The road movie is a narrative of migration. The characters within these films typically find themselves travelling or “migrating” somewhere new in search of a new home, a new family, or a new life of some kind. More recently, the rubric of the “queer road movie” has been introduced to define narratives which are guided by a distinctly homosexual or queer migration. Many queer road movies, such as My Own Private Idaho (1991) and The Living End (1992), position the queer protagonist as an other in relation to heteronormative, nuclear family values. These films centralise homosexual desire as destructive and nihilistic, suggesting that the hetero-patriarchal structure of the traditional family does not and cannot acknowledge their (queer) desires.
However, in queer road movies such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Transamerica (2005), the desires of the main protagonists are traditionally heteronormative: the desires for family. The road acts as a mobile, symbolic object that offers liberation from hegemonic societal and cultural constructs of heteronormativity. While this remains the case in both Priscilla and Transamerica, these films offer more circular narrative arcs, with the protagonists returning or re-migrating to the point of departure having embraced or reformed their familial fears and/or responsibilities.
Priscilla tells the story of two drag queens and one transsexual travelling from inner city Sydney into the Australian outback on a bus dubbed “Priscilla” for a campy, lip-syncing drag gig in Alice Springs. The dramatic thrust constructed by writer/director Stephan Elliott is underpinned by the notion of family, most notably the dysfunctional families of the drag queens and the drag family they create together on the road. In Priscilla, the trio’s journey is catalysed by their problematic family relations, most notably Tick/Mitzi’s travelling to help his estranged wife by reclaiming his parental duties over their son. Transamerica tells a similar tale of a pre-op transsexual woman named Sabrina (“Bree”) who receives an unexpected phone call from someone asking for Stanley (her birth name) and explaining that Stanley has a seventeen-year-old son. Bree goes to bail her son out of jail and, after realising that he has had to endure many hardships without a father figure, she begins a relationship with him on the road and attempts to occupy both parental roles simultaneously. Both Bree and Pricscilla’s Tick have to migrate somewhere new in order to reaffirm their familial bonds, and it is these migrations which allow them to reconnect with their desires for family.
While these heteronormative (or “homonormative”) journeys may seem to “straighten” the queer road movie, in some ways they are more subversive and queer than the ones which disregard hetero-patriarchy and familial bonds. Unlike My Own Private Idaho and The Living End, Priscilla and Transamerica do not situate the protagonists and their desires for family as monstrous or untenable. There are palpable differences between the “gay road movie” and the “queer road movie”. The former commonly pathologises homosexual desire and portrays the protagonists as morally and sexually deviant, deploying narratives of “gaysploitation” (sensationalising same-sex erotics) along with their anti-establishment, anti-family ideologies. The latter, however, uses queer in its purest sense, i.e. to be political and subversive. Priscilla implements queer and also camp in order to narrativise its protagonists’ queer struggles and anxieties on the road. Transamerica has a more grounded tone and mainly uses comedic and melodramatic methods in order to create affective meaning.
Within the road movie, the characters’ migrations serve to propel their own personal journeys and growths. The characters commonly come across “exotic” cultures which they engage with in order to put their own struggles into perspective. In Priscilla, this can be seen in the White Australian trio being contrasted with the aboriginal peoples who occupy the harsh Australian desert. The trio perform a campy lip sync of Gloria Gayner’s disco anthem “I Will Survive” for the aboriginals; the latter of which clearly enjoy this empowering anthem and end up joining in. However, Priscilla’s political potential is hindered by its positioning of whiteness as a racialising strategy, one which subordinates these non-white ethnicities and cultures. The white characters use the non-white characters to enhance or re-inscribe their own whiteness, whereas the non-white characters must wait for the white Australians to inscribe meaning upon them. Although these two disparate groups are both marginalised others, this slippage restricts conventional us-them readings of the scene and, although the drag queens are undeniably queer, when queer issues are politicised through the bodies of white, gay men, queer loses some of its discursive power and actually works to depoliticise these scenarios. Transamerica suffers from a similar rhetorical contradiction inasmuch that the film purports to politicise marginalised and disenfranchised peoples, yet does so through the body of a white, straight, cisgendered actress.
While Priscilla and Transamerica may represent the shift from the nuclear to the post-nuclear family, the notion of the non-normative or queer family is still defined through patriarchal processes. Although these films undoubtedly present queer issues, they do so through the bodies of white, straight, cisgendered stars. This has been a very topical concern recently. Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall has has been derided for its lack of historical accuracy and erasure of black transgender peoples. Can non-queer actors portray queer characters? The casting of cisgender actors to portray transgender characters is particularly contentious, implying that queer can be imitated as “straight in fancy dress”. For her role as Bree, Felicity Huffman was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Although her performance is undeniably fantastic, there is a certain inauthenticity to a straight, cisgendered person playing a transgendered character. These casting choices do affect a film’s queer potential, but the film should be commended for its subject matter regardless of these issues.
On one hand, these films typify queer road movie aesthetics. However, much of Priscilla’s and Transamerica’s drama is drawn from mythically defined notions of heteronormative parenthood and family. Both Tick and Sabrina’s character arcs are circular – they re-migrate back at the point of departure, having rearticulated notions of domesticity and family in their own way. These films are relatively anomalous in terms of being queer road movies as they position their characters as satisfied with their journeys and happy in their new normal (unlike the majority of queer road movies that leave the characters dejected or deceased). With their respective sons in tow, Tick and Bree form new kinds of family – a queer family – with ever-changing roles. Both Tick and Bree have found their own spaces in which to enact parenthood, domesticity, masculinity, and femininity.