The Adventures of Priscilla

In 1994, Australian cinema made waves on the international stage with the dramatic comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – a feel-good tale about two drag queens and a transgender woman on a journey through the Australian outback. The film made a splash in the cinematic world, in the global LGBT community, and – as many ECs and alumni can attest – amongst Harvard Business School students.

In cinema circles, Priscilla quickly became a cult classic. One of the first Australian films to achieve international fame, it won the hearts of filmgoers and critics alike, taking home an Academy Award for Best Costume Design along with two Golden Globe nominations.

In the LGBT community, Priscilla was applauded for introducing LGBT themes to a mainstream audience and for its joyful celebration of individuality, diversity and inclusion – garnering, among other accolades, the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film.

In Australia, the film quickly formed part of the zeitgeist. Images from Priscilla featured prominently in the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, including a refurbished parade bus adorned with a giant stiletto heel and drag queens wearing original costumes from the film – a tribute both to the film’s global success and to Sydney’s LGBT community, which hosts the largest pride parade in the world in March each year.

And at Harvard Business School, the film provided the inspiration for Priscilla Ball, a theme party which has become one of the most widely attended events of the school year.  The party has earned a reputation as an off-the-wall celebration that embraces individual expression and Australia’s live-out-loud culture. At the same time, however, the event has attracted legitimate criticism – for encouraging excess, reinforcing gender stereotypes, and mandating cross-dressing.

When we took on the leadership of the Australia & New Zealand Club in May, we were determined to ensure that this year’s Priscilla Ball would be different. We wanted to share with our classmates the true spirit of Priscilla, without the problematic elements that have been associated with the event.

HBS is a place that celebrates difference. We value the richness that comes from a community made up of individuals from all walks of life. As students, we feel privileged to sit side by side with classmates from across the globe, and to build close friendships with individuals of different genders, sexual orientations, races and religions. In this spirit, we resolved early on to take Priscilla Ball back to its original well of inspiration – the movie after which it was named – and to host an event that the HBS community could feel proud to support.

With this in mind, we sought advice from the leaders of the LGBT Student Association and the Women’s Student Association on how to improve the event. With invaluable input from both organizations, we crafted a series of important changes to this year’s event – changes which have their full support.  These include managing costume themes to ensure that they are not degrading, removing cross-dressing from the event’s branding, educating students about the event’s history and contextualizing the event within the range of diversity activities taking place on campus this month. We will also be hosting a school-wide screening of Priscilla, with members of the LGBT community available afterwards for a discussion of the movies themes.

The LGBTSA Board is proud of this year’s changes: “On October 11, LGBTQ people celebrate National Coming Out Day (NCOD) – an opportunity to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues and to celebrate individuals who identify as LGBTQ,” said Presidents Ana Mendy and Andrew Holmberg. “This year, Priscilla Ball is scheduled a week after NCOD. We are pleased that the ANZ leadership has sought our Club’s input and we are excited about the changes being made (e.g., commitment to de-emphasize cross-dressing, emphasis on raising awareness about the true intent of the party) so that all individuals feel welcome and are able to express the diversity embodied by NCOD.”

WSA Presidents Amanda Burlison and Alexandra Daum added: “We’re happy that the ANZ Presidents proactively reached out to us to discuss making changes to this year’s Priscilla Ball. We believe that screening for themes that reinforce negative gender stereotypes will create a better environment where students of all genders can bond with each other.”

Ultimately, all attendees are invited to dress and express themselves in the spirit of the event – one of freedom, diversity and respect. Together, let’s make Priscilla Ball a party that lives up to its namesake.

Priscilla Ball takes place this year on October 18, and we can’t wait to celebrate with you. In the meantime, we invite you to join us on October 10 for a school-wide screening of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.