My partner and I watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert last night. For those who don’t remember, Priscilla was one of those ridiculously colourful Australian movies of the 1990s, about three drag queens (two cis gay men and one het trans woman) who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs. I believe there was a contractual obligation with the AFI that all Australian films of the 90s had to feature at least one ABBA number. It has a great cast for the leads – Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp as Bernadette, the trans character.
When I first watched Priscilla at 14, it was one of those click moments that, oh yes, trans women exist, it is possible, it is liveable. I was never a queen and never part of campy gay male culture, but still it spoke to me in powerful ways. I still know the words to most of the songs on the soundtrack.
Rewatching it now though, it really is an awful portrayal in many respects.
A trans woman who transitioned 30 years ago supposedly has loads of stubble? And is naturally played by the gruff Terence Stamp? This being a character based on the gorgeous Les Girls showgirl Carlotta, famous for looking Bridgette Bardot? And she’s sitting there having a bowl full of hormones as breakfast cereal? Fuck off. Never mind the “mail order bride” section which I had completely excised from my memory (white privilege, party of one).
I actually don’t mind the bits where Bernadette (the trans character) kicked a guy in the nuts which either Namaste or Serano critiqued, that was fine, and her romance was mostly sweet and there were a few lovely moments of queer family towards the end, but not surprisingly, a very different experience to my early one. Rewatching movies is a dangerous business.
I think when you’re young, you get what you need out of movies and discard the rest–a process so selective that looking back you wonder how you pulled anything useful from there at all. Marginalised people can do wonderfully perverse things with texts, but the sad thing is we have to.
Because there’s no real affirming alternative, and turning poison into cure is the only cultural option we have.