Trans Women in Drag: The Social Problems Within The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
As our textbook discusses, social problems are conditions which cause mental and financial distress to a part of the population as well as behaviors that violate a society’s desired norms (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 10). Amongst the most compelling and compulsive standards in society are those which define gendered behavior. In our current patriarchal system, those who are deemed to be female are considered less valuable, as shown by women’s lower income levels and other issues (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 232). Since being female is undervalued, a man who acts in a way that is defined as feminine is very likely to face some form of social censure. This is demonstrated in ample measure in the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (TAPQD). The three main characters are popularly seen during the course of depicted events as gender-variant men, including the transgender woman in the trio. Their shared and respective struggles highlight how society’s defining gender deviance as a problem causes more trouble than it solves for themselves and others.
Taking on the issues within TAPQD as gender deviance instead of focusing strictly on sexual orientation issues is a necessary choice to properly explicate it on a sociological level. If I were to only discuss how the straight characters reacted to gayness, the principal female character’s entire plot line would be erased. Despite being portrayed by a cisgender male, Bernadette is a transgender woman. As she is female, her attraction to men is heterosexual in nature. It is the presumption that trans women are still male that leads to the problems she faces. As for her compatriots, Mitzi/Tick and Felicia/Adam, they are cisgender men who dress in drag. They face their most significant issues when they do so or otherwise vary from heteronormative standards by being openly gay. Dropping the glitter and heels in favor of conventionally masculine attire would render either man’s deviances invisible on sight. Bernadette need only speak regardless of her clothing to raise questions in most people’s minds. The fact the textbook completely ignores transgender issues is unfortunate for several reasons, but it does not make this analysis impossible.
The fact our textbook focuses on the United States while TAPQD is set in Australia is no burden at all when outlining the reasons oppression based on gender-related behaviors developed and continue to exist. As both countries were founded by empire builders from the United Kingdom, we share a common economic origin. This shared root is capitalism. Capitalist systems have maintained and enforced gender stratification for centuries due to the belief men are more economically productive by nature (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 215-6). Whether homosexuality is considered appropriate in a capitalist system is both currently in a state of flux and historically ironic, since it can be argued that the rise of wage labor over family farming as a principal means of making a living brought about our culture’s ability to even have a concept of sexual orientation, let alone witness the rise of a subculture focused on non-heterosexual relationship patterns (D’Emilio, 1983). Regardless of where lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people stand in that tally, deviance is a part of our social fabric as a means of contrasting who is behaving properly versus who is not (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 244). The advancements in acceptance of same-gender marriage both seem to indicate a shift in one social meaning of deviance and the reinforcement of another, since marriage can now be enforced as the ultimate goal for that sort of couple as well as the mixed-gender kind. It also does not eliminate legal discrimination against members of that group, as only twenty-eight states forbid people to be fired or refused work due to their sexual orientation (Fu, 2017).
Where the above places transgender people, trans women in particular, is a different argument. As society is currently constructed, trans people are not accepted. In fact, they tend to suffer economic hardships above and beyond those of cis people. A study conducted by the Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress found that trans people in the USA were four times more likely to live in poverty than their cis counterparts (Kellaway, 2015). This was credited to the large gap in social acceptance for trans people alongside widespread and legally acceptable discrimination against them in housing and employment. For every Laverne Cox or Chas Bono getting air time and a platform for their views, there are hundreds of people otherwise like them struggling to get by and turning to alternative means of earning money. Doing drag shows like Bernadette is one such legal approach.
The aforementioned rise in LGB acceptance despite the lag for the T in the boilerplate acronym may make TAPQD seem a bit dated to some eyes. However, while legal sanction exists, social acceptance has to catch up with it. This delay is seen as more probable in areas where the residents are of lower economic classes and thus are not as educated as their city-dwelling peers. But it seems the traveling trio would face fewer social obstacles were they to embark on their journey today. Australia’s postal vote on marriage equality earlier this year was a strong voice of support for it overall, but the areas that submitted more No than Yes votes were working-class or immigrant-rich suburbs while rural districts favored the plebiscite (Reynolds, 2017). This leads to the question of why the screenwriters put Bernadette, Mitzi, and Felicia on a trip through the center of Australia. It seems likely they felt that the outback is a haven for what we would call “dumb hicks” living in the deep woods of the South or rural areas of the Midwest. Thus they could show the trio being refused service at bars or worse and comfort their urban audiences into thinking it wouldn’t happen in their part of the world. A casual glance at the murder statistics for transgender people in the last year would put the lie to that, as several of them died in places like Chicago, Baltimore, and Manhattan (Human Rights Campaign, 2017). And the current Presidential administration’s abortive desire to ban openly transgender people from serving in the military (Dwyer, 2017) and the attorney general’s claims that federal law does not protect LGBT people from job-related discrimination (Cain, 2017) shows which groups in our country still wish to cling to these beliefs. The fact that religiously conservative Australians voted No in the marriage plebiscite more often than Yes would seem to indicate their die-hard oppressors are much the same as ours (Reynolds, 2017).
Despite how obviously sweeping the problems are for LGBT people, the focus and message of TAPQD feels far more intimate and personal. The main characters never discuss politics. They have no larger motivation to make their cross-country trek other than earning money. And their simple goal is to get to the town where they’ve been hired for a few weeks without starving or otherwise dying along the way. The fact they are unabashed about their gender-variant status is what leads to both conflict and resolution for them. Their behavior would make them activists of a sort (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 260). LGBT visibility can improve acceptance, demonstrated by how the existence of gay-straight alliance clubs in high schools has risen from 100 in 1997 to over 3,500 in 2014 (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2014, p. 261). The scene in which Bernadette and her friends step into a bar and are challenged over their right to be there only to enjoy a night of partying and at least begrudging tolerance after she made it clear she wasn’t going to bow to intimidation tactics demonstrates this concept. In fact, the skill with which she verbally eviscerated her challenger is what told the crowd the trio were acceptable company. Showing a strong will in the face of pressure to collapse at least temporarily negated the perception the three were limp-wristed pushovers.
When considering whether this movie’s plot would work if the groups were changed around, there is already a film that made some attempt at doing so. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar was a Hollywood production released in 1995 that mimicked the concept of three drag queens on a road trip but placed them in the United States with a multi-racial trio of performers. It also eliminated the female character in favor of making all three gay men, and they were stuck in the same town for weeks instead of running into different people over the course of their journey. While TAPQD presented a mixed bag of resolutions along the way, the Wong Foo trio won over anyone they didn’t have to defeat in the end. This rendered it more of a feel-good fantasy than the realistically messy business of surviving what you can’t control in TAPQD. If the gay men were replaced by drag kings, the gender dynamics would be extremely different. Women who play men on a theatrical basis, as well as transgender men, are relatively invisible to society. While you can find men on the yearly lists of murdered trans people in the US, they are always more rare. The list for this year currently contains three men’s names alongside 19 women’s and one non-binary person’s (Human Rights Campaign, 2017). This may or may not be related to how known cases of people who were identified as female at birth requesting gender confirmation surgery lag far behind their male-identified cohort, with 1 in 30,000 assigned males seeking GCS while 1 in 100,000 assigned females are known to do so in the US (DSM-IV as cited by Kaplan, 2010).
Overall, there are many other things that could be said about TAPQD. The reliance on the trio calling each other gendered insults and nicknames alongside Felicia’s insistence on using Bernadette’s birth name as a weapon against her accurately presents how some gay men adopt the stereotypes as both behavioral guidelines and badges of honor as well as the transphobia they can often display regardless of the on-paper unity of the two groups. It could be argued that it also reinforces them. Casting Terrence Stamp as Bernadette was one in a long line of such movie choices that echoes the cultural belief that trans women are men in skirts. And the only gay characters being drag queens is fitting for the story line but belies the community’s diversity. Mitzi identifying as gay while having a son and Felicia’s apparent attempt to be a husband of sorts to Bernadette leaves the question of bisexuality wide open (but Mitzi’s wife having had a girlfriend according to her son also subtly confirms its existence). All that said, the story is still very interesting and moving. Funny and frightening, well-written and acted, it may be a period piece, but it still speaks today. We just understand it differently in the wake of further knowledge about the realities of being gender-deviant.