Crossing Boundaries in Stephan Elliott’s “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert": Transsexuality and Transvestitism in Intercultural Encounters

Term Paper, 2008

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Biological and psychological fundamentals of the conception of gender

3. The genesis of sexual deviation

4. Sexual deviation in indigenous populations such as the Aborigines

5. Sexual deviation in intercultural encounter in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”

6. Cross-dressing in the western tradition

7. Mythological roots of western homo- and transphobia

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This term paper is going to deal with disparate notions of gender in Stephan Elliott’s (who is both writer and director) 1994 movie “Priscilla - Queen of the Desert” within the frame of a course on “Australian Identity in Literature and Film”. The protagonists of said film are two drag queens and one male-to-female-transgender-person leaving Sydney to travel through the Australian desert on a bus named “Priscilla” to Alice Springs to perform a drag show there.

The movie presents a variety of ways of “doing gender”: Its is primarily concerned with conceptions of gender deviating from the usual male-female-dichotomy, i.e. the ones of two cross-dressing homosexual men and a male-to-female-transsexual as contrasted to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Those have to be taken into account as the entirety of gender identities really is a web of the utmost complexity with notions of male and female forming a centre around which the other conceptions of identity are grouped and on which they depend. Changes in the understanding of masculinity and/or femininity then are likely to disrupt the entire system and cause deviant sexual identities to change with them. My primary aim in this term paper then will be to compare the western/mainstream-Australian attitude towards diverging sexual identities such as transsexuality, homosexuality and transvestitism to the one of indigenous people such as the Aborigines and to explain why their attitudes towards it are so different.

This I intend to do mostly by finally comparing two sequences of the movie; the one in which Felicia is, after walking in on a party of miners, unmasked as a man in drag and subsequently almost beaten to death by one of the miners. The sequence I intend to contrast is the one in which Bernadette, Felicia and Mitzi encounter a group of Aborigines late at night in the desert and are invited to join them. After a short while they put up a drag performance that is received enthusiastically by the Aborigines which contrasts with the white people’s reaction the three usually encounter. Those, by and large, range from varying degrees of irritation to downright hostility which makes the Aborigines reaction all the more notable.

As already mentioned, gender roles are interdependent which means that for each one to function, it is heavily reliant on the other(s). Hence, I would like to begin my work by examining the male-female-dichotomy, by analyzing how the two depend on each other and how deviating sexual identities evolve around and due to this central binary division. For obvious reasons emphasis will be put on the constitution of male sexual identity but its female counterpart will be taken into consideration where necessary.

2. Biological and psychological fundamentals of the conception of gender

While for some animal species the sex off the offspring is determined by external factors such as outside temperature during the development of the embryo, for others it is genetically decided. Mammals as well as some other species as diverse as fish, lizards, and flies have developed what is called XX/XY-System: Each ovum carries an x-chromosome while spermatozoons carry either an x or a y-chromosome which results in two possible combinations: XX, which brings forth a female individual, plus XY which generates a male being.1 These biological facts blazon forth several highly interesting aspects with regard to male and female gender and sexual identity: First, the x-chromosome that brings forth female individuals is present in all human beings while only males display a y-chromosome, therefore femaleness might be considered the conditio sine qua non while masculinity is femaleness plus something else and the task of the y-chromosome basically is to force masculinity upon an initially female predisposition.2 The facts as presented here might lead one to the conclusion that the distinction between male and female is of limited validity only.

What then is of the utmost importance in the constitution of an individual’s gender identity is the way its gender is perceived by parents and social surroundings which results in according behaviour. It has been shown by researchers such as Zella Luria and Jeffrey Rubin3 that parents’ description of their children varies greatly according to the offspring’s sex. Girls are usually described in terms of “cute”, “beautiful” and “nice” while boys are perceived as “sizeable” and “distinct”. Interestingly, when referring to children of the same size, boys were referred to as “tall” while girls were characterized as being “small”. While mothers and fathers alike tend to describe their children in stereotyped ways, this tendency is remarkably stronger in fathers.4 Biological sex then can be said to structure the way in which an individual is approached by its surroundings, thereby reinforcing the attributes ascribed to masculinity and femininity.

3. The genesis of sexual deviation

However, sometimes things do not seem to turn out as expected. There are cases in which little boys as early as at age two or three start to exhibit patterns of behaviour as associated with girls the same age. This is explained in terms of an exaggerated identification with the mother on behalf of the boy. In the very first months of his life he perceives of himself not as an autonomous entity, but as part of his mother’s body. Normally, the child would later gradually develop autonomy but in some cases its mother cannot allow separation. By keeping her son close to her she causes a blurring of the boundaries of the two egos resulting in an extreme form of symbiosis not allowing conflicts important for the child’s development, such as fear of castration, to take place.5

This again leads us to the question which way a person’s gender identity is defined. Which factor (gonadic, genetic, mental, physical) is most important?6 For a long time it was popular among researchers in this field to argue that gender identity is all due to an imprinting by an individual’s surroundings, an approach that is now regarded as questionable.7 Even if imprinting isn’t the key factor of gender identity it is still of elevated importance, therefore I would like to take a closer look at it.

Each male child is given birth to and nourished mentally and physically by a person of the opposite sex which influences its fate in many ways. As mentioned before, a suckling perceives of itself and its mother as one, therefore the male suckling is of female identity in the beginning of its existence. Consequently, when the original unity is forced open it is set with the task of not only acquiring a new identity but one that is not only different from the original one but opposed to it in many ways.

For the female child the situation is a different one: While boys have to learn to differ from their mothers and to reject their initial passivity that forged the bond with their mother to later become men, the mother-girl relationship forms the basis of the girls identification with its own sex.8

This again poses the danger that, in case a mother prolongs this initial symbiosis, femaleness permeates to the core of the male child’s personality. As American psychoanalyst Robert Stoller claims, this is very likely to cause male-to-female transsexuality. Interestingly, Stoller also claims that this process lapses in an attenuated manner in most mother-child relationships, therefore males are more prone to homophobia and less secure in their gender identity than females.

To be able to desire females a boy has to accomplish separation from his mother first.9 This is also the first step on his way to traditional masculinity, the second one being showing that he is not a girl and the third one that he is not a homosexual. In western societies not being a homosexual is one of the constituent factors of masculinity, making it the antithesis of heterosexuality. By evaluating it negatively the desirability of heterosexuality is increased. In a poll in men’s magazine “Lui” 57% of the readers indicated that they would not consider themselves men anymore after a homosexual experience.10 Some researchers even go so far as to state that homophobia and misogyny are the most important forces in a boy’s socialisation. Those are aimed at different objects but their objective is identical: To ascertain heterosexual masculinity by assessing female attributes in a negative manner.11 This makes homophobia a mechanism of defence to avoid acceptance of a part of oneself that is considered unacceptable.

Homosexuality as such then is a fairly recent notion. While in the middle ages engaging in homosexual intercourse was considered an aberration and subsumed as sodomy in the 19th century sexual patterns of behaviour were reshaped resulting in a (homo)sexual identity with a


1 Angelopoulou, Roxani/ Lavranos, Giagkos/Manolakou, Panagiota, “Molecular patterns of sex determination in the animal kingdom: a comparative study of the biology of reproduction”. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, November 13th, 2006, BioMed Central, September 7th, 2008 <>

2 Badinter, Elisabeth, Die Identität des Mannes: Seine Natur, seine Seele, seine Rolle, München: Serie Piper 1997: 53

3 Herzog, Eleanor W./ Luria, Zella, “Sorting Gender out in a Children’s Museum“. In: Gender & Society, Vol. 5, No.2, June 1990: 16-26

4 Fagot, Beverly I., “Sex Differences in Toddlers1 Behavior and Parental Reaction“, In: Developmental Psychology, No. 9, 1973: 429

5 Stoller, Robert J., Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity andFeminitity. New York: Science House 1968

6 Badinter 1997: 57

7 For example, there has been a famous case in which a suckling’s penis was mutilated while being circumsized. As there was no hope of reconstruction doctors and parents agreed to change the child’s sex to female. The child however would never fully accept its gender and later in life when he learned of the failed surgical procedure have it changed back to male. See: Colapinto, John, As Nature Made Him: The Boy who was Raised as a Girl, London: Harper Perennial 2006

8 Groddeck, Georg, Das Buch vom Es, München: Kindler 1968: 76

9 Stoller, Robert, "Faits et hypothèses : un examen du concept freudien de bisexualité" In: Nouvelle revue de psychoanalyse, No. 7, Spring 1973: 150

10 Lui, No. 50, December 1991

11 Thompson, Cooper, “A New Vision of Masculinity“. In: Kimmei, Michael/Messner, Michael (eds.), Men’s Lives, Boston: Allyn and Bacon 1995: 224

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Crossing Boundaries in Stephan Elliott’s “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert": Transsexuality and Transvestitism in Intercultural Encounters
University of Constance  (Fachbereich Anglistik - Amerikanistik)
Australian Identity in Literature and Film
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ISBN (Book)
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Crossing, Boundaries, Stephan, Elliott’s, Queen, Desert, Transsexuality, Transvestitism, Intercultural, Encounters
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Stefan Löchle (Author), 2008, Crossing Boundaries in Stephan Elliott’s “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert": Transsexuality and Transvestitism in Intercultural Encounters, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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