Before Priscilla: Male-to-Female Transgender in Australian Cinema until the 1990s – Joanna McIntyre

‘Film capitalizes on our most primary means of communication, employing visual images that move us deeply… Each decade’s cultural anxiety and hope about gender is coded frame by frame in the celluloid representations of gender nonconformists’ (Mackenzie 1999, 206-7).

When the flamboyant protagonists of Stephan Elliott’s acclaimed film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert flounced onto cinema screens in 1994,[1] it marked a significant transition in Australian cinematic representations of male-to-female transgender.[2] This camp romp through the outback was the first mainstream Australian film to take the lives of gender-queer individuals as its central focus and explicitly address issues surrounding non-normative gender-identities and sexualities. Such a watershed in Australian screen culture was not, of course, created in a vacuum and much of the extensive scholarship on this film considers its role in Australia’s cultural and social history. However, there is a question regarding Priscilla’s place in Australian cinematic history that has been, hitherto, overlooked; how did Australian film treat transgender representation before the turn in the mid-1990s that was marked by Priscilla’s triumphant arrival? Representations of male-to-female transgender have long existed in Australian cinema,[3] with filmic gender-crossings appearing in diverse guises throughout the twentieth century. Although these depictions differ in terms of generic and historical positioning, they are contained in terms of medium, theme and timeframe, and together form a related body of work. This article acknowledges this history and traces male-to-female transgender representation in mainstream Australian cinema throughout the twentieth century, from silent era films and early ‘talkies’, to features of the ‘Australian Film Revival’ in the early 1970s, and even the 1980s ‘blokey’ blockbuster Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986). A central motivation of the piece is to identify and catalogue these representations, drawing them together to situate them in relation to one another, re-contextualising each as a contribution to filmic transgender representation.

This article first defines the key term ‘transgender’ and situates it in relation to Queer Studies and Transgender Studies. Transgender and queer scholars have effectively distinguished cinematic moments of transgendering as relevant to broader cultural and social conceptions and experiences of gender, and this article upholds the objectives of such work in its investigation of Australian transgender representations. After outlining the interests and aims of these related fields, it briefly considers Priscilla and other post-Priscilla Australian transgender-themed films as examples of contemporary filmic representations of male-to-female transgender in order to examine differing transgender portrayals of interest in these disciplines. It then takes its focus back to the commencement of filmmaking to begin an investigation of transgender in mainstream Australian film leading up to the release of Priscilla. Just as Transgender Studies and Queer Studies locate and analyse assorted transgender representations in varying screens texts, so too does this article as it chronologically sets out instances of cinematic male-to-female transgender performance from the silent era until the late 1980s. Considering a broad span of films unfortunately means there is not space to analyse each in the depth they deserve. However, keeping with the objectives of Transgender Studies and Queer Studies, the article contemplates the meanings, motives, and aesthetic techniques of each historical representation to evaluate the extent to which they disrupt hegemonic expectations of gender. While some films work to negate the liberating possibilities of male-to-female transgender representation onscreen, others facilitate transgressive gender ambiguity and fluidity.

Defining moments

‘Transgender’ is a relatively new term affiliated with the even newer academic field of Transgender Studies. The word was coined in the 1980s to refer to those living permanently as the opposite sex without surgical genital reassignment. During the early 1990s, however, it came to describe wide-ranging expressions and experiences of gender that defy rigid male/female, masculine/feminine dichotomies, though interpretations of the term still differ greatly.[4] Keeping with transgender theorists such as Leslie Feinberg, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, this article applies the term in reference to all expressions of gender that fall outside or between the normative categories of feminine/masculine, male/female, whether that gender-crossing is embodied or worn, sartorial or behavioural, temporary or permanent. As sociologist Vivienne Namaste (2000, 1) states, transgender is an umbrella term used to describe all ‘individuals whose gendered self-presentation (evidenced through dress, mannerisms, and even psychology) does not correspond to the behaviours habitually associated with members of their biological sex’. Transgendering can be enacted by those who identify as gender variant/transgendered, as well as by those whose gender-identification is consistent with the hegemonic configurations of sex (female/male) and gender (femininity/masculinity), meaning the possibilities of transgendered representation are prolific and that transgender is often difficult to define. As Marjorie Garber (1993, 132) contends in her notable work on cultural representations of transgender, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, the ‘multiplication of categories and shifting of connotations’ associated with cross-gendering activities indicate that ‘slippage and confusion’ appear as ‘constitutive rather than accidental features’ of attempts to define such behaviours.

To investigate the complexities of cross-gendering, the evolving field of Transgender Studies takes as its focus a broad range of phenomena which disrupts and denaturalises the current dominant ideology that sex and gender are inextricably unified categories that operate only in a dualistic, heterosexual framework. Transgender Studies is an interdisciplinary field equally concerned with representational practices, ‘real life’ and the relationship between the two. It draws on a variety of critical practices to question and expand the ways in which gender is addressed, considered and understood in social, political and scholarly contexts. In doing so, it seeks to expose the constructedness of traditional gender roles and to identify and interrogate the systems and institutions that produce and sustain these (Stryker 2006, 2-4). As a result of mutual political and ideological motivations, Transgender Studies and Queer Studies[5] share a close relationship. Queer Studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines the ways in which perceptions and experiences of sexuality and gender are socially and historically produced and maintained. Queer theorist Annamarie Jagose (1996, 3) observes that ‘[i]nstitutionally, queer has been associated most prominently with gay and lesbian subjects, but its analytic framework also includes such topics as cross-dressing, hermaphroditism, gender ambiguity and gender-corrective surgery’. Queer embraces the multiplicity of transgender experience and aligns transgender with homosexuality and bisexuality in opposition to heteronormative impositions on sexuality and sexual identity (Reynolds 2000, 164).

Transgender Onscreen

Just as the possible manifestations of transgender are manifold, portrayals of transgender onscreen are many and varied. Transgender and queer theorists examine screen texts’ (usually films’) representations of transgender to critique the ways in which they challenge and/or disrupt heteronormative binary gendering. Films that feature transgender are located as critically important sites for the negotiation of gender discourses. As transgender theorist Gordene O. Mackenzie (1999, 206) insists, ‘images are part of a complex system of symbols that reference the world around us and within us… Much of our sex, gender and nationalistic identities are drawn from the bodies and discourses of our celluloid heroes and icons’. Transgender theorist Jack Halberstam[6] (2005, 76) refers to ‘transgender films’ as those in which:

the transgender character surprises audiences with his/her ability to remain attractive, appealing, and gendered while simultaneously presenting a gender at odds with sex, a sense of self not derived from the body, and an identity that operates within the heterosexual matrix without confirming the inevitability of that system of difference.[7]

A handful of mainstream Australian films belong in this category, and Priscilla was the first.

As the last decade of the twentieth century got underway and queer politics ‘rippled into Australian homosexual life, swept by the currents of trans-Pacific activism’ (Reynolds 158–9), Priscilla intrepidly took up issues of queer sexuality as well as queer trans/gendering. This celebrated road movie follows a trio of professional drag performers as they travel by bus from Sydney to Alice Springs, performing drag acts en route. The endearing transgender-identified protagonists – transsexual Bernadette (Terence Stamp) and her two gay male colleagues Mitzi/Tick (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia/Adam (Guy Pearce) – encounter assorted reactions during their journey but generally earn respect and even friendship throughout the expedition. Later in the decade, the surprisingly successful independent film Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) offered a compelling transgender representation with the Greek-Australian male-to-female transgender character, Johnny/Toula (Paul Capsis). During the course of the film, Johnny reclaims the alias Toula, flaunts this feminine persona unapologetically and defies the condemnation that feminine-identified transvestism attracts. Ten years later, another significant male-to-female transgender character appeared in the Aboriginal ‘stoner’ road movie, Stone Bros. (Richard Frankland, 2009). In the film, two youthful cousins on a road trip happen across their cousin Reggie/Regina (David Page), an Indigenous Australian male and a feminine-identified transvestite. Regina joins her cousins on an outrageous journey during which her transgender-identification is acknowledged but quickly accepted, and it neither consumes nor constitutes the very likeable character. Each of these ‘transgender films’ illustrates the marginalisation of transgender-identified people, demonstrating through the experiences of transgender-identified characters how queer transgendering can limit access to certain privileges, while also revealing liberating possibilities of the integration of masculinity and femininity. As queer film theorists Jackie Stacey and Sarah Street (2007, 13) affirm, ‘the transgender figure on the cinema screen confounds many foundational assumptions about the relationship between desire and identification, and between sexuality, gender and embodiment’.

Distinct from films that treat transgender in a sympathetic and serious manner but also of interest to queer and transgender scholars are films that include transgender themes but do not explore the lives of those who are transgender-identified. For example, the two Australian gender-bending romantic comedies All Men are Liars (Gerard Lee, 1995) and Dating the Enemy (Megan Simpson Huberman, 1996) do not feature characters who live and/or identify as transgendered, but they still offer non-normative experiences of sex and gender as a central theme. Both films present a male character who is forced to temporarily live as a woman; in the tradition of Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959), All Men are Liars is what film theorist Chris Straayer (1996, 42-4) designates as a ‘temporary transvestite film’, and Dating the Enemy is a ‘trans-body film’, also known as a ‘body-swap’ film. Films of these genres, including these Australian contributions, explore queer renderings of sex and gender throughout their narratives but their conservative conclusions ultimately re-institutionalise heteronormative gendering. Straayer (1996, 42-3) maintains the appeal of temporary transvestite films lies in their ability to expose the malleability of gender while concurrently containing the threat of collapsed gender binaries; spectators can enjoy ‘a momentary, vicarious trespassing of society’s accepted boundaries for gender and sexual behaviour’ while ‘relax[ing] confidently in the orderly demarcations reconstituted by the films’ endings’. Through its transvestite protagonist, All Men are Liars disengages sex and gender in its illustration of a male successfully passing as a girl, before the ruse is discovered and traditional gender roles are restored. Correspondingly, Straayer (1996, 70) proposes that trans-body films function very similarly ‘except that they portray a “genuine” sexual transformation rather than gender disguise’ and ‘epitomize both the potential and the danger of the collapse of gender and sexuality in temporary transvestite films’. As a trans-body film, Dating the Enemy destabilises hegemonic models of sex and gender through its depiction of a male character magically swapping bodies with a female character, as it shows maleness and femaleness as well as masculinity and femininity to be transferable, able to be adeptly embodied by any human. Nonetheless, it too eventually re-sutures sex and gender as both characters happily return to their original bodies in which they can comfortably enact the gendered behaviour that supposedly ‘belongs’ to their sex.

All Men are Liars and Dating the Enemy, along with Straayer’s study of similar films, demonstrate that queer representation is able to arise through onscreen transgendering that does not address transgender identification. This, of course, does not mean all instances of filmic gender-crossing can be understood to interrupt sex-gender conformity, quite the opposite. Transgender and queer film scholars also turn their attention to the numerous cinematic gender-crossings, still encompassed by the rubric of transgender, which actually work to reconfirm gender binaries rather than challenging traditional conceptions of gender.[8] Hence, in the existing analysis of transgender screen representations, the imperative is to assess what impact they have on the stability of the sex-gender system and how they might affect cultural perceptions of trans/gender. To do so, in some cases scholars employ the queer analytical strategy of reading ‘against the grain’, exposing queerness in ostensibly unlikely texts and situations that would have otherwise gone unnoticed; as has been established, queerness need not be intentional. It is not only contemporary films that are subjected to such examination, for the queer potential of older film texts can also be usefully exhumed. A number of notable queer film theorists, including Vito Russo, Alexander Doty, and Benshoff and Griffin, have revisited historical (usually American) films to celebrate, reinvigorate and evaluate their incorporation of queer sensibilities. However, among the contemporary queer film theorists who have reflexively analysed early films to uncover moments of sexual and gender fluidity (intended and otherwise), only a small number have considered early Australian film.[9] Fewer still have taken as their focus occasions of transgendering in these historical texts, rather than the queer representation of ‘homosexuals’. The following sections apply the differing techniques and frameworks discussed so far in relation to historical Australian films, unpacking their distinctive contributions to transgender representation and thus to broader gender discourses, starting from the beginning of the twentieth century.

All quiet on the transgender front

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Australian filmmakers were a leading force in the motion picture industry. Australia produced numerous feature films throughout this epoch, which were generally well-received. Of the five hundred or so films produced in Australia between 1900 and 1975, more than half were products of the silent era (Molloy 1990, xiv). Early Australian productions explored a variety of subjects but rarely reflected the social inequalities experienced by sexual minorities and/or ethnic groups. During the silent era, male-to-female transgendering was not a substantial element of Australian film but it did have a presence. When male gender-crossing appeared in films of this time it was usually in the form of a man briefly disguising himself as a woman for the purpose of deception, a ruse often included as a comical addition to the central narrative. For example: The Laugh on Dad (A.C. Tinsdale, 1918) includes scenes wherein ‘Dad’ insists a male farmhand dress as his daughter in an attempt to thwart her upcoming wedding; in The Breaking of the Drought (Franklyn Barrett, 1920) the male farmhand, Damper, serves tea to guests dressed as a female maid (Pike & Cooper 1980, 99; Peach 2005, 173); and Should a Girl Propose? (P.J. Ramster, 1926) features ‘a wealth of melodramatic and farcical incident, including a male suitor in drag, disguised as the heroine’ (Pike & Cooper 1980, 169). Although superficially comparable to the temporary transvestism in films such as All Men are Liars, these transgender representations do little to destabilise traditional sex-roles or reveal the ambiguities of gender.

Firstly, the overstated sartorial and behavioural gender-crossings in these silent films are further embellished by acting styles not yet attuned to the medium of film. That is, what Graham Shirley and Brian Adams (1989, 61) describe as ‘excesses’ and ‘exaggerated posturing’ of stage-trained actors. Hence, actors are obviously acting in such texts and within this context of over-emphasis, audiences can clearly understand that a male acting like a woman need not have anything to do with genuine transition nor transformation. These representations of transgendering work to conceal the constructedness of gender as it is elucidated through Butler’s renowned theoretical model of gender performativity. In Gender Trouble, Butler contends that gender is not the product of a stable a sex-gender system, but a performative act that becomes understood as authentic and stable through processes of repetition. Performativity refers to the subject’s embodiment and enactment of certain cultural conventions of gender, a repetitive practice that constitutes identity, and completely independent of sex.[10] Butler (1990, 174-5) famously proposes that practices of gender parody, such as drag, are able to reveal the malleability of gender, exposing ‘that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin’. However, in her following book, Bodies That Matter, Butler (1993, 125) clarifies that cross-dressed performances ‘may well be used in the service of both the denaturalisation and reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms’, depending on the circumstances. The portrayal of a man enacting femininity in a manner ‘necessarily’ farcical and obviously imitative serves to falsely naturalise the gender underneath the act, re-inscribing the flawed perception that males are innately masculine and thus incapable of ‘accurately’ embodying femininity. Secondly, transvestism is included in these silent films for the purpose of humour, and they take advantage of the visuality of cross-gender role play in their creation of purely visual comedy. Comic intent does not automatically thwart the transgressive potential of transgendering, in fact, comedy is often a site of subversion. However, what is laughed at and why significantly impacts the extent to which it fulfils this potential. In these early Australian examples, those in the diegetic world are fooled by an affected imitation of femininity but audiences are positioned to be ‘in on the joke’ and to find humour in the apparent absurdity of a (subordinated) man standing in for a woman.

In Hollywood Androgyny, Rebecca Bell-Metereau (1985, 23) elucidates the nature of such humour. Outlining characteristics of a cohort of pre-1960 Hollywood productions she states: ‘In [cross-dressing] films that maintain the status quo, the man dressed as a woman is the central object of ridicule. He is always the butt of the joke, and the audience laughs at him, not with him. In such films a woman’s image suffers as well, for female dress and behaviour are frequently shown as frivolous and superficial’. In Australian films from this era, not only is the appropriation of a female role presented as ridiculous and demeaning, it also appears as necessarily short-lived. Unlike the impermanent but drawn out gender-crossing that helps the male protagonist learn about womanhood in temporary transvestite films, the brevity of these transgenderings means they are easily recognised as merely fleeting interjections, comic asides demanding little if any deeper contemplation of gender inversion; when the hoax quickly and inevitably comes undone, each player’s biologically assigned gender is reconfirmed and ‘order’ is restored, thus naturalising binary gender roles and reinforcing patriarchal hierarchies. As sound technology was introduced and film censorship laws were firmed up, male-to-female transgendering became even less conspicuous. Nevertheless, it manifested in an unusually progressive manner in Australian film during the 1930s – in the guise of the ‘sissy’ character; that is, the camp and/or effeminate man. As a subject of interest in an investigation of transgender representation, Australian sissy characters have some unique implications.

Along came the sissy

In the decades between the World Wars, mainstream Australian culture was ‘[c]onventional, moralistic, respectable’ (Wotherspoon 1991, 37). This conservatism in combination with strict film censorship meant many things were kept off Australian cinema screens, especially homosexuality or ‘sex perversion’, which was ‘positively forbidden’ (Wotherspoon 1991, 52). During the first years of sound, the vast majority of films screened in Australia came from Hollywood, and Australian film imitated many elements of Hollywood production (Wotherspoon 1991, 51–3). Similarly to Australia at the time, Hollywood film production functioned under a strict censorship code. In his seminal study of historical American cinematic representations of homosexuals in The Celluloid Closet, Russo points out that the only allowable portrayal of a male homosexual in American film between the 1920s and 1940s was the ‘harmless sissy’. The sissy emerged in a number of American films during these decades, always exhibiting characteristics ‘that properly belonged to women’ (Russo 1987, 17). As in American film under the Hays Production Code, the ‘sissy’ functioned in Australian cinema as an acceptable inclusion of a (endearing yet non-threatening) queer character. Even so, only a couple of notable ‘Aussie’ sissies made it onto the big screen, both of which are found in Cinesound productions directed by Ken Hall in the late 1930s: Lovers and Luggers (1937) and Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938).

In Lovers and Luggers, the femme fatale Stella Raff (Elaine Hamill) is accompanied on her journey to Thursday Island by her companion Archie (Campbell Copelin), who adeptly embodies the sissy. The classic comedy Dad and Dave Come to Town, however, features a more prominent and exceptional sissy character. In this film – the third of Hall’s Selection Series, which began with the famous On Our Selection in 1932 – Dad and the rest of the rustic Rudd family move to the city after Dad unexpectedly inherits an expensive fashion store. Enter the sissy character Mr Entwhistle (Alec Kellaway), a ‘floorwalker’ who the Rudds promote to manager and who is instrumental in helping save the shop when a devious business rival attempts to ruin them. He even reappears as a valued friend in the forth and final ‘Dad and Dave’ film Dad Rudd MP (Ken Hall, 1940), aiding Dad Rudd in his campaign to become the local member of state parliament. When Dad’s opponent for the seat becomes underhanded, Entwhistle again helps Dad foil the schemes of a conniving competitor. Hall proclaimed Entwhistle as an entirely new Australian screen character (Verhoeven 1997, 31), yet there are clear parallels between him, and Archie, and Russo’s Hollywood sissies.

Queer film theorists have repeatedly read transgender representations as sites of significant queer representation, but they often concentrate on how cinematic cross-genderings facilitate the portrayal of queer sexualities, usually very fruitfully. To understand sissy characters as transgendered, however, is to do the reverse and examine an aspect of what is generally regarded as the representation of queer sexuality in terms of transgender. Both Archie and Entwhistle display behavioural characteristics that are commonly assumed to ‘belong’ to women, from swishy hips and limp wrists to a propensity for gossiping. As such, these sissy characters become an issue of transgender analysis in relation to comportment, not dress; they cross not sartorial gender boundaries but parameters of gendered behaviour. In many ways they are more appropriately positioned as transgendered rather than homosexual – gender queer rather that sexually queer – because of the intentional distance placed between them and any actual sexual acts. In fact, while there may be clear connotations regarding their sexual object choices, it was exactly sissies’ narrative removal from sexual or romantic gratification which allowed them to appear onscreen in a positive light.

Lovers and Luggers offers some vague suggestions of same-sex desire, such as when Archie engages in camp repartee with the husky Captain Quidley (Sidney Wheeler) while at a bar on the Island. However, as a sissy character Archie is characterised by his feminine gendering rather than his (homo)sexuality. To begin with, Archie is an English gentleman and in accordance with ‘show business conventions of the time, well-spoken Englishmen were perceived in Australia as effeminate’ (McKay in Peach 2005, 181). As an effeminate Englishman, Archie’s character may play on an erroneous stereotype but it is one based on gender (and nationality), not sexuality. The stereotype held that males from the mother country were ‘like women’, in contrast to the rugged ‘real men’ of Australia, but who these effeminate men actually desired sexually was extraneous to the typecast. Furthermore, when Archie’s comportment is addressed directly, it is his masculinity, not sexuality, that is in question. In a scene Deb Verhoeven (1997, 33) calls attention to, Stella and her companion discuss his manhood during their voyage, and Archie is generally unable to convince her that he possesses an authentic masculinity:

Stella: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a man
Archie: I was under the impression I was one.
Stella: Because you wear trousers?
Archie: Partly. (Lowering his voice)
Partly because my voice is deep and I’ve got hairs on my chest.
Stella: Disgusting.
Archie: You have got it bad. (Indicating seasickness, his voice much higher)
I’ve come all over queer.

Here, Archie may be male and wear men’s clothing but he is refused the title of ‘man’. He has a hairy chest and is physically able to produce a deep voice, though when he draws attention to this it is considered so aberrant it is deemed ‘disgusting’. He promptly abandons any vocal marker of masculinity to declare he feels queer (a delightful double entendre for contemporary viewers). Both masculine and feminine traits come together in the sissy character of Archie, for he is a male who functions as a man but whose behaviour is perceived as feminine. In Dad and Dave Come to Town and Dad Rudd MP, Entwhistle also manifests this mode of gender-crossing.

Entwhistle is a dapper gentleman who moves with flounce and flourish. In Dad and Dave Come to Town, he enjoys camp banter with the fashion models he supervises and early on Dad refers to him as ‘a natural born milker’. Although Entwhistle’s camp antics are a point of comedy in the film, he is shown to be a dependable employee and is ultimately depicted as sincere and heroic (Verhoeven, 1997 31). He thus stands in contrast to the deceitful (not camp) Mr Rawlings, another male employee who is colluding with the owner of the competing fashion store. At one point, Rawlings highlights the disparity between him and the naïvely honest Entwhistle, and does so by linking this quality to Entwhistle’s campness; making comment about Entwhistle being oblivious to the corruption surrounding him, Rawlings quips that Entwhistle is so taken with the dresses ‘he can’t even see the women inside them’. With this statement about Entwhistle’s ignorance to deception, Rawlings also makes a jibe about his ‘inability’ to see women as sexually attractive and correlates this with a fondness for dresses, a marker of femininity. While this and any other insinuations about Entwhistle’s sexual interests remain ambiguous throughout the film, his affinity with femininity is far more pronounced. For example, when a rough furniture removalist breaks one of Entwhistle’s favourite mannequins, he calls him a ‘brute’ and exclaims there are significant differences between ‘men like you’ and ‘men like me’. Shortly afterwards a different removalist refers to him as ‘Miss’ and he retorts, ‘Miss! What do you mean “Miss”, you great big bully!’ Here Entwhistle clearly demarcates himself from the ‘brutes’ and ‘bullies’ who represent rugged masculinity, but confirms he is still a man, not a Miss. Like Archie, masculinity and femininity converge in the character of Entwhistle; both these sissies were able to demonstrate alternative genderings, and Entwhistle in particular gave certain minority masculinities a voice, and a face. Despite these relatively progressive portrayals, however, the treatment of their unique gender-blending is not entirely affirmative.

As mentioned above, these sissy characters were able to feature sympathetically in 1930s films because they were not openly homosexual, and therefore avoided offending social sensibilities of the period. Russo (1987, 33–4) argues that generally ‘sissies were not demeaned, nor were they used in cruel or offensive ways’ because ‘[i]t was not the sissy but what he stood for that was offensive’. However, this ‘harmlessness’ is born of problematic gender dynamics. As Russo (1987, 33) observes of Archie and Entwhistle’s American counterparts, sissies ‘did not represent the threat of actual homosexuals’, as they are ‘symbols for failed masculinity’. Like cross-dressing comedy that relies on woman’s denigration for its humour, Russo (1987, 17) maintains that the sissy is understood as harmless and inferior because of a correlation with the feminine – failed masculinity equals inferiority and femininity. This is certainly true of Archie and Entwhistle, whose feminine manners and behaviour mean they are innocuous yet subordinate to the wholly masculine men around them, whom they show up as ‘real men’ by contrast (Russo 1987, 16). The masculine elements of these sissy characters, including their attire and their own declarations about belonging to the grouping of ‘men’, may seem to support the notion they are men enacting masculinity inadequately. Yet instead of being seen to ‘fail’ at embodying only one gender, they are better understood as successfully bringing together a distinct mix of the masculine and the feminine, perhaps even demonstrating some empowered aspects of femininity.

Archie and Entwhistle stand out as transgender characters, and are especially conspicuous in light of the scarcity of male-to-female transgendering in early Australian film. Throughout the following three decades, these sissy characters would remain the most prominent representation of male-to-female transgender in Australian cinema. The Australian filmmaking industry was severely affected by the Second World War, and between 1940 and 1945 only ten Australian feature films were made – none of which incorporate any significant male-to-female transgendering. Things failed to improve after the war, and male-to-female transgender remained absent from the paucity of Australian feature films produced between the mid 1940s and the late 1960s. However, the Gorton and Whitlam governments intervened and established funding bodies for Australian film, and training for Australian filmmakers, which led to the revitalisation of the Australian film industry in the 1970s. At this time, cinematic representations of male-to-female transgendering also began a revival.

Before the queer wave broke

The resuscitation of the Australian film industry in the 1970s and 1980s, dubbed the ‘Australian Film Revival’ or the ‘Australian New Wave’, saw almost four hundred films produced in Australia between 1970 and 1985. The ‘R’ censorship rating was introduced early in the decade and Australian films started to represent a more diverse selection of Australian life (Peach 2005, 191). With the relaxing of censorship laws, a number of transgressive films were produced. Although any substantial exploration of male-to-female transgender identified characters was still many years away, a number of films of this era experimented with themes of sexuality and sexual experience, and a handful of those films provided some means of expression for male-to-female transgendering.

Frank Britton’s now iconic film The Set (1970) features a drag queen character played by Ken ‘Kandy’ Johnson, a local icon and one of Sydney’s original drag performers. The Set tells the tale of struggling artist Paul Lawrence (Sean McEuan), who gets caught up in a tumultuous gay relationship after moving to the city and getting work designing a film set. It is often cited as Australia’s first successful sexploitation film and the first Australian mainstream film to explore the complexities of a homosexual relationship. In a particularly memorable scene, Kandy sits atop a piano draped in a white feather boa, crooning a provocative song, beseeching ‘don’t be subtle, wake me, rouse me’. Shot from a low angle, her regality and poise are accentuated, so too are her blonde bouffant and dangly earrings. Although Kandy only plays a minor role in the film, in this scene a transgender-identified character is treated seriously and respectfully, and is presented as an attractive, talented performer. In contrast to the comic transgendering in the silent films, Kandy’s performance goes some way to unveiling gender performativity. In her essay ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, Butler (in Hall 2003, 73) clearly places transgressive cross-gender performances in a queer context, stating ‘parodic replication and resignification of heterosexual constructs within non-heterosexual frames bring into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called original’. Appearing as part of an avant-garde ‘gay’ narrative, Kandy’s transgender performance is certainly situated in a queer context, and her adept and valued enactment – or ‘parodic replication and resignification’ – of femininity throws into question the validity of gender fixity and a binary sex-based system of originary genders.

Also bringing visibility to male-to-female transgender in 1970 was the semi-fictional documentary The Naked Bunyip (John B. Murray). The fictional premise of this humourous feature is that a somewhat naïve and shy young man (Graeme Blundell) is hired to conduct a market research survey about sexual culture in Australia. The trailer proclaims that ‘It’s about Australian attitudes to sex and censorship… A searching and tolerant survey of all aspects of sex in modern society’. Blundell carries out real interviews with an eclectic range of people, including the madam of a brothel, well-known personalities, fashion models, ‘ordinary’ citizens, and female impersonators. Among those interviewed are comedian Barry Humphries’s housewife character Mrs Edna Everage, and well-known transsexual cabaret performer Carlotta, who would later become the most famous member of the long-running Les Girls cabaret show in Sydney’s Kings Cross. In the style of cinema verité, The Naked Bunyip’s interviewees directly address the camera and ‘fly-on-the-wall’ cinematography is employed for segments of footage such as that of strippers onstage, and Carlotta performing at Les Girls. Along with the interviewer seldom being seen so interviewees appear to speak straight to the viewer, these techniques heighten the modality of the film. Although the fictional narrative woven through the interviews may diminish its credence as a documentary, as a feature film it is unusually naturalistic and evokes a high level of aesthetic authenticity.

Mrs Everage’s is the only scripted interview and she is the only fictional interviewee in The Naked Bunyip. Appearing near the beginning of the film, Mrs Everage is also the only interviewee clearly incorporated into the fictional diegesis, and although ‘she’ is a man pretending to be a woman, her transgendering remains unacknowledged. In contrast to Mrs Everage’s playful female persona, Carlotta’s permanent transgender identity appears as a serious matter indeed. In different capacities, both The Set and The Naked Bunyip utilise known transgender performers from Sydney’s drag scene, capturing something of the experience of living as professional female impersonators. As such, Kandy’s and Carlotta’s cinematic performances of male-to-female transgender arguably present an even greater ‘threat’ to the sex-gender system than purely fictional representations of transgender-identified characters. The viewing experience of these films is informed by the knowledge that these characters’ cross-gendered identities are not shed once the camera is turned off unlike, for example, Priscilla’s famous lead actors, who are widely known to be masculine-identified and heterosexual. Extratextual understandings of Kandy and Carlotta mean their film appearances reveal recurrent boundary crossings associated with cross-gender identification.

As noted above, Kandy’s transgender performance in The Set brings to light the instability of the sex-gender system. Carlotta’s appearance in The Naked Bunyip also confronts and troubles hegemonic expectations regarding sex and gender, however, it does so not only in relation to demeanour and appearance but also physiology. This confrontation occurs most directly as she reflects upon her own circumstances in her interview, giving a considered, reasonable and heartfelt account of her gender identity, lifestyle, and chosen profession. Secondly, as a transsexual, Carlotta’s mode of transgendering raises issues of embodiment, and her appearance in the film brings them to the fore. She wears a revealing outfit for the interview and her augmented breasts are clearly visible. Clips of her performing onstage further expose the well-formed ‘female’ attributes of her body. She refers to herself as a female impersonator but her surgically enhanced breasts bespeak the permanency of her gender-crossing. Transsexualism ‘is not just a matter of adopting the clothing of the opposite sex, but the compulsion to be of the opposite sex’ (Perkins 1983, 3), but this does not mean transsexuals leap wholly from one side of a gender divide to the other, leaving the border between divisive gender categories unmarred and unquestioned. Transgender theorist Kate Bornstein (1992, 51-52) maintains that a transsexual’s crossing from one sex to the other does not adhere to a binary gender framework but can become part of a process of gendering wherein transformation is the meaning and motivation of gender. The behavioural and sartorial as well as the corporeal aspects of Carlotta’s transgendering that the film makes conspicuous thus further confound assumptions that find maleness and masculinity, and femaleness and femininity are inherently coextensive.

Despite a promising start to 1970s film, the rest of the decade failed to yield too many more significant cinematic examples of male-to-female transgender. A camp drug dealer in High Rolling (Igor Auzins, 1977) has his drugs stolen, and an androgynous glam rock star appears as The Wizard (Graham Matters) in Oz (Chris Löfvén, 1976), an Aussie reworking of The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) tagged ‘a rock ‘n’ roll road movie’. Oz also features Glin the ‘Good Fairy’ (Robin Ramsey), a camp fashion store owner who gifts the protagonist, Dorothy (Joy Dunstan), a sequined pair of red high heels. Glin’s vocal affectations and swishy comportment place him within the realm of transgender in the same sense as earlier sissy characters. However, unlike the 1930s, the subject of homosexuality was now allowed onscreen and sissy characters subsequently took on a different mood and role. When censorship laws were relaxed and the veil of ‘innocence’ lifted, sissies became, Russo (1987, 33) remarks, ‘new and less charming’. Sissies could and did now openly represent homosexuality and this shift meant their role as ‘homosexual’ tended to overshadow – though did not negate – their transgender positioning. Unfortunately this cultural transition also meant they could be explicitly demeaned as such. For example, standing in his fashion store, Dorothy asks Glin his name and his rueful response is ‘People call me all sorts of names’. The truth of this statement is quickly verified as a burly trucker (Ned Kelly) soon strides into the shop and sneers at him, ‘Shut up, fairy’. However, even with this anti-gay slur the insult lies in the implication he is feminine/‘fairy-like’. Although Glin may not be as ‘charming’ as Entwhistle, this fashionista is still a good fairy and, although he fills a sidelined ‘helper’ role, through him the film offers a portrayal of a likable queer character.

Nevertheless, the most prominent transgender figure of 1970s Australian cinema is Barry Humphries’s Mrs Everage. After her introduction to film in The Naked Bunyip, Mrs Everage starred in the ‘ocker’ hits The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford, 1972) and Barry McKenzie Holds his Own (Bruce Beresford, 1974) as the laddish Barry’s straitlaced aunt. In The Naked Bunyip, Mrs Everage’s legitimacy as a personality in her own right is promoted through the interviewer dealing with her as a real person, and through her fictional interview’s association with the unscripted, non-fictional interviews that follow. In the Barry McKenzie films, this female character’s verisimilitude is strengthened by all other characters interacting with her as a woman. Her supposed authenticity is furthered still in Barry McKenzie Holds his Own when the nation’s Prime Minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, gives a cameo performance as himself and ‘knights’ Mrs Everage, a filmic narrative event which secured her the title of Dame. As ‘Dame Edna’, this housewife celebrity has gone on to international fame in a range of forums,[11] but it was these 1970s films that familiarised audiences with the character, deepened Australia’s growing affection for her, and helped to establish her as a ‘real’ female superstar. Although the diegetic and extra-diegetic disavowal of the fact Mrs Edna is played by a man (or is ‘played’ by anyone at all) enhances the fun and quirky appeal of this character, it also functions to suppress her transgender status. In her representation and reception, any affiliation with transgendering she might be seen to have is dismissed and, therefore, so too are the queer possibilities of this recurrent, highly visible gender-crossing.

The 1980s continued to slow the queer trajectory that began in the early 1970s, and there was little male-to-female gender-crossing to be seen in Australian film during these years. In fact, aside from Dame Edna again appearing as ‘herself’ in the comedy Les Patterson Saves the World (George Miller, 1987), the most notable Australian cinematic illustration of male-to-female transgender in this decade came in 1986 with the famous ‘fish-out-of-water’ adventure/comedy Crocodile Dundee. In this now iconic film, the exemplary ‘Aussie bloke’ Mick Dundee travels to New York and has some trouble adapting to big city life. While at a bar one night, Dundee woos someone he thinks is female until he is informed she is a transvestite. Disbelieving, he grabs her crotch to find out for himself and to his horror, but to the great mirth of surrounding patrons, he discovers his romantic interest is male. Here, the uber-masculine is pitted against queer transgendering, and the hand of Australian masculinity literally grabs feminine-identified transgender representation ‘by the balls’. Dundee’s failure to realise his companion is transgendered does not function as testament to the transvestite’s ability to pass, and to therefore move between genders fluidly and convincingly. Instead, the ‘joke’ is that it is only Dundee’s naivety that allowed him to be fooled, and queer transgendering is literally laughed at and rejected. It was not until the following decade that Australian film moved toward remedying such a dismissive portrayal of transgender identification when the queer wave broke and Priscilla made her entrance with a flurry of frou-frou.

Priscilla provides the most recognisable examples of male-to-female transgender in mainstream Australian feature films and its release marked a turning point in Australian cinema. Nevertheless, earlier films established the possibility of Priscilla’s radical, affectionate representation of male-to-female transgender, navigating through different ‘waves’ of public opinion and making varying modes of transgender visible. In silent cinema, overstated sartorial transgendering did little to destabilise traditional sex-gender roles, but in the 1930s – despite strict censorship containing overtly queer representation – a couple of notable Australian sissy characters were able to cross boundaries of gendered comportment in progressive (though sexually unthreatening) ways. The post-War revival of the 1970s saw sexuality become more explicit in Australian film and transgressive representations of transgender-identified figures graced the screen. However, under the reign of Dame Edna as the most prominent yet ‘silently’ transgendered figure in Australian film, the queerness of Australian cinematic gender inversions declined in the late 1970s, reaching a low point at the hands of Mick Dundee in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the 1990s were not far away, and it was then that representations of male-to-female transgender in Australian film made the transition that would open up a new vein of Australian filmmaking in which Australian male-to-female transgender-identified film characters make their voices heard and their presence felt. The assorted Australian representations discussed here engage with transgender in differing ways, some emphasise while others undermine the queer potential of the films in which they appear but all offer insight into the complexity of gender in Australian culture. The varied intersections and exchanges of gendering examined in this article also indicate that Australian film will continue to explore male-to-female gender transitions – both queer and otherwise – throughout the twenty-first century.


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[1] Priscilla won an Oscar for Best Costume Design and a swag of other awards. It also earned $16,459,245 domestically, making it the tenth highest earning Australian film of all time (as of February, 2010) (Australian Film Institute 2010).

[2] The term ‘male-to-female’ is technically erroneous here, as it literally refers to a crossing of physiological sex, yet ‘transgender’ – as it is employed within this study – denotes a wide range of gender-crossings, many of which do not involve the alteration of physiology. Nevertheless, this is the accepted term and, as such, it will be applied throughout to indicate that, despite the nature of any particular gender-crossing, the transgendered individual was a natal male, whatever their gender identification as an adult.

[3] Australian cinematic representations of female-to-male transgender also have an interesting history, however, there are a number of considerations specific to each gender-crossing trajectory so this piece will concentrate on only male-to-female representations.

[4] For example, some equate transgender only with transsexualism, as is the position adopted by queer media theorists Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin. Others, conversely, utilise the term only in relation to temporary and external forms of cross-gendering, such as transvestism and drag, excluding from such a definition the permanent and corporeal crossing of transsexualism, which is the interpretation gender theorists Judith Butler and Jay Prosser adopt.

[5] ‘Queer’ is the nomenclature of an influential political, aesthetic and intellectual movement that has emerged as a transgressive force, aiming to dismantle the hetero/homosexual binary to acknowledge and unapologetically celebrate the diversity of human sexualities and desire.

[6] Formerly Judith Halberstam.

[7] Halberstam specifically examines the commercially and critically successful transgender films The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) and Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999).

[8] Some films do so by showing transgendering to be ineffective and superficial. In contrast to Straayer’s reading of the genre, male-to-female temporary transvestite films have been accused of using transgender in this way; such criticism largely stems from the understanding that the humour in these films derives from male protagonists being feminised and thus ‘demoted’ to the rank of woman and/or that real transvestites are also ridiculed in the process, thus reinstating the privilege and primacy of hegemonic masculinity. Others films maintain the status quo in their depictions of transgendering as pathological or dangerous. For example, psycho-thrillers that foreground mentally ill and dangerous transgender characters – notably Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Dressed to Kill (Brian de Palma, 1980) and The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) – have been critiqued by transgender theorists and activists for their unbalanced and psychopathologised portrayals of transgender individuals.

[9] Those who have include Deb Verhoeven (1997), Gary Wotherspoon (1991), and Ricardo Peach (2005).

[10] Unlike performance, performativity is not a matter of will or choice but is the restrictive and encompassing reiteration of norms of which the subject is the effect, not the cause.

[11] Beginning her career onstage in the 1950s and then moving to television in the same decade, Dame Edna has appeared in a handful of non-Australian films since the 1970s, and regular stage and television performances in Australia, the UK and the USA have also kept her in the public eye for more than half a century.