people with HIV/AIDS”. Similarly, Outrage features “Stars at Priscilla launch”, with photos of, among others, “the stunning Karlotta”.[26]

On the night that Priscilla opened in Perth, most of the local “showgirls” tottered from Connections to the cinema in Hay Street on the highest heels they could find. The stunned looks that followed them were not at all unlike those which greet the arrival of Priscilla‘s three lead characters in Broken Hill … [27]

Of the graveyard scene, Simon Hunt notes that:

The weeping mourners are a collection of famous Sydney drag queens…[says Stephan Elliot:] ‘Tim Chappell and I had been up all night and ended up at the Taxi Club giving drag queens $100 notes … In the middle of one scene, Moggy [Moggadonna] lifted up her veil, said “Excuse me”, and threw up all over this century-old gravestone … [28]

Priscilla is thus circulated as part of “our” community (“Our bus goes bush”[29] ); “we” participated in its production, it serves “our” community, and “our” reception of the film is similar to the text itself. But more even than these explicit writings of the film into the community, material from the film has permeated the textual queer community to the degree where quotations need no longer be referenced. An article entitled “Diary of a sleaze virgin”, for example, opens with “He’s been to paradise, but he’s never been to sleaze”, taking up the lines from the closing title song of Priscilla. [30]  The Sydney Star Observer takes the film as a pretext for a spread of photographs of nearly-naked men and women: “Guy Pearce as Felicia in Priscilla spends half the movie in a pair of jockeys and a bolero jacket …”. [31] An advert for the Sydney Antique Centre features two drag queens on top of a bus, gowns blowing in the wind as they discuss the merits of antique shops. [32]

The virtual queer community (the addressed readership of the queer press) celebrated and embraced the film. Particular understandings of the film’s theme are promoted: drag queens are not freaks, and they are not marginal. Indeed, they are central to “our” community. They are written into its history, and they are cemented firmly into the foundations of its politics. Priscilla becomes political, and its importance at all levels of the queer community – history, politics, style, scene, dancing, partying and the construction of relationships – is suggested. The queer press work in this way resolutely to centre The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: not only to provide interpretative guidelines, but to give advice on how material from the film is to be taken up and used. Priscilla is to enter the physical venues of the scene, it is to supply costumes and conversational repertoires; and it is to be read politically and as part of our history.

(In which similarity emerges between queers and straights, and difference in newspaper reviews can be enacted)

Nevertheless, there are points at which newspaper reviews from all constituencies agree. Even if the values to be attached to the film are uncertain, the terms in which it is possible to assign those values cannot be questioned: they are to be discussed in terms of similarity and difference.

It appears from a survey of the reviews of Priscilla in both the straight and the queer press that this is the dominant interpretive paradigm within which representations of homosexuality in Australia may be discussed in 1994. Analysing these newspaper reviews of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a series of positions emerge: positions which insistently interpret the film’s representation of homosexuality through a matrix of similarity to, or difference from, a (presumably unproblematic and homogenous) straight identity.

i) Different/good: “transgressive”

In one of the quotations which opens this article, Simon Hunt suggests that:

… the makers of The Sum of Us reduced ideas of difference to their bare essentials, working with diametrical opposites of perceived stereotypes in familiar, non-threatening environments. But honey, we’re not all the same … Priscilla starts with the stereotypes and then dismantles them piece by piece … [33]

The release of The Sum of Usin the same year as Priscilla is fortuitous for any consideration of the discourses which circulate around gay representation. The films seem to invite quite different interpretations. As Hunt’s comments suggest, the two can be compared and contrasted. In this instance, an argument is employed whereby Sum represented a gayness similar to straightness – while Priscilla embodies difference, and is thus to be celebrated.

The difference which is celebrated here involves the collapse of two quite distinct levels of thought. On one level, and simplistic though it may seem, characters which do not belong to dominant categories are seen to be “different” and “transgressive”. The categories of which Mark Finch is suspicious – white, middle-class, monogamous, straight-acting, and so on[34] – are centered as that which it is necessary to be different-from. For this approach, homosexuality is different-from all these categories — that is, not-white, not-middle-class and so on. [35]

Simultaneously, there is in this set of discourses a celebration of formal difference: that is, of textual strategies different from the perceived mainstream. This formal difference is promoted as directly linked to the difference of homosexuality, in such aphorisms as Barbara Hammer’s: “I don’t think one can make a lesbian film using a patriarchal and heterosexist mode such as the conventional narrative”.[36]

This complex of ideas – a desire for “difference” from dominant categories and dominant textual strategies – can be seen in, for example, the comments of Gavin McGuren on Sum. While for Hunt, as noted above, Sum is marked by sameness, for McGuren it can be celebrated for transgressive difference. For Hunt, The Sum of Us is “familiar” and “non-threatening”. By contrast, Gavin McGuren can celebrate the film for precisely that difference which Hunt finds in Priscilla. He can insist on, and fête, its transgressiveness:

The Sum of Us is quite “in your face” in a manner that only non-mainstream directors would dare to push in the US … the film has been compared to … Savage Nights[37]

In this constellation of terms, then, difference is to be celebrated: and Priscilla (as well as Sum) can be read as fulfilling that difference. Individual films can take different positions in the matrix (Sum is either too safe, or “in your face”) – but the terms remain the same.

ii) Same/bad: “assimilation”

The stance that difference is good has a supplementary argument: that similarity is bad. The conceptual schema is the same; what differs is the place assigned Priscilla. Still with the belief that difference is good, sameness is bad, newspaper reviews in both the straight and the queer press can attack the film for being too much the same as an imaginary, homo-genous quality known as hetero-sexuality.

For Simon Hunt, difference is good, and Priscilla is good because it shows difference. For Marie-Louise Hunt, by contrast, although difference is good, Priscilla is bad because it shows no such difference. She finds the film to be “non-threatening”. For her, it establishes an image of the “‘acceptable’ homosexual”, and she refers to the “appropriation of gay life, as depicted in Priscilla…”. [38]  The suggestion that to be similar enough to “straight” life to be acceptable is a dangerous thing is similar to the logic which informs Anna Maria Dell-Oso’s suggestion that: “… guys in dresses are lately especially irresistible to a mass straight audience dying to safely visit the exotic erotic …”. [39]

Once again, the play between “sameness” and “difference” is simplified and collapsed to such a degree that all qualities of a film – characters and aspects of their social identities, narratives, dialogue, mise en scene – can adequately be addressed under the same binary rubric of non/transgressiveness. Mark Leeper, for example, describes Priscilla as:

a nice, pleasant, enjoyable film that takes no chances … this film is about as daring as wearing white socks with black shoes, and certainly in no worse taste … [It is] nothing more than light, pleasant entertainment [40]

The term “nice” should be noted here as a marker of discourses of sameness. When applied to a film about queer characters, it marks an interpretation of sameness. Sean Slavin, for example, describes The Sum of Us as being about “Nice gay blokes”, and thus “inoffensive”.[41]

In the gay press, sameness can become the basis for virulent attacks. Marcus O’Donnell suggests in the Melbourne Star Observer that:

there is nothing transgressive or even slightly confrontational in either of these films … they are not gay films at all. They merely flirt with a gay image … we have been neatly packaged, homogenised and used … [42]

For Ignatius Jones in Campaign, it is important that:

hey, let’s not forget that we’re NOT like everyone else – cue for a song here — that we’re fags, dykes, bis, blacks, whites, frocks, clones, fats, things, Muscle Marys, etc, etc, etc … [43]

Once again, the contemporaneous release of The Sum of Us proves useful for a consideration of the discursive possibilities for circulating queer representation, for that film invites the most vicious attacks in precisely these terms:

its elementary plea for inclusion is a remnant from a brand of 70’s ‘coming out’ politics. The movie is an attempt to tame heterosexual fears [44]

It is:

… quite transparent. It is clearly much more engaged with a traditional Neighbours plot line than it is with a serious consideration of the realities of homosexuality [45]

In these two sets of interpretations, then, a perceived “difference” (from a heterosexual identity, which is understood to be dominant, suburban, white formally conventional, not in any way transgressive) is celebrated. This discursive formation can either celebrate Priscilla for its difference; or can assert that it is characterised primarily by sameness, and thus denigrate the film. It is unsurprising that these positions are the most common in the queer press. O’Donnell, Jones, Hunt and Ardill are all writers associated with the queer community.

iii) Sameness/good: “positive images”

It is similarly unsurprising to find a second set of discursive possibilities for interpreting the film. These are the logical complements of the above positions: the approaches which celebrate similarity. According to these positions, similarity to a norm (social or formal) is a good thing. And, again as might be expected, these arguments of sameness are those most favoured in the straight press. Once again, reviews of The Sum of Us provide a fascinating correlative to work on Priscilla in the Australian press.

James Berardinelli provides an example of this discursive position, and one whose language is particularly productive:

Strong, unaffected performances by leads Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe … emphasize our sense of Harry and Jeff as normal everyday people [46]

“[U]naffected” as a term of praise implies that “affected” behaviour — that is, effeminate, camp, excessive behaviour – is to be decried. And yet it is precisely that affected behaviour which has characterised performed homosexualities for a large part of this century. In this “straight” review, the term is negatively charged, and The Sum of Us is proposed as a film which should be read, firstly, as showing that homosexual men are in fact just the same as straight people (“normal”, “everyday”); and secondly that this is a good thing.

And once again, this schema can also be applied to Priscilla (and once again, within a straight arena). The film, in this reading formation, in fact shows that queer culture is not all that different from straight culture; and that it should be celebrated for that fact:

The real triumph of Priscillaseems to be its portrayal of drag queens as people with ordinary emotions … As Miss LSD puts it: “I thought it was just fabulous … just being another person who just happens to put on frocks …” [47]

In this discourse, sameness can be used to write homosexuality entirely out of the film. David Bongiorno writes a review in the (painfully) straight West Australian, which marks the possibilities of this interpretive approach in its headline: “Priscilla isn’t gay rights, just wacky entertainment”:

radicals [those who would demand difference in filmic representations?] … miss the point of this cinematic exercise in high camp frivolity. Priscilla is an entertainment. It’s the type of movie you can take your whole family to without fear of offending any of them[48]

In Bongiorno’s reading, Priscilla fails to transgress: and should thus be celebrated, in a reading which is explicit in addressing its interpretive community: “you can take your whole family”. Despite the interventions of the queer community in definitions of that term, the “family” audience of the West Australian seems unlikely to include same-sex partners.

Lest it seem that too simplistic a mapping is being suggested between interpretive communities and discursive strategies, it should be noted that the gay press also proves able to celebrate films by noting their “sameness”. Clive Simmons in Outrage, for example, introduces some of the terms which adhere around this argument, when he suggests of The Sum of Us that: 

the film realistically portrays the ways in which gay men are like other men, and sadly the ways in which we are not allowed to be … It’s a wonderfully positive film, in that it refuses to be bound by the stereotypes and caricatures common to most mainstream films … ‘The gay characters in the film are not clichéd, with high heels or with limp-wristed accents [sic]. They’re just people ….’ [says actor John Polson] … It succeeds brilliantly because it presents gay men in a positive light, and not as freaks … [49]

In this discourse, then, “positive” images are those which are interpreted in terms of “sameness”. Conversely, representations of difference are to be criticised. Written into this review of  Sum is an implicit review of Priscilla, one where an unsuccessful representation of gay men would be a “clichéd” (stereotyped) one, where the characters wore high heels (drag queens), and had “limp-wristed accents” (a transferred epithet which addresses both vocal and physical performances of camp). In this discourse, representations of gayness in terms of these differences from heterosexual masculinity are unacceptable.

iv) Different/bad: “stereotypes”

The use of the term “freaks” in the above quotation is interesting, for freaks have a definite presence in writing about gay representation. As before, the argument that similarity-is-good has as its concomitant arguments that difference-is-bad: and as Priscilla has been interpreted according to each of the three preceding strategies, it is unsurprising this last category also proves amenable to Priscilla-mobilisation.

Andrew Mast’s reading of Priscilla at the start of this article fits this model of difference as bad, and evokes the same terminology: the film features “clichés; such as “no queen can be truly happy”. Finding the representation of loveless, selfish, hard drinking queers to be a depressing one, Mast calls for positive aspects:

Priscilla shows nothing of the uplifting side of the drag or gay and lesbian community … [I]t paints an inaccurate portrayal of gay lifestyles in Australia today [50]

In attacking Priscilla, though, as well as such terminology as might be expected (“inaccurate”, “clichés”), a more surprising term is mobilised. The set of arguments in which difference is to be condemned can invoke the concept of “freaks”:

drag demands an audience … a community (a gay community) … Decontextualised [drag queens] are always in danger of becoming merely freaks [51]

“Freaks” are humans who are marked (physically) by difference. Freaks are transgressive to the point of stepping over the boundary of what marks human-ness itself. This is the dynamic noted by Philippe Cahill: “[Priscilla] humanises, while playing on the notion of homosexuals, especially drag queens, as freaks”.[52] Difference can be characterised as “freakishness”, unbounded and in-humanly transgressive, in discourses which condemn the presentation of difference.

 Different differences
(Similar sameness)

From this overview of the arguments taking place in these discursive sites, it should be apparent that there is no “obvious” reading of Priscilla. This article begins from the assumption that it is not possible to predict in advance the meanings which will be made of a film in a particular cultural context. There is no unproblematic “manifest content” to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The film shows drag queens as just like ordinary people; or the film shows drag queens as freaks. It is sympathetic to them, or unsympathetic to them. This is not simply a matter of a difference of values to be placed on similar interpretations; the interpretations themselves see the film as working in quite different ways.

It should also be clear, however, that the public discourses available in film reviewing work to close down the possibilities of making meaning from these films by agreeing that there are very few questions worth asking of the film. The axis of consideration is similarity or difference: the terminology available depends on a matrix developed from this (stereotype, positive image, transgressiveness, assimilation).

In writing about homosexuality, the survival in popular discourses of such a rigid approach to making sense of homosexuality is problematic. One of the most productive, and historically important, debates in the history of writing about the representation of queers has been that which challenges this very axis of similarity and difference.

Earlier debates insistently worried about whether gay men and/or lesbians should be represented as being “the same as” or “different from” a mythical “mainstream identity – white, middle-class, monogamous, mortgaged and salaried” [53] :

the mainstream queer (not the oxymoron it may seem) media presents self-censored and positive representations of muff-divers and cocksuckers. It’s the ‘good gays and lesbians’ stuff, assimilationist, happily consumerist and deeply conservative [54]

These arguments are familiar, and obviously reductive. There is a tendency to collapse “sameness” and “difference” into a simple and static binary, effacing with these terms the relationships between a variety of quite distinct issues. In this gloss of similarity and difference is lost a complex series of distinctions: does a recognition of equal rights, or equal status, or equal access to means of representation, require an effacement of other kinds of difference?

Academic writing has increasingly begun to acknowledge and explore the complexity of these issues. Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, for example, makes clear that arguments about the necessary sameness or difference of homosexuals from straight culture invoke a terminology which is obviously suggestive for the very term “homo”-sexuality:

I do not, myself, believe same-sex relationships are much more likely to be based on similarity than are cross-sex relationships … I certainly do not believe that any given man must be assumed to have more in common with any other given man than he can possibly have in common with any given woman … How does a man’s love of other men become a love of the same? [55]  

If a homosexuality whose nomenclature demands an ontology of similarity is already based on an elided difference, then the relationships of that no-longer homogenous category to wider society are necessarily more complex than simply negotiations of sameness and difference might suggest. In a feminist context, “theorists of difference” have advanced philosophical arguments about the nature of difference which explicitly deconstruct the very binary: “sameness/difference”, pointing out the necessity of a primary and dominant term in any concept of “difference” (different from what?), and attempting to find a way of thinking difference which would not function in such a way: “a non-binarized differential understanding of relations”.[56]

Despite the availability of increasingly sophisticated arguments about the nature of similarity and difference, public reviews involving these terms are circulated around Priscilla in straightforward and simplistic terms. Homosexual culture is imagined to be contiguous with homosexual identity, the same elision occurring for the space of “the heterosexual”. As two massively homogenous and static entities, it is then possible to compare these sexual domains, and to argue about their similarity or difference. In this discursive arena, Priscilla is interpreted and evaluated in one of four, broadly sketched, ways. The film can be interpreted as showing gays as different, and therefore being a good representation (the mnemonic for this argument might be “transgressive”); as showing gays as different and therefore being a bad representation (“stereotypes”); as showing gays as the same and therefore being a good representation (“positive images”); or as showing gays as the same and therefore being a bad representation (“assimilation”). As might be expected, the dissemination of these positions occurs unequally across the straight and the gay presses.


An analysis of the interpretations of Priscilla which were circulated during the period of its initial release makes clear that attempts to insist on its “racism” or “misogyny” or its “homophobia” – however well intentioned their politics might be – are sacrificing a necessary critical insight into the lack of manifest content of films.

More than this, it reveals that the interpretations which are offered in the public sphere are strongly informed by identity politics itself – on the lookout for stereotypes and positive images, concerned about assimilation and transgression. My point is simply this: that it is not necessary simply to accept these reductive categories in order critically to engage with the film and the representations it offers. I use the word “critically” here because it may indeed not be possible to make this move and remain “political”: in the sense that, as Gibson notes, this term has traditionally been associated with certainty and the ultimate refusal of the discursive nature of key terms in critical thinking. [57] Nevertheless, it is possible to engage with Priscilla, with its representations, with the interpretations which are offered of the film, in a way which does not simply celebrate polysemy, but analyses the variety of interpretive approaches which are offered to the film.

Introduction (4)

1994 was the year in which Australia’s Celluloid Closet burst into quite unexpected, and spectacularly colourful, flames (as old nitrate film stock is wont to do). With a cinematic flourish, the firm and sensible homosociality underlying Sunday Too Far Away, We of the Never Never, even (in a different key) Picnic at Hanging Rockwas replaced with a visible and popular Australian filmic homosexuality. One of the most popular films of the year was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; together with The Sum of Us, this hugely visible and successful film began to rewrite the sexuality of “Australia”, and radically to alter the circulation of this elusive quality in an international context. But what exactly should be said about Priscilla?

One approach would be to say about Priscilla exactly what has been said. Priscilla is the best and worst representation of gay men ever committed to celluloid in Australia. It celebrates difference and promotes sameness. It is assimilatory and it shows freakish distinction. It is all of these and more. In 1990s Australia, it proved to be a prominent cultural item in attempts to insist on similarity and difference as suitable terms for conceptualising a homosexual identity. There were a few voices suggesting that the film was full of “stereotypes”. Many noted its assimilative potential. Some interpretations drew attention to its positive images. Others celebrated the transgressiveness of the film. But this is not a democratic process (where minorities always lose out anyway), and we cannot say that its status has finally been decided.

What then to say about The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ? Until we know what questions we should be asking, a search for answers seems to be a strangely premature obsession.


[1] Notable landmarks in the desert-trail that is Australian cinema’s previous representation of homosexuality would include The Clinic (Stevens, 1982), a peculiarly skewed Frank Moorhouse view of the subject in The Everlasting Secret Family (Thornill, 1988) and the terrifying sight of Barry Humphries in drag as Dame Edna Everidge in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford, 1972.). Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka would add the camp adolescent of Starstruck to this list (Armstrong, 1982), although the character is not explicitly homosexual.
[2] Simon Hunt, “Our bus goes bush”, Sydney Star Observer, 8 September 1994, 42.
[3] Andrew Mast, “Queen of the desert is dragging us down”, Brother/Sister, September 1994.
[4] Mark Gibson, ” ‘Being political’ in communication and cultural studies: theorising the Pacific Rim”, Australian Journal of Communication 22(2) (1995), 95-107.
[5] John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek (London and New York: Routledge. 1995), 21.
[6] Pamela Robertson, “The adventures of Priscilla in Oz”, Media International Australia 78 (November 1995), 33.
[7] Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time and Perversion (St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 1995), 18.
[8] For instance, a chapter I wrote for a book entitled The Resurgence of Racism which interrogated the ways in which Australian public discourse explicitly attempts to disavow its racism was rewritten without my consent by the book’s editors in order to make it a more standard attack on “racist” media representations.
[9] Diane Waldman, “There’s more to positive images than meets the eye”, in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Patricia Erens (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990[1978]).
[10] Alan McKee (1997) “The generic limitations of Aboriginality: Horror movies as case study”, Australian Studies (UK), 12(1) (Summer 1997), 115-138.
[11] This is particularly the case in writing around representations of race: see, for example, the reliance on “stereotype” as a descriptive term in the work of bell hooks – bell hooks, Reel to Real : Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (New York, NY : Routledge, 1996). An interesting case study is the work of Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, who examine the “positive images” of The Cosby Show, in order to discover the “real” racism hidden underneath – Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the American Dream (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991). For writing on the queer situation, see Alan McKee, “‘Resistance is useless’: assimilating queer theory”, Social Semiotics 9(2) (1999), 235-250.
[12] Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (New York: NLB, 1980), 15.
[13] Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott, Bond and Beyond : The Political Career of a Popular Hero (Basingstoke : Macmillan Education, 1987).
[14] Jane Feuer, Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism (London: BFI Publishing, 1995), 134.
[15] Meaghan Morris, “The practice of reviewing”, Framework, 22/23 (Autumn 1983), 54.
[16] Quoted in Tulloch and Jenkins, 127.
[17] Darren Devlyn, “Errol Flynn would be turning in his grave”, TV Week, 17 September 1994; Vicky Roach, “Facing up to the fear”, Telegraph-Mirror (Sydney), 27 August 1994, 94; Rob Lowing, “The rollercoaster life of Terence Stamp”, The Sunday Age (Melbourne), 17 July 1994
[18] David Bongiorno, “Priscilla isn’t gay rights, just wacky entertainment”, The Examiner (Launceston), 4 October 1994; Tanya Giles, “Little Queenie”, Herald Sun(Melbourne), 8 September 1994.
[19] Despene Clarke, “Three \ queens beats a hot flush”, the West Australian, 29 August 1994.
[20] Mark Nagzalas, “Priscilla conks out”, the West Australian, 8 September 1994. It is interesting to note the logic of this equation – it is obvious that here, “heterosexual” in fact means “male-heterosexual”; unless Naglazas also finds heterosexual female Australian directors to be “hard-bitten”.
[21] Clive Simmons, “What the mirror reveals”, Outrage 138 (November 1994).
[22] Simon Hunt, “Three drags conquer world”, Sydney Star Observer, 25 August 1994, 38.
[23] Note that while the newspapers discussed in most cases name themselves as “lesbian and gay”, most commentary on the film was written by men, and discussed specifically the representation of men.
[24] John Hartley, The Politics of Pictures (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1992), 85.
[25] Anon, “Priscilla: the bus stops here, Albury Hotel”, Sydney Star Observer, 22 September 1994, 41.
[26] Anon, “Stars at Priscilla launch”, Outrage 138 (November 1994), 7.
[27] Gavin McGuren, “Cocks in frocks rock the bush”, The West Side Observer 85, (October 1994), 29.
[28] Hunt, “Three drags”, 38.
[29] Hunt, “Our bus”, 42.
[30] Ben Widdicombe, “Diary of a sleaze virgin”, Sydney Star Observer, 22 September 1994, 19-20.
[31] Anon, “Fuck Calvins”, Sydney Star Observer, 25 August 1994, p28.
[32] Anon, “Sydney Antique Centre”, Capital Q, 14 October 1994, 27.
[33] Hunt, 3 drags, 38.
[34] Mark Finch, “Sex and address in Dynasty”, Screen 27(6) (1986), 24-43.
[35] This despite evidence that gay identities in particular tend to be more available to wealthy and educated individuals – that is, the white middle class. See G W Dowsett, Mark Davis and R W Connell, “Gay lifestyles of the not-so rich and quite unfamous”, in Gay Perspectives: Essays in Australian Gay Culture, ed. Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon (Sydney: Departments of Economic History, University of Sydney, 1992), 15; Neil Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present (London: Vintage, 1995), xxi.
[36] Barbara Hammer, “The politics of abstraction”, in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, John Greyson and Prathiba Parmar (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 72.
[37] Gavin McGuren, “David Stevens sums it up”, West Side Observer 83, October 1994, 22.
[38] Marie Louise Hunt, “From football to froufrou: heterosexual Australia and homosexual humour”, unpublished paper, delivered to the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Conference, Perth, 1995, pages unnumbered.
[39] Ann Maria Dell-Oso, “Absolutely fabulous fun”, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1994.
[40] Mark Leeper, “Review of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert“,
[41] Slavin, Sean (1994), “Nice gay blokes”, Capital Q, (22 July 1994),16.
[42] Marcus O’Donnell, “Love and the serial killer”, Outrage 137 (October 1994), 26.
[43] Ignatius Jones, “Gaytown, USA”, Campaign (August 1994), 32.
[44] Susan Ardill, “A nation of groovers? Not!”, Sydney Star Observer, 22 August 1994, 16.
[45] O’Donnell, 6.
[46] James Berardinelli, “Review, The Sum of Us,
[47] Lawrie Zion (1994), “Priscilla passes a tough drag test”, Age (Melbourne), 8 September 1994.
[48] Bongiorno, “Priscilla isn’t gay rights”.
[49] Clive Simmons, “The Sum of Us“, Outrage 136 (September 1994), 26.
[50] Mast, “Queen”.
[51] O’Donnell, 6.
[52] Phillipe Cahill, “Dream Weaving”, Campaign 222 (September 1994), 21.
[53] Finch, 33.
[54] Stephen Dunne, “Inter/erupt! Queer zine scene”, Media International Australia, 78 (November 1995), 65.
[55] Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, Epistomology of the Closet (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 160.
[56] Grosz, 54, 72.
[57] Gibson, “Being political”.

About the Author

Alan McKee

About the Author

Alan Mckee

Alan McKee is a Professor in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology. He leads the Curriculum Development team for the Bachelor of Entertainment Industries. He has researched extensively on the history of entertainment, including television entertainment. His most recent book is The Porn Report (with Catharine Lumby and Kath Albury), Melbourne University Press, 2008.View all posts by Alan McKee →