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.


Ms Chief said...

interesting - its funny how your mind can blank out things - but I remember these parts of the film only vaguely. I took a young man with severe learning disabilities to see it who loves buses who all the way through the film shouted "it's a pink bus, a bus called Priscilla"

I have a thing about Thelma and Louise - a great film about feminism however it takes good looking hunk to give Louise an orgasm and then he robs her! He's not remmebered for robbing her but fucking her! What's that all about?

Anyway I don't think I will rush to watch Priscilla, Queen of the Desert anyway because drag queens really annoy me - I don't understand what is going on with them.

Madam Miaow said...

I, too, loved the pink bus called Priscilla, Ms Chief. And the frocks and the big musical numbers. It's everything else that sucked.

Another reason not to go is the hefty £92 ticket price for the stalls. Seats go down to £20 but take your own telescope.

Guilty for also not foregrounding in my memory the fact that the guy robs as well as makes sweet lurve to our heroine. But it was early Brad Pitt so I forgive myself.

Mr. Divine said...

If you go down Kings Cross in Sydney you'll spot quite a few tranvs with beards. There's safety in numbers. One-on-one I'm sure they'll hold their own in any barny (claw the eyes out of any Paul Hogan wannabe). But you've got to pick your fights .. it's no good when you're outnumbered.

Besides it's all change with the generations communications and immigration. Some guys still do the Hogan strut but there are others like me who wear pink shorts on a Sunday.

Madam Miaow said...

"... others like me who wear pink shorts on a Sunday."

That's one church to which I could happily belong.

Mr. Divine said...

Pink shorts may not be a problem, but what about matching them with a Michael Jackson tight fitting leather glove on one hand, a orange and purple hortizontal stripped polo shirt with a large rearing horse embroidered near one's heart, an elongated green sun visor, good gripping black and white shoes, and plenty of sun cream in all exposed regions?
Beginners welcome.

Vicky said...

Interesting, I've seen Priscilla several times and enjoyed it immensely each time. I first watched it while a huge Lord of the Rings fan because it has Hugo Weaving in it. It never dawned on me that anything particularly negative could be said about it from a political perspective, so your own interpretation is quite enlightening. Might have to watch it again sometime and have another think.

Mr. Divine said...

There was quite a strong anti-Asian element in Australia in the early 1990s. At this time the japanese economy was very strong and Japanese companies were buying huge wads of seaside land. There were also burning of Japanese cars in the USA. I think there was a feeling that Japan was going to buy the world.
The economic situation and people's perceptions have changed significantly since then. Most Australians see Asia as an opportunity rather than a threat. Perhaps if the film was made now an non-Asian would play the role of the villain.

I know what you mean by typecasting Asians. American films had a period of casting slightly upper class Brits in the villain roles in the mid 1990s.

Frank Partisan said...

Really interesting review.

In the world of identity politics, one group is played against the other.

Minneapolis has the largest nonjuried Fringe Festival in the world. One year I produced Sentir Venezolano, a Venezuelan folkloric dance troop.

Mr. Divine said...

I've just done a piece on a place in the OZ outback.

Madam Miaow said...

Renegade Eye, I think you are right if you are pointing out the dangers of making everything purely an issue of identity politics. In Priscilla we see that underneath the lip-service to class and colour how it's really bourgeois values that prevail.

Infantile, I'd completely forgotten Hugo Weaving until I was looking up movie pix for the blog. I was amazed to see Agent Smith staring back at me.

Mr Divine, that's some interesting extra light shed on how being made in Australia might have skewed race attitudes even further. Weren't there some beach tussles with Lebanese a year of two ago?

Mr. Divine said...

I don't know who started the Cronulla riots in 2005 as there are various reports.
Hope your show went well.

Mr. Divine said...

I've been reading a bit about the Cronulla riots in Sydney. One report suggests that the initial spark was that three lifeguards were assaulted by by muslims annoyed at the attire of females on the beach. Other say tha gangs of white started targetting arabic looking people in the area to 'claim the beach back.'! I wouldn't know who to believe.

There is racism here and cultural intolerance, but there is also a great deal of mutual respect regardless of race, income or age. Society feels very open minded and good humoured.

Frank Partisan said...

I remember reading about the Cronulla riots in 2005. Blame becomes irrelevant.

Mr. Divine said...

Renegade Eye:

Blame is irrelevant
It's what happens now
That matters.

Madam Miaow said...

Mr Divine, that's almost a haiku.

Mr. Divine said...

It could have been
A haiku
If only I knew
What one was

Madam Miaow said...

Mr Divine, Google is our friend.

Mr. Divine said...

Madam Miaow
Thank you for your link to Haiku. I have written a little piece on, 'What is a haiku?" which I would love you to read .. and if possible make a comment. Do I have the haiku right?

Mrs. M. said...

just like Ms Chief it has been so long since i've seen the film that my memories about it are sort of sketchy. basically the only thing I really recall is how magnetic John Leguizamo was. Then again, that man is always amazing. Really an underated actor that doesn't get the credit he deserves.
that's disappointing though to hear about the live production. that's why im usually a firm believer in not messing with an original. very rarely does it get executed in near the same fashion and almost always winds up being a disaster for one reason or another.

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Mrs M,

The review is of the original film. All those elements were in the movie and I was hoping that, 15 years later, the producers of the stage version haven't incorporated all the woman-hating aspects.

I haven't seen the stage musical so I'll have to wait for someone to let me know if it's just as bad.

Timmzilla said...

You are incorrect about claiming that Bernadette (who you insensitively refer to as Ralph) savagely beat up a woman in a bar. She uses her words to embarass the woman which ultimately creates a bond between the two. This leads to the two women engaging in a drinking contest in which Bernadette bests Shirley. Though your identity-politics analysis makes some strong point about the film's use of racialized imagery of Asian women, ultimately this glaring error makes your argument significantly weaker.

Timmzilla said...

In your review, while making important claims about the racialized imagery used in the portrayal of Cynthia you make one glaring error and an equally offensive remark. You have claimed that at the pub in Broken Hill Ralph brutally beats a woman. This is entirely incorrect. Bernadette (one should not refer to a transsexual woman by her previous name; this is considered very derogatory and rude) uses her words to embarrass the excessively rude Shirley. In doing so she actually bonds with Shirley and they eventually engage in a friendly drinking contest in which Bernadette bests Shirley. In your statement about you argue that you will not post "transphobic" comments, when in fact you use transphobic language in referring to "Ralph." The film's reliance on the yellow peril myth and racial stereotyping of Filipina women is one problematic element in an otherwise very important and critically acclaimed film. Which film that portrays drag queens is better?

Madam Miaow said...

I don't about the stage play, but in the film Ralph (sorry, this is the name given in the movie) whacks the stocky short-haired masculinised woman — unless the film makers have re-cut or re-shot this scene. It is a male assaulting a woman, presented as a woman-on-woman catfight just because (s)he is wearing a frock.

Madam Miaow said...

Tim, re the protocol and sensitivity of names, if Bernadette is at the point of the assault a pre-op or post-op transexual, then I am happy to refer to the character by her female name. In the passage of time I've forgotten the chronology of the film.

The assault is still of a male musculature on a woman.