Homosexuality in Australian Film: Understanding masculinity and homosexuality in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ and ‘The Sum of Us’.

The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and The Sum of Us’ depiction and understanding of homosexuality play into and challenge traditional Australian ideas of masculinity and in turn Australian Identity.
In 1994 Australia was given not one, but to films which starred openly gay characters as the film main focus. The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert directed by Stephen Elliot and The Sum of Us directed by Geoff Burton, Kevin Dowling. Priscilla is the story of two drag queens and a transsexual who embark on a trip from inner city Sydney to take their show to the central Australian town of Alice Springs. The Sum of Us is quite a different story. It is a story mainly about relationships, primarily the relationship between a straight father and a gay son. I will go into more detail about each film a bit later.

Australians have always considered themselves a tough people. We live in a land which is famous around the world for its sunshine, beaches and…. numerous species of deadly animals. So, it is not surprising that many myths surrounding the formation of Australia’s national identity is focused on masculine stories such as bush mateship and Gallipoli (Lang, 2010). The Australian identity is also strongly linked with nature. The ability to master an animal and therefore the terrain harks back to colonial times. The Australian man is tough.

Priscilla’s understanding of homosexuality challenges these ideas of masculinity but does so while celebrating and maintaining the differences between homosexuals and main stream society. The film understands homosexuality as something that lives on the edges of society (Brooks, 1999). The film is the story of two drag queens, Mitzi (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia (Guy Pearce) and a transsexual, Bernadette (Terence Stamp) who travel to Alice Springs from inner city Sydney to do a show. Along the way they are met with differing degrees of acceptance and a many number of challengers. There are two scenes in particular that I think emphasise the masculine traits of the characters. The first is when Priscilla (the bus) has broken down in the middle of the desert. In this scene the three main characters are shown doing different things. Painting the bus, looking for help, and dancing. None of them blend into or look like they belong in the desert. This again shows homosexuality being pushed to the edges but, also continues to celebrate its differences. The other scene is the one where the main characters climb and summit King’s Canyon. By doing this they show their masculinity by triumphing over outback Australia. However they do so in full drag. This causes a conflict in the idea’s of Australian masculinity, that a gay man in drag can accomplish the same as a straight masculine man. It shows that a homosexual can possess the same levels of masculinity but also continue to celebrate their difference to main stream society.

Mitzi (Tick), Felicia (Adam), and Bernadette atop King's Canyon. found at http://www.rockymusic.org/showimage/1a74cfaef648beef29699d22dc70670f.php

Mitzi (Tick), Felicia (Adam), and Bernadette atop King’s Canyon. found at http://www.rockymusic.org/showimage/1a74cfaef648beef29699d22dc70670f.php

If Priscilla celebrates and challenges ideas of masculinity through differences and separation than The Sum of Us challenges those same ideas through similarity and integration. The Sum of Us focuses on the relationship between, and lives of a straight father Harry (Jack Thompson) and his gay son Jeff (Russell Crowe). Unlike Priscilla, The Sum of Us portrays Jeff as no different to any other man, besides the fact he’s gay. He plays footy on the weekends, goes down to the pub for beers with his mates, and works as a plumber. By making Jeff basically exactly the same as the stereotypical Aussie bloke the film not only challenges the traditional ideas of masculinity held by Australians but also homosexual stereotypes. On top of this, Jeff’s homosexuality appears accepted by the majority of the other characters (sure there are one or two who don’t but, he’s well liked). The primary source of this acceptance comes from Harry. Now while the film accepts homosexuality it is very clear on who is gay. For instance while it is made clear that Jeff is gay there are a number of scenes where Harry makes sure the audience knows he isn’t. There is also a scene where Jeff tells Harry he has slept with woman, but just to try it. This scene gives Harry a little bit of hope and alludes to the idea that a gay man can become straight. So while The Sum of Us accepts homosexuality as being part of society, celebrating its similarities, it is very important it knows who is gay and who is straight.

Harry and Jeff grabbing a beer. found at http://www.cinemaqueer.com/review%20pages/sumofqueenof.html

Harry and Jeff grabbing a beer. found at http://www.cinemaqueer.com/review%20pages/sumofqueenof.html

In relation to The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and The Sum of Us homosexuality is primarily understood in terms of masculinity. Both of these movies look at how ideas of masculinity are affected by different views and understandings of homosexuality. By challenging society’s understanding of masculinity these films are challenging the different ways in which society understands and views homosexuality. Whether existing as separate in its own community or integrated as part of main stream society these films understand homosexuality as something that CAN fit into Australian society, and as I think, something that should.


Bibliography / Further Reading

The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Dir. Stephen Elliot. 1994

The Sum of Us. Dirs. Geoff Burton, Kevin Dowling. 1994

Brooks, Karen. Homosexuality, homosociality, and gender blending in Australian film.Antipodes, Vol. 13, No. 2, Dec 1999: 85-90

Lang, Anouk. “Troping the Masculine: Australia, Animals, the Nation, and the Popular Imagination”, Antipodes, Vol. 24, No. 1, June 2010: 5-10

Thomas J. Allan. “Camping outback: Landscape, masculinity, and performance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, Continuum, Vol. 10, Issue. 2, Jan (1996)


One comment on “Homosexuality in Australian Film: Understanding masculinity and homosexuality in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’ and ‘The Sum of Us’.

  1. vonnielolaroberts says:

    I have always food films to be a good medium in both recognizing issues in culture today and at the same time either reflecting back on issues in the past or advocating for issues in the future. Certainly when it comes to these two popular films, they reflect the perspectives of homosexuality at the time and making a comment on the state of masculinity in Australia. I found your differences vs non-stereotypical comparison compelling. Australian society is not as straight forward. Whilst the common assumption might be that drag queens so obviously different would be the most off putting for some, the acceptance in mainstream society of figures such as Dame Edna suggests otherwise. Meanwhile in codes like the AFL there have been statements from journalists like Damien Barrett that the codes would not be ready to accept and out gay player, with no major Australian code having an out player since Ian Roberts who if I recall only came out in the twilight years of his career in the NRL. So arguably what is acceptable like you said is up for debate. Intriguing article.

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