These films are about men who dress as women. They’re both comedies and they both make a concerted effort to show that the distinction between genders is not as straight forward (pardon the pun!) as it may seem. Both go to extremes to humanise their larger than life ‘drag queen’ leads as much as possible, yet often at the cost of dehumanising the surrounding characters. Both also have freakishly long titles.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) follows the story of three men who enjoy dressing in drag; Felicia (otherwise known as Adam, played by Guy Pearce), who is gay, one who used to be married and has fathered a child, Mitzi (or ‘Tick’ played by Hugo Weaving) and one who is taking copious amounts of hormones after an operation to become a woman, Bernadette (Terence Stamp).
The sexuality of the men in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) is less of a focus; but the film does make more of an obvious point to explain the concept of a ‘drag queen’ to its presumably naive audience. Noxemma (in a surprisingly flamboyant performance from Wesley Snipes) states, “When a straight man puts in a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is a Transsexual… When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender he is a drag queen.” Despite these films being a joyful celebration of drag queens, they seem to have behind them more of a purpose of trying to explain gender definitions and to make a potentially unfamiliar and daunting topic that many people may have prejudices about as sanitised and commercial as possible; through the medium of humour.
The movies both deal with the joy and the struggles (though more fleetingly) of being a drag queen, and this is told primarily through juxtaposing the main characters with a brutal setting. In Priscilla, the desert is an isolated place, where it seems humanity in general does not belong; and yet, this marginalised group are not intimidated in this setting. For Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette, journeying through the desert on a large lavender-coloured, safety-blanket of a bus is about having the freedom to ride on its roof in a giant high-heeled shoe and lip-synch to their heart’s content (amid plumes of brightly coloured smoke.) Incidentally, I like the idea that these characters lip-synch to other people’s voices, they have no voice of their own – and this dimension is completely lost in the stage musical version which I refuse to see for this reason…
The two sets of characters in both films are on a road trip; in Priscilla they are travelling from Sydney, to a drag show in Alice Springs. In To Wong Fo, the audience goes on a drive with Noxeema (Snipes), Vida (Patrick Swayze) and Chi-Chi (John Lequizamo) from New York to a drag queen competition in Los Angeles. As usual, the story is all about the journey. While on the road, the drag queens find acceptance; the Priscilla Queens are embraced by the desert’s aborigines and in To Wong Fo Thanks for everything, the Queens in question experience a particularly charming moment when they are dancing in their open-top car and passengers in a parallel-running steam train lean out of their window and dance back at them in response.
In contrast to this, however, is the treatment which the characters encounter elsewhere. Every time Priscilla’s Mitzi, Felicia and Bernadette come into contact with civilisation, there is some kind of conflict. There is a particularly unpleasant scene where Adam decides to don his ‘Felicia’ gear and go to the video store and is pack-hunted by a gang of, presumably, straight men. Likewise, the To Wong Foo characters find themselves with a broken down car (it is worth nothing that Priscilla the tour-bus also breaks down!) and stranded in the backward Syndersville; a lifeless town complete with comedy double-barrelled, Southern names for all of its confused residents. Ultimately, the more kindly members of the community must rally round the ‘girls’ and pretend they’re all drag queens in order to protect their new found friends from police brutality.
Interestingly, both of these films portray their genuinely female characters in a less than flattering light. The women in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert are either Thai brides who shoot ping pong balls from their behinds, or Tick’s rather masculine ex-wife. The women in To Wong Foo are also rather harshly contrasted to the drag queens; they are massively unglamorous, dowdy and some are even victims of domestic abuse. In this instance, the Queens become intermediaries between men and women; rescuing the ladies from the oppression of aggressive husbands and taking them to the salon in order to restyle them. Men are still telling the women how to look and who they should be; is it more acceptable to take when they’re in dresses? Is the message here that women are often less glamorous than transvestites, or that they make themselves look as such when they go to extremes to look attractive?
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a good film. As a feel-good film, however, it isn’t quite satisfying. As a viewer, you are left feeling upbeat because the film ends with the Queens back home in open-minded Sydney, doing an Abba routine. When you actually think back over the film, however, it is a film of small victories and the prejudice and violence that has been seen is hard to forget. Felicia might be able to paint over the horrific graffiti which defaces Priscilla, but we can still remember what it said. I would say that To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar is similar; they also meet with hostility, life-threatening hostility at times, but by the film’s close this is glossed over, and gives way to the chick-flick feel good factor. Vida is clearly heartbroken when she pulls into her old neighbourhood and is ignored by a woman in the front door of her old house, presumably her mother, but by the film’s close she has decides to go back to her home town and try again.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching both of these films (though I think that Priscilla has the artistic edge, it seems to be trying to do more). I would be interested, however, to know what kind of an audience the films have. They don’t really push any boundaries; the target audience seem to be straight women with cocktails who enjoy watching attractive men dragged up. The very women, incidentally, who are presented as bland and powerless in contrast to drag queens. Are there any transvestites out there who are interested in this particular kind of portrayal of their lifestyle? Or is the film enjoyed more by people who like the idea of being open minded from a brightly coloured place of safety? These are essentially safe, non challenging films (in a very similar vein to The Birdcage of 1996). At the conclusion of To Wong Foo, Vida’s new found friend, Carol-Ann (Stockard Channing) tells her, “Vida, I do not think of you as a man and I do not think of you as a woman. I think of you as an angel” to which Vida replies hesitantly, “I think that’s healthy!” it’s a lovely exchange, but does the film know what it’s actually trying to say? I’m not so sure.