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.


  1. And how about women? Any lesbian characters in old films?

  2. There are definitely a lot less movies about lesbians than there are about gays, but of course there are! However, because I find the stereotypes and issues are a bit different I decided I will dedicate lesbian films posts of their own.