Saturday, 21 March 2009
Priscilla Queen of the Desert review: looks pretty, tastes foul
The stage musical version of The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert opened this month in London’s West End.
I saw the original film when it opened at the 1994 Edinburgh Film Festival. I’d been looking forward to it as I’d always warmed to the men and women I’d met in the gay community who were full of the exuberance of challenging their oppression and winning major battles. I found them to be great role-models and lots of fun. Here, at last, was a movie made about them.
Imagine my surprise to see the all-white troupe of drag queens at the centre of the story looking after their own interests as a minority; cast as heroes, not against their enemies in the real world, but against Cynthia, an evil East Asian woman who is a Filipino import bride with a manic compulsion for firing ping-pong balls from her vagina. Depicted as the shrewish scourge of Bob, the beloved blue-collar mechanic, in reality the women she represents make up one of the most pitiful, least powerful minorities on the planet. Cynthia fulfils every dirty sleazy lazy stereotype conceived around the Yellow Peril and their sexuality.
What’s more, we are manipulated into identifying with Ralph/Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a solid-built pre-op male when he savagely beats up a woman in a bar. But that’s OK, it’s a butch bull-dyke he’s so bloodily putting in her place.
With both of these women, their differences puts them beyond the scope of our sympathies and legitimises them as targets. They are a far cry from the model “normal” woman the film finds acceptable: the white businesswoman, also a gay mother, possessing all the confidence her class and colour confer. You can be a lesbian but you must be feminine and able to thrive as one of the bourgeoisie. If you are feminine, as Cynthia unmistakeably is, then no jungle-fucking allowed: you must have control over your sexuality. The message is clear: transgressive outsiders are objects to be feared, hated and bashed up. Conform or suffer the consequences.
A passing group of Aborigines is let off because they agree to dress up in the heroes’ tranny garb, revealing yet more egotism from the filmmakers; they’re alright because they are like me.
The film can squeal and flaunt its self-proclaimed courage on the surface all it likes: it screams to me of cowardice and failure, of picking on those weaker than yourself, of a desperation to be taken into the fold as “one of us” rather than standing proudly by your identity and taking the consequences. A film that’s supposed to celebrate the cult of individuality is undermined by its deeper message that you must conform to some pretty basic sheepherding. Underneath the flamboyence there is a reactionary thrust to its values. It uses fear of Other to condition its audience which I find quite hypocritical when you consider who’s making this film and about what.
Madam Miaow as Suzy Wrong
The 1994 Edinburgh film festival coincided with the fringe festival debut of my solo show, Suzy Wrong — Human Cannon, in which I’d directed maximum firepower at some of the nastier stereotypes of East Asian women littering the joint: happy hookers Suzy Wong and Juicy Lucy from Virgin Soldiers, dragon ladies Madam Mao and Imelda Marcos, and assorted sex myths. The show’s climactic “coup de theatre”, following a wind-up where I hinted that I might put out ping-pong balls, was my appearance with a kapok-stuffed sex-doll, cunningly concealing a pump-action ping pong ball gun whose muzzle fired out of the business end of my blow-up friend: Suzy and her Uzi. Night after night I enjoyed reversing expectations and mowed down the expectant audience who were gagging for it, dahlings.
But I had been wondering whether in 1994 it was still worth bothering satirising stupid outmoded depictions of us Pacific Rimmers.
Priscilla was a sharp reminder that the battle was still on.
Oh, I would have liked a Q& fuckin’ A session with writer and director Stephan Elliott that night, all right.
This was gay liberation lite. The original Gay Liberation movement had a connection with all the other groups struggling for their emancipation. There was a sense of purpose, a political and philosophical basis to their activities and outlook. You can see the vestiges of that golden age in Peter Tatchell, whose political nous and humanity puts many of us to shame.
Now, if you’re East Asian, or the wrong sort of woman, you can be portrayed as a monster deserving of beatings and abuse with hardly a dissenting murmer. You don’t count. The characters in the film and those involved in the making of the film may be part of a minority that’s suffered, but they’re OK – the boot is now on the other foot and in everyone else’s face. Their comradeship only extends to anyone who happens to be built in their image. Screw empathy and compassion, it’s their turn now and they’re going to enjoy kicking down from their elevated status a rung or two up the ladder.
But it looks pretty and spectacular and we can ignore the sick messages pouring out.
So. There I sat in the Edinburgh Filmhouse — dehumanised as a woman, dehumanised as an East Asian, dehumanised as a human being. But audiences will love it and make Mr Elliott a shedload of money. After all, We Will Rock You is still running against all good taste.
UPDATE: London reviews of Priscilla, the Musical here
UPDATE Tues 15th January 2013: One thing learned from the Lobstergate row — currently engulfing Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill and now Julie Bindel, all strong women and nice big juicy targets — is that "trannie" is now deemed to be an insulting term for trans-women. As language moves around (I feel uncomfortable with "oriental" and "Chinaman" but gleefully use "Pacific Rimmers" whenever possible) I am happy to be sensitive to to the use of "trannie" which appeared in the comments. This is something we can agree on — but it shouldn't detract from the core of the argument of this piece. Solidarity is a two-way street.