Sunday, November 27, 2011

Who's a Sissy?

I moved on to movies from the 30s, and it seems that they were really excited about having sound, because most of them were musicals. All of them were the most delicious romantic comedies. I adore romantic comedies, they are one of my favorite genres, so I have watched quite a lot of them. Ironically, watching these old flicks was a breath of fresh air. The romantic comedies of today are all alike and have very similar plots. I haven't laughed as hard in years as when I watched It's a Boy! (1933) And what made these movies so fascinating were not the main characters with their clichéed arguments, but the ingenious entanglements created by the richness of supporting characters.
My homework for this group of movies was to analyze the sissies. My research indicated that sissies were the effeminate, sophisticated, and funny sidekicks. But to my dismay, as I watched all these films, I had tremendous trouble identifying which ones were supposed to be these sissies.
Sure, in It's a Boy! it was quite easy to single out James Skippet. A lot of things seemed surprisingly bold in this movie, like James and Dudley waking up to find out they are sleeping together in the same bed, James donning a bridal train and walking with his arm locked around Dudley's, and James and Joe Piper crossdressing as women.

Leslie Hensen as James Skippet and Albert Burdon as Joe Piper in It's a Boy! (1933)

Edward Everett Horton as Dudley and Leslie Hensen as James in It's a Boy! (1933)

I haven't been able to watch Our Betters (1933) yet, which is unfortunate considering the interesting reviews out there. It seems that the sissy in this film has only a very short scene at the very end of the movie where he dances. Most of the reviewers I read agreed that this was the best scene in the movie, which would perhaps have gone unnoticed without it. They don't agree in their perception of the character, which some interpret as a "happy individualist", and others as a negative stereotype, important in these times but that should never be repeated.

Tyrell Davis as Ernest in Our Betters (1933)

The characters in the later musicals are a lot more shady. I think it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Motion Picture Production Code started to get enforced in 1934, and film censorship became quite rigid. In The Gay Divorcee (1934), -and despite our discussion subject please remember that we are still in the era when "gay" only means joyous- two of the three characters that can be considered sissies have plots that involve relationships with women, and the third, played by Eric Blore, is a waiter with slightly effeminate mannerisms who likes to play with words. Edward Everett Horton's character has a love-hate relationship with Aunt Hortense, and it is established that they almost got married in the past. Rodolfo Tonetti, played by a hilarious Erik Rhodes, is married, but he was without a doubt the easiest to identify, thanks to his wonderful lines: "Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti."
This trio is reunited again in Top Hat (1935), with Horton as a married producer, Blore as a sarcastic valet, and again Rhodes having the greatest lines as an Italian dress designer engaged to Ginger Rogers' leading character: "Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!", "I promised my dresses that I would take them to Venice and that you would be in them!", and "For the women the kiss, for the men the sword" (which was originally written as "For the men the sword, for the women the whip", before it got censored).

Erik Rhodes, Edward Everett Horton, and Eric Blore in Top Hat (1935)

Finally, in My Man Godfrey (1936) I decided that the only character I could possibly nominate as a sissy was Carlo, the frivolous protégé of Mrs. Bullock.

Mischa Auer as Carlo and Alice Brady as Mrs. Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936)

I have to admit that after watching these last three movies I was in so much doubt as to who the sissy was supposed to be that I cheated and searched reviews on the web to make sure that I had identified the correct characters. Possibly it has something to do with our definitions of what effeminate mannerisms are and how those have changed from the 1930s until today. I don't think we classify raising your eyebrow as being very effeminate anymore. I guess I was expecting much less subtle cues, based on how we see very effeminate men behaving today, with grand hand and body gestures.
But I think mostly it had to do with giving the characters storylines where they were romantically involved with women. Yes, today we still make a connection between effeminate and gay, but after repeatedly making the mistake to try to apply this false link to real life, I quickly learned that there are plenty of effeminate men who are straight, very masculine men who are gay, many tomboyish women who are straight, and feminine women who are lesbians. So these movies presented characters that I didn't necessarily identify with being gay just because they cocked their head a bit to the side as they spoke.
Today's sissies are usually referred to as "pet homosexuals", but this disturbing stereotype is slowly disappearing as society becomes more accepting of homosexuality. Jack from Will & Grace and Marc St. James from Ugly Betty are examples of present-day pet homosexuals.

Sean Hayes as Jack in Will & Grace (1998-2006)

Michael Urie as Marc St. James in Ugly Betty (2006-2010)

Just looking at those pictures it must have become clearer why I had so much trouble identifying the sissies in earlier movies! When the characters are not that blatantly effeminate, they make sure to state and re-state the obvious verbally and visually so that we get their sexual orientation right. We frequently hear Damian's friend (Mean Girls, 2004) speak about his sexual orientation, and if it were not enough, he ends up experimenting with a kiss with friend Janis to finally grimace and shake his head in disgust. 
Lizzy Caplan as Janis and Daniel Franzese as Damian in Mean Girls (2004)

Hunky Rupert Everett also makes sure to do a little hand waving and singing plus very clear mentions of his gayness in case we did not get it the first time around in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997).
Julia Roberts as Julianne and Rupert Everett as George in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

A very interesting character in present-day television is Kurt Hummel from Glee (2009-present). He starts off as a pet homosexual, a funny sidekick with a passion for fashion and no sexual life of his own. However, in the middle of the first season he suddenly starts to mutate into a leading character, and by the second season he has transcended the stereotype and created a whole new type of protagonist, with complex character development and storylines, a visible sexuality (which includes on-screen sexual behavior with his boyfriend), and a massive fanbase of both sexes.

Chris Colfer as Kurt Hummel in Glee in 2009

Kurt Hummel in Glee in 2011

I think Kurt Hummel teaches us an important lesson. The negative part of the sissy stereotype was not the effeminate behavior per se, but the assumptions that it was necessarily linked to homosexuality, and that straight, masculine behavior was the only possibility for a leading man.
Luckily, television has today a much wider range of gay characters, some masculine, and some, like Kurt Hummel, rewriting stereotyped conceptions of what a leading man is supposed to be.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Crypto-Gay Motifs: Is It Or Is It Not?

It has taken me a while to write again, because I have been trying to do some investigative work. I have been watching movies from the 1920s trying to find crypto-gay motifs. Cryptic means that these moments are secret or hidden, but they seemed to be so very well hidden that they can only be discovered after several glasses of wine.
I selected three movies that were recommended to me, 7th Heaven (1927), Wings (1927), and Street Angel (1928). After watching all three of them, I felt irate and refused to write in my blog that because a man didn't jump at the first advance of a woman, or was slow to fall in love, or was able to have an intimate, caring relationship with another man, this could be read as a latent queer motif.
So I asked my husband to mix me a rum and coke to appease the fury, and watched 7th Heaven again.
Janet Gaynor as Diane and Charles Farrell as Chico in 7th Heaven (1927)

And there it was: a guy pretends to marry in order to help a girl avoid trouble with the law, yet feels uncomfortable kissing her and afterwards makes sure to clarify it to her: "I didn't mean it!" He decides to marry her anyway, apparently because she cooks and cleans and cuts his hair and makes things so convenient, but when he gives her a wedding dress and she complains: "But you never said - you love me." He rebukes: "I can't say it! It's too silly!" And he opts to say instead: "Chico... Diane... Heaven!" (As if that were any less corny.) Plus all that contempt he has for religion. And I had to admit it had all a bit of a parallel with the lives of many gay men of old and not-so-old.
Of course in the last act of the film it all changes and he falls madly in love with her, and he tells her so, and that's why all these motifs are quickly forgotten.
In Wings (1927) the motif was that beautiful friendship between Jack and David, which ends in the epic goodbye kiss.
Charles Rogers as Jack and Richard Arlen as David in Wings (1927)

This scene inevitably took me back to the future to Lord of the Rings (a trilogy where plenty of crypto-gay scenes have been quoted and disputed) and the farewell scene between Boromir and Aragorn. I wonder how influenced, if at all, was Peter Jackson by Wellman.
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Sean Bean as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

In the case of Borzage or Wellman, I don't think either director had any intention to portray any kind of gay motifs in their films. As I have written in previous posts, I also think perceptions regarding this kind of "hidden" clues are very much related to culture and times, and can thus be easily misinterpreted.
In Street Angel (1928) I was completely unable to find any crypto-gay motifs, no matter how hard I tried to rack my brains and to sip desperately on my rum and coke. If anyone has any insights, please feel free to comment. All I could find on further research were some obscure allusions about Charles Farrell's "soft" manners and unproven claims about him being a homosexual, but nothing in reference to the film itself.
Crypto-gay motifs in modern TV are much more intentional and evident. On August 21, 2010, videosauce posted a video on YouTube from the series Sherlock (BBC, 2010), together with the following comment: "this [is] the FIRST serious, explicit and undeniably canonical discussion of homosexuality in the entire history of the Sherlock Holmes franchise. [...] Gone are the days of limiting proclamations of sexuality to nearly-invisible subtext."
If you watch the clip you'll realize the alleged proclamation is not at all as explicit as videosauce insists, and many viewers commented about this underneath the video. However, it is true that the sexual text is now very visible, even when very ambiguous.
Sherlock (BBC, 2010)
These ambiguous characters, who are perhaps confused, perhaps curious, perhaps hiding, or perhaps just having fun at the expense of others, tend to mask behind parody, and abund in today's television. There is Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006):
Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006)

Crowley, the crossroads demon in Supernatural (CW, 2010), who always seals his deals with a kiss:

And Vince Noir in The Mighty Boosh (BBC), who actually likes to call himself The Confuser:
The Mighty Boosh (BBC, 2007)

In conclusion, when I watch the older films with my straight eye I either do not notice the cryptic so-called gay moments, or, if I notice them, I immediately beat myself up about my prejudices and stereotypes, and quickly convince myself that the motif is no such.
The modern screen plays to these insecurities with its variety of ambiguous characters. In these cases, I don't wonder about the existence of the queer motif. It is evident that it is there. But I am left wondering about the character, who I know is now playing mind games with me. At least now I can always opt out in a dignified way just as Watson did, and reply carefully: "It's all fine."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Freddie's Birthday

Luckily there was the Google Doodle to remind me that my daughter was born on the same day as Freddie Mercury. I would have liked to do some more research about the subject, and write something incredibly cool about one of the greatest voices and entertainers of all time, but I have to keep my priorities straight. No pun intended. I'll just keep hoping that Sacha Baron Cohen is taking that movie he's making about Mercury's life seriously.
Freddie Mercury in the Google Doodle (September 5, 2011)

Turns out I am also missing the Pride Parade next weekend, because that's when we will be holding my daughter's birthday party, so I will not be dancing with my samba school in the parade (and our theme this year was no other than the Wizard of Oz). Oh, well. I guess I will have to get back to you once we are done beating up the Little Mermaid for candy.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Men in Drag: Love Them or Hate Them?

I just watched Charles Chaplin don a dress and heels in A Woman (1915), where he starts a whole new pandemonium: the issue of men in drag. In the first scenes, when he still has his moustache and he is trying to walk shaking his bum exaggeratedly, he simply seemed a bit ridiculous but not too far out of his usual character, and I was sincerely enjoying it with my 3-year-old daughter, who called him "silly".
But then he shaves his little moustache and slightly tones down his mannerisms, and I have to admit that I was a bit surprised. My daughter seemed confused, got bored and, to my relief, left. I think she was not sure anymore about who this woman was and whether she was supposed to keep laughing. To tell the truth, I wasn't either. I suddenly started taking everything he did a lot more seriously and a lot more personally. I would still laugh at certain moments, but it didn't seem all that funny to me when the slimy men tried to hit on her and touch her inappropriately.
Chaplin in A Woman (1915)

Since then, comedians have been performing in drag. Growing up in Venezuela in the 80s and 90s, particularly, it seemed that it was mandatory for comedians to dress as a woman at some point in their careers. Some even seemed to be making a living off it. I really hope this has changed. I always hated these performances and rarely found them funny. Mostly they felt embarrasing or demeaning.
About two days ago I was eating at a taquería and watching some Mexican television, featuring a drag queen competition. Once more, sheer fury stuck my taco in my throat and made the hot salsa completely unnecessary. When the contestants were dressed as men, they behaved very calm and composed, and answered interview questions thoughtfully. As soon as they transformed into women, they started fighting (bitching, frankly) with each other, putting all their insecurities up front in their video diaries, screaming, jumping, and crying. Really? Is that how women are expected to behave?
India Ferrah, Mimi Imfurst and Stacey Layne Matthews during RuPaul's Drag Race (2011)

I felt very differently watching Alex Newell perform as a woman in the Glee Project. I thought he was amazing and I would have no problem being compared to him (I wish...). Reading the discussions following his YouTube video was quite enthralling. Some people thought like me, but others, particularly gays, felt offended, and did not want "a drag queen representing" them in the show.
"He just pisses me off. To all straight people watching this, all gays aren't like this. I sure as hell am not. Not everyone is educated enough to understand the complexity of being LBGTQ. Personally, Transgender shouldn't even be in that phrase... it's a gender", wrote micahwonka.
"I think the point he's making is that he is playing the stereotypical feminine gay. It only gives reason to people to make fun of homosexuals. So it's ironic that portraying a very stereotypical view of homosexuality would be praised. Playing this role only gets more hate from heterosexual people", agreed lyndsayiu5.
"Just because you're gay doesn't mean you have to act like a girl... THAT'S WHY I HATE ALEX!!!", wrote a third user.
"He doesn't dress in drag because he is gay. He does so because he wants to", replied another.
And a legion of people came out to defend Alex and his right to dress however he wants to dress, and how that should not be interpreted as a gay stereotype.
Alex Newell (right) singing with fellow competitor Hannah McIalwain for the Glee Project (2011)

So I was trying to understand why I felt so different about Alex, and I had to come to the conclusion that it was because I perceived his change of gender as both honest and self-respecting. When interviewed about his choice of clothing for his last performance, he said he had chosen to perform in drag because he considered that his biggest advantage over the other contestants was the ability to perform as both a man and a woman. He focused always on the quality of his performance, which even people who professed their fervent hate towards him admitted was mind-blowing, and he never did anything that I considered embarrasing or disrespectful towards women while in drag.
However, micahwonka is right when he warns us that Transgender is a gender, and not a sexual orientation. There are, in fact, straight men and women who enjoy dressing in drag as well. Gays and lesbians seem to be sick and tired of being stereotyped, and being associated with drag queens and kings not only does not help their cause, but also inflames their hate against transgender folks. In my humble, straight opinion, drag queens and kings deserve a place of visibility, respect and expression of their own.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

That First Erotic Dance

Unfortunately it seems that all my babbling about The Gay Brothers was just wishful thinking. It turns out that apparently it was not a film about gay people at all, and, worse yet, it was not even called The Gay Brothers. Which would have made a lot of sense if I had known that the word "gay" didn't mean anything but "happily excited" for the great majority of people until around World War II. Darn, it just had seemed like such a perfect title and such a perfect first film to start the history of Queer Cinema.That's what film historian Vito Russo also decided in 1981, when he arbitrarily gave that name to the little movie -which was originally boringly named Dickson Experimental Sound Film- and interpreted the content as homosexual. You can't blame Russo all that much. He was an American in the 80s, and he was watching two men dancing together, with another man playing a violin in front of a very suggestive and enormous cone in the background.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film, ca. 1894-1895
When you pay attention to the lyrics of the song being played, it describes the life at sea, so presumably the two dancing men are rather intended as a joke about two sailors without any women in their boat, and not at all as a homosexual couple.
However, as far away as we were from Queer as Folk's Brian and Justin playing around with that scarf during "Save the Last Dance", or both Captain Jacks' epic coming-out dance in Torchwood, it is still a same-sex image, and according to my brief research (which as we have already seen can be very flawed and in need of ammendment the next day) this is pretty much what we can expect to see at the early stages of Queer Cinema: ambiguous images, which people may or may not agree qualify as homosexual, or images of drags performed by silent comics.
Queer as Folk, 2001

Torchwood, 2007
Dance and romance have a tight relationship in North American culture, a fact I had to learn the hard way when I first arrived to this country. Coming from a place where you dance just as close with your sexual partner as you do with your dad or with a total stranger, it was one of those awkward cultural shocks for me to realize that closeness in dance had a very different meaning in the US. Yet in other nations, such as the one my husband comes from, men are used to dance with men, and women with women, which is not very common in our Western society. He and his friends also keep getting unwanted advances in parties because of misinterpreted signals. So the meaning of an image can change substantially depending on the cultural background of the person who perceives it.
The romanticism of the aforementioned dances in Queer as Folk and Torchwood leave no room for ambiguity, though. In these cases, the eroticism that can be achieved through the closeness, the necessary interaction between the couple, and the liberating feeling that music and dance provide would be undeniable even by the Torchwood aliens.
Maybe it is these qualities of dance and music which have built such a strong relationship between gays and musicals. Like Father Dan says in Jeffrey, "The only times I really feel the presence of God are when I'm having sex, and during a great Broadway musical." Being a dancer myself, I cannot but agree.
As to that first homosexual erotic dance onscreen, we will have to keep searching.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


This was the actual heading of a discussion thread in the online forum for one of the TV shows I watch, and it was dead serious. These forums nowadays are swarming with these types of comments. In another thread, the following exchange took place among three users:
"I stopped watching when it seemed all of the characters turned gay."
"There are nearly 25 characters and having 4 of them gay is not all the show. If you have problems with people being gay, [this] is not the show for you. There are plenty of other shows where gay people seems not existing."
"Yes, [the show] has more gay characters now than in the beginning. Not that this is a bad thing. I think [the show] has one of the most mature set of gay characters out there. Most gay characters in TV or film are over the top flaming kind, that's mostly used in a comedic role. [This show] has only one of those."
One way to go with this would be to find out what percentage of the population is gay, and try to figure out whether the show producers are overdoing it or not. I would find this irrelevant, and a little bit boring, too. After all, film and TV have never been about mirroring reality, but rather about shedding light on heroes and events, giving a space for self expression, and for communicating ideas or prevalent ideologies.
It seems to me that the LGBT community is very intent in saying something, and in order to understand it, I'm afraid we're going to have to look back at their history in the media.
So yesterday I was trying to figure out whether there was some kind of gay version of the Lumiere Brothers, and planning my trip to the library or the closest Media Studies professor, when I started getting texts from friends who had seen my new project and, alas!, it turns out I am not the only one with a hidden passion for all things queer.
"I remember when I watched this movie... I loved it... The Children's Hour (1961)", texted a friend.
Pretty soon they were talking about Greek scrolls from Lesbos, and I had to remind them that my blog's title did include the words Film and TV.
And then another friend texted me about a wonderful documentary about the history of queer cinema she had watched a few years ago, and how she had just jotted down the names of movies out of sheer passion, and then she had just put it aside because there was nothing better to do with it. Well, it turns out that the first identifiable homosexual coupling in cinema is in a film actually called... wait for it... The Gay Brothers (ca. 1895). And no, I did not know this when I made the joke about the Lumiere Brothers.
So there. It seems she had been saving her seemingly useless resources for me. I weighed my options. I could either read the work of known researchers, or start my own exploration with my friends' dubious resources.
I chose to start the adventure with my team of unlikely but willing consultants. Sure, I will probably take the long road to arrive to the same conclusions a lot of people have already reached. But perhaps ignorance will ultimately give me the ability to look at things a little differently. And if it doesn't, at least I will have owned my journey.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Into the Uncharted

My sister just called to see whether I was being productive. "Well, I am starting a blog", I replied cautiously. "Oh! What is it about?" Here it comes, I thought. "LGBT in Film and TV". "What? I didn't understand a thing you just said." "It's about lesbians and gays, and how they are portrayed in film and television." "Are you crazy? How are you going to write a blog about that? You don't know the first thing about it!"
And although I felt like bitchslapping her, she was of course absolutely right. I don't know anything about the LGBT community, their history in the media, or their important names and where they stand today. (I didn't tell my sister that. I told her I was an expert and shame on her for not knowing that about me.)
But I have this growing, hungry interest. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that every time you watch a movie or a TV series nowadays the theme just jumps at you. Obviously the LGBT community is fighting hard for its rights and the more it fights, the nuttier and more vicious responses it gets from certain conservative groups, and the harder it responds again from the media. It's fascinating to watch.
But most likely it is because someone very close and dear to me came out, and as I learned about their pain, I started to see and dwell on things that before I could have just shrugged off.
And I thought that the best way to deal with this new obsession was to write about it. This blog will help me to organize my information and my thoughts. That way perhaps the next time my sister quizzes me, I will have enough to fool her.