‘Not Great Men’: Philip Brophy’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert revisited

History lives on
In the books at home
It’s not made by great men!

‘Not Great Men’ – The Gang of Four (1979)

Since the recent transference of Sydney ‘Glitter‘ cycle film from screen to stage (Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom), revisiting the critique of the ‘dumb semiotics’ of Australian cinema (1) in Philip Brophy’s Priscilla, Queen of the Desert can widen our sense of how the Australian Dream road-movie is travelling.

The book was published in 2008 as part of a series based on audio-visual research into the cinematic imaginary of Australia, featuring contributors, like novelist Christos Tsiolkas, feminist Catharine Lumby and cineaste Adrian Martin. Brophy’s work sits neatly alongside these critical engagements with local film.

Early reviewers lauded it as a no-holds barred, dirty hands-on exorcism of all things contemporary that are ‘irrefutably un-Australian’. However, Brophy’s approach to this ironic auto-critique, for those very reasons, delivers an image true to Australia, e.g.: ‘drag is everywhere in Australia’.

Brophy self-complimentarily aligns his work with the 1950s biography of ‘pre-Gay’ homosexual poet Jean Jenet – and Sartre’s Saint Genet remains the most emblematic appraisal of contemporary ‘masculinised’ experience. Hence, Brophy’s Priscilla reads as a definitive reply to masculinist metaphors of well-worked ‘Australian culture’, yet it could also be interpreted as a pro-feminist theoretical engagement with the ubiquitously proclaimed ‘male identity crisis’. Thus, early reviewers index anxieties clustered around heteronormativity, male hegemony, absolutist national syndromes, and rhetorical excess.

Brophy’s analyses extend beyond these themes to contextual preoccupations, skewering the familiar tropes of Australian history. From White Australia Policy exclusion of Asian ‘superior qualities’, or Stolen Generation hostages of civil terror; to silenced minorities forcibly assimilated in marriage equality. The Priscilla instance of ‘homo’ sexual, which Foucault dates to 1870 in his History of Sexuality, is the inequality differential for a hetero binary opposition  between fraternity and sorority. This male hegemony was not contested in Priscilla the road-movie, oriented, as it is, toward the typecast male-hunting pack, brawling larrikin one-upmanship. The result conforms to pervasive Aussie masculine stereotypes already soaking local cinema mise-en-scenes. This saturation totted to up to the ‘absolutist’ national syndrome –and there’s the rub!

Early reviewers lavishly applied the descriptor of ‘rhetorical’ excess to the textuality of Brophy – long-time collaborator of the coeval and ‘explosive’ Australian artist, Maria Kozic. Correspondingly, her ‘desire’ was seen as ‘without equivalency, translation or balance in discourse’ by her own early reviewers. The collaboration between the pair, punctuated by curations, installations and exhibitions, is a riot of arts, music, video, film, and audio-visual design. Whether playing-off polarised Robert Hughes’ cosmopolitan Shock of the New model with Bernard Smith’s Antipodes Manifesto schools, their cut-up method compares to Aboriginal Western Desert Art, that feminist Elizabeth Grosz described as Modernism ‘shock tactics’.

Like poetic hacks reformulating in literary prose, or digital hackers reconstructing in recombinant supermedia, this cross-cutting approach generates unfamiliar, if uncannily reminiscent ‘cartographies’. Brophy’s manoeuvres into the topologies of sexual difference project his criticism into the realm of society-of-spectacle expressionism. Even Priscilla’s most blasé reviewer, Keith Gallasch. recommends re-readings. Passages on popular music –Gloria Gaynor, Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Aboriginal assimilation or ‘Abbastralia’ – are among the most reliable soundtrack interpretations of the ‘cinesonic’ (Brophy’s neologism), since the 1970s ‘Dolby’ revolution.

From hardcopy to the internet, there have been many innovative rock-press writers in Australia. But, like his pre-internet colleagues Vikki Riley, Craig N Pearce, or Clinton Walker, Brophy moves beyond innovative analysis. His work may well target strange-attractors, auto-graveyard net-junkies and transhumanist bloggers – but also demands for accurate contextual data on later popular music genres, subcultures and social movements. The book is better than the movie in terms of critique, and already tuned-in to the second coming out musical.

For all their affable praise, early reviewers also dismissed the author’s systemic semiotics of moral panic as ‘military entertainment complex’ hate-speech. For Aristotle, anger is aimed at individuals, while hate is class-based. Less remotely, in Discipline and Punish Foucault describes discipline on bodies and population as a technique of power, while in The Wretched of the Earth Fanon saw blind hatred as the only asset of colonials.

A prime example of Brophy’s engagement with hate is the frequency of ‘f-words’ (phallic symbols of male-hysteria) as hypothetical synonyms for non-consensual sexuality (linked to alcohol abuse). Witness, in particular, Brophy’s anti-misogynist defence of ‘Shirl’, the silenced woman no one would like to ‘f**k’. Resurfacing from boring-old-fart Post-Punk is the Dead Kennedys’ mantra for Dionysians, ‘Too Drunk to F**k’– or again, in the worst-case scenography of ‘mindf**ked’, Jean Genet, miscast as a flared-trouser Hipster. The radical-chic label of Deleuzian society of control for Disco deviance is ‘wog’ culture, that definitively doomed failure to positivise racial vilification. Punk (is dead) New Wave could well be the reference groups, but those male-damsel in distress behaviourism genres were never a lasting success either. Arguably, the most patronising, critically unaccredited, judgmental sticky-tag is ‘Queer’, that once resisted rallying-cry against British Bobbie sexism in the sarcastic Punk anthem ‘Glad to be Gay’ – now tolerated as a sexy-hypnotist theory for the co-opted, safe petit-bourgeois unthinking-sex of intramural academic bureaucratisation.

Brophy’s mapping extends to the limit of hate-speech versus freedom-of-speech binary oppositions. According to fellow Cultural Studies and affective studies researcher Lawrence Grossberg, all these pressure zones of social difference occupy ‘the same enunciative space’, which is how he attempts to ‘transform disagreement into collaboration’. (Alternatively, Sartre’s Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions saw a ‘magical’ sleep of reason.)

However, Brophy is no committed partisan of ‘dragged’ revolutionary Men in High Castles to come, but more the local customising Bowiephile parodist. Insidiously psychoanalytic, the above themes continue to proliferate in popular culture constructed by artists fascinated with Australian consumerism. Nonetheless, art – like the rest of us – should be freed from such politically-correct noblesse oblige moral-panics.

Brophy’s book merits rereading and reissuing, and is to date the most materially intuitive of the Screen Classics. Whether 2018’s Priscilla the Musical was equal to the occasion of the book’s tenth anniversary is less important than the ongoing aesthetics of disappearance it still registers.


(1) It’s worth reproducing the full quote: ‘A “dumb semiotics” has been fostered in Australian cinema wherein ‘Australia’ seems bent on seeking itself out, fawning over its cosmetic make-up, and supposedly discovering its identity.’

Rock Chugg

Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne. He has previously published on various aspects of media and cultural studies in Continuum, Meanjin and Refractory, and volunteers for community radio.

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