Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities
David Coad has written at least one other book, Prophètes dans le désert : essais sur Patrick White, (1997), and possibly others. We can easily deduce, from these two titles, that he is interested in things gay, and in things Australian; but, more to the point, he makes them highly interesting. Appropriately, Gender Trouble Down Under has a still from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on its cover. The photograph shows the three “heroines” of the Australian film standing in full drag—complete with feathers—at the top of Ayers Rock or thereabouts (as Mitzi puts it, that’s all this country needs: “a cock in a frock on a rock.”). That film redefined Camp, and not just for Australia. Sadly, though, Coad misleads the reader when he writes:
Famously, Bernadette is a post-op transsexual, and is tired of her two drag queen companions’ usual conversation topics. She does not want to discuss wigs and Abba on the bus called Priscilla, thus addressing in that particular scene all sorts of debates about masculinity, femininity, and the essentialists vs. constructionists debates. But no matter, Gender Trouble Down Under, basically a Queer Theory book, then delivers the proper goods (and we know we’ll be reading more about The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert eventually). Of course, the title is an allusion to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), the constructionists’ bible. Butler’s title itself is an allusion to the phrase “female trouble” and to John Waters’ 1974 film Female Trouble, with the late Divine, celebrated drag queen if ever there was one.
Gender Trouble Down Under is divided into seven chapters, which are preceded by a useful introduction and a no less useful as well as amusing “Oz Lingo” glossary. The reader has been prepared for Chapter I, “The Convict Heritage,” by sentences like “outback frontierism not only encouraged same-sex practices but actively discouraged heterosexuality” . Dame Edna Everage is quoted early on, suitably enough, and then Coad undertakes a partly Foucaldian analysis of Australia’s convict past, particularly of practices such as “public whipping of half-naked male bodies” . In subchapters such as “The spectacle of male punishment,” “Buggery in the barracks,” “Tasmanian tribades,” and “Killing the queer,” one learns a great deal of fascinating details about early Australia and Australia today. One is extremely surprised to read that “compulsory heterosexuality was inscribed into Australian law until 1997 by making (male) homosexuality a criminal offense” . After all, one has heard so much about Australia being a favorite gay travel destination for some years... But, precisely, Coad deals with such contrasts and apparent paradoxes, showing throughout the book that things are never simple down under when it comes to gender and sexuality. Indeed, he convinces the reader so much that Britain and its “public schools” suddenly seems unambiguous in comparison.
Chapter II speaks of “Australian bushrangers,” “wild colonial boys,” “Robin Hood types,” larrikins and the legendary Ned Kelly, who inspired multitudes (including all sorts of creators). I don’t know what happened to the Hollywood project of filming Peter Carey’s 2000 novel True History of the Kelly Gang. Coad reminds us of the fact that in 2001, the buzz was that Neil Jordan was going to shoot it with Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt. What we did eventually get was a film by Gregor Jordan, Ned Kelly, with Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom, adapted from Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine. Coad’s take on Kelly is compelling:
Fittingly, Coad compares Ned Kelly and Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, a “modern-day bushranger” who also inspired moviemakers. He looks at gang logic, rituals, violence and hyper-masculinity and wonders about the enduring popularity of loser figures. He also addresses “bushranger bonding,” and discusses the lack of female figures in bushgangland history and lore. Ned Kelly, it seems, was extremely attached to his mother; and his brother Dan’s close friend Steve Hart resorted to drag, ostensibly in order to go on reconnoitering missions. Coad establishes a few comparisons between Australian bushranger myths and American cowboy myths, and looks at the evolution of society’s perception of those myths on both sides of the Pacific.
The iconoclastic queering of legendary heroes, already evident in the United States during the 1960s concerning the cowboy myth, was to become banal in Australia by the 1990s. In the 1960s, however, the country was not ready for a Homo on the Range .
In Chapter III and Chapter IV, Coad examines “Bushmen, the Outback and Mateship,” and “Bushwomen and Female Masculinity.” Using several analytical tools such as the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, he evokes different real and fictional heroes (including women in male drag), discussing films and books, such as the stories of Henry Lawson. The way he presents Australian homosociality and mateship (sublimated homosexuality?) is at once amusing and academically rigorous.
In Chapter V Coad tackles specific products, such as Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli, the numerous Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max movies. He also evaluates novelist Patrick White’s peculiar The Twyborn Affair (1979), a book which “stands out as […] a successful and intelligent reevaluation of the bushman myth while pointing out its obvious sexual and gender trouble” . That novel provides an acute deconstruction of Aussie outback masculinity, which prompts Coad to quote this splendid line by Donald Horne (who the helpful notes and bibliography tell us wrote a book about Australia in the 1960s): “Men stand around bars asserting their masculinity with such intensity that you half expect them to unzip their flies” .
Chapter VI is entitled “The Queer Nineties.” From what I hear, Australia has indeed been very queer since circa 1990. Coad explains that the country has always been queer, but much more visibly so in the past few years, notably thanks to the evolution of the law in the different states that have variously decriminalized homosexuality since the 1970s. The annual gay Mardi Gras celebrations draw nearly a million people to Sydney every year, and gay Australia has indeed become a tourist attraction. I am told there are tourist buses now transporting “punters” from drag pub to drag pub in the famous Oxford Street. Coad addresses Camp, rightly identifying it in the films of Baz Luhrmann, and of course in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I am not certain that his use of “queer identity politics”  isn’t a bit of an oxymoron, but I can only approve when he writes:
This passage is followed by splendid observations on “the performativity of gender,” “the outback dated,” “queering the great Australian legend,” “camping down under,” and “sporting a frock.” Then Chapter VII, entitled “Double Trouble,” addresses lesbian and gay aborigines, the amazing destiny of Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery abroad (Bowery, extreme transgenderist, has recently been incarnated by Boy George on Broadway), and finally transgendered and transsexual individuals and politics. In an appropriate Epilogue, Coad concludes with masculinity in general (not just in Australia), talking about the abominable (to me) Robert Bly and the current western masculinity crisis. All in all, Gender Trouble Down Under is an invaluable book for anyone (not just scholars) interested in Gender Studies and/or Australia. My only slight reproach is that even though Coad’s style itself bravely illustrates Aussie Camp, it is never completely certain where he stands as far as the very definition of “queer” is.