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Connie and Carla: A disconcerting (PG) moment in queer cinema

August 1, 2004 by Chris Woo

Directed by Michael Lambeck

The comedy is about two women who have been friends since primary school. Their dream is to be famous cabaret singers. The journey begins when Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) accidentally witnessed a murder, and in a desperate attempt to flee the mafia, makes a radical decision to leave for Los Angeles. In L.A., Carla initially deplored the sexual permissiveness and affection of gay men in public but soon accepts it and both of them commenced a new and anonymous life. Eventually they found work in a dilapidated gay bar, playing the roles of transvestite men who could sing without lip synching. Like Deloris in Sister Act (1992), the women were masquerading as different characters so as to avoid detection by vengeful gangsters. As the narrative progresses, Connie and Carla became a hit favourite in L.A. and eventually upgraded the bar to a cabaret cum restaurant due to an overwhelming response from patrons. Jeff (David Duchovny) is introduced as the brother of Robert/'Peaches' (Stephen Spinella), who plays as one of C&C's stage performers. The predictable plot ties both Connie and Jeff together in a tenuous relationship until her 'true' identity is uncovered. The film ends with a Disneyian 'happy ever after' moment. Curtains are drawn, everyone is satisfied, the end.

The attached (PG) symbol on the poster is foreboding. Walt Disney and Hollywood 'happy ever after' narratives have saturated PG films with heteronormativity and the recycled denouement of 'I love you' rubbish. The stamp of 'Parental Guidance' on the advertisement of Connie and Carla hails a wider audience but signals to normative, sexual ideologies. Before the show commenced, I could not help but ask anxiously: "Why is a transgender film violated with the mark of PG?"

Connie and Carla is packed with sexual innuendoes that have been the staple of gender-bending comedies since Tootsie (1982) and The Birdcage (1996; originally known as La Cage Aux Folles). The over-rehearsed punch lines and didactic, sexual education littered the entire film. In the mid-1990s, To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) had plots that centred on the discursive negotiation of 'coming out' narratives. Commentators of these shows often identified the characters as either gay or closeted heterosexual men. It was obvious then that queer films needed to express trans-sexual politics that were different and distinct from homosexual politics. The didactic character of To Wong Foo and Priscilla were necessary as it points out hetero-prejudice and homonormativity. Connie and Carla however, reiterates and reprocesses the instructive tropes of transgender discourses, hoping to teach heterosexuals such as Jeff that transvestites are 'just like everybody else'. The textual poaching is neither innovative nor inventive. Adversely, Nia Vardalos (writer) and Michael Lembeck (director) rehearsed the essentialist paradigm. The best way to be transgender is to assimilate into the naturalised, social fold because the degree of sameness determines the viability and acceptability of a subject position.

There are contrary evidences that Connie and Carla would exceed the essentialist framework and focus on the postmodern irony of heterosexuality. The aporia of the postmodern condition cannot determine a 'real' subject because the insoluble paradox (or tautology?) of the self has no intrinsic meaning or monolithic definition. The convoluted question of "Is she really a transvestite male?" or "Is he really playing the convincing role of a woman?" opens a Pandora box of chaotic (re)significations on the body without any conclusive claim. Vardalos and Lembeck expressed the difficult negotiation of realness through two heterosexual women playing the roles of drag-queens in a gay bar. Since Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning (1990) attested to the compelling ability of men to perform as 'real' women, Connie and Carla complicated the order by having 'real' women play the roles of transvestite men. The heterosexual 'coming out' conundrum is similar to transgender narratives as Carla complains to Connie that she feels stifled in the closet, not being able to express her 'true' womanhood because the mafia would find and kill them. The gangsters are representative of the sexual police in trans-biographical narratives. A double irony is mobilised, as the mafia drug dealers — an agent of social disruption and chaos — is comparable to the enforcers of law and order. In précis, the satirical inversion of the transgender closet serves to complicate sexual prejudice as Connie and Carla suffers the closeting of heterosexuality and concurrently endures the transphobia of Los Angeles and Winnipeg residents.

A brief postmodern investigation would seem to save the movie from an unmerciful queer appraisal, but Vardalos and Lembeck were unable to substantiate the confusion of sexuality in mainstream cinema. The finale of Connie and Carla recoiled back into the heterosexual imperative that a 'straight' man can never have a relationship with a transvestite male because she is not a 'real' woman. Thus the unmasking of Connie's gender is enacted as a dramatic and celebratory event. The audience is reassured that realness is not an imaginary or ideological concept. The complexity of gender and sexuality is securely re-dichotomised to male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. There is no confusion; Connie and Jeff, Carla and Mikey (Dash Mihok) live happily ever after.

The sign 'PG' is both appropriate and disappointing. It interpellates curious heterosexuals similar to the audience of Will and Grace but lacks excitement or innovative strategies to negotiate the field of sexual politics. Connie and Carla severely disappoints queer readers as the incommensurable matrixes of sexual desire and pleasure are cauterised by the dyad of sexual possibilities. It could, of course, be diametrically argued that PG signifies the acceptability and tolerability of transgenderism and homosexual desires in cinema. My question is, "At what price?" The symbol attests to the socio-cultural barricades that mark transgressions as 'unsuitable' unless they have been normativised by the code of practice. The historical trajectory of queer cinema has continually struggled against the formation of heteronormativity, and even homonormativity, as ideologically acceptable while sexual transgressions are deemed perverse and unnatural. Until PG is infected with dissidence, the capitulation to sexual, naturalising strategies should be clearly objectionable.