Gloria Brame, Ph.D.

Looking at Sissies: Cinema History

Filed By Gloria Brame, Ph.D. | May 03, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Donald Pleasence, gay film, Roman Polanski, sexual ambiguity in cinema, sissies in film, vintage movie

Was digging around the Net, hunting for the proverbial "neato stuff" to share on Bilerico when I found an intriguing photo. Didn't know where it was from but I posted it on my personal blog, and a reader quickly identified it as a still from the 1966 Roman Polanski movie, Cul de Sac.

On that same hunt, I read a fascinating essay on the film archetype of the sissy, and its cultural meaning. Here's a brief excerpt and link to the article, followed by the Polanski still.

What is it about the sissy that has assured his appeal through world wars and major societal shifts?

As a distorted mirror of masculinity, the sissy fascinates as both a challenge to rigid masculine norms and a reinforcement of them. His mere presence in close proximity to the heterosexual male (or female)--often as a valet, decorator, faithful friend, or later, in the confusion that erupted around the image, romantic rival---subtly reminds the audience that there are other, perhaps more satisfying ways of being than conventional heterosexuality.

Donald Pleasence gets baby-dolled up after the jump.


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A couple of years ago I saw a very good documentary of homosexuality in early film prior to the censorship issue.

Let's not forget the countless talented actors who specialized in sissies: Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Ernest Thesiger, Eric Blore (who was married, but...), Clifton Webb, Billy DeWolfe, Frank Nelson, Murray Melvin, Charles Nelson Reilly... the list goes on.

Michael @ | May 3, 2010 12:54 PM

Being "old," I have read a lot of horseshit from the anus of gay ghetto mentality in my time, but the quote you pulled, as well as what follows, goes in the Homo Horseshit Hall of Fame:

"...subtly reminds the audience that there are other, perhaps more satisfying ways of being than conventional heterosexuality.

The often riotous humor of character actors such as Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, et al.--beloved fixtures in their films, always eagerly awaited--hints at a carefree world of foolish fun that represents a kind of ideal.

This is especially evident in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, which always feature at least one, and sometimes several sissies who, as much as the "satin and platinum" décor, indicate a desirable world of sophistication and pleasure far from the boring status quo."

EARTH TO THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE'S AUTHOR: their primary purpose was to glorify heteronorms in contrast to their epicene fragility, their "failed masculinity" in the words of a genuine expert on gays in film, Vito Russo. They weren't symbols of another "more satisfying" sexuality but perversions of it when they weren't Asexual. To Mr. & Mrs. America, they weren't the symbols of "a desirable world of sophistication and pleasure" but simply spayed poodles prancing in it; mirthful mincemeat pie for the masses.

That there were/are men like them, and that they are "morally neutral," is beside the point which is not their reality but the reality of marginalization through mocking. Celluloid sissies served the same purpose for straight audiences that Stepin Fetchit did for white audiences—affirmation of their assumed superiority.

Vito quotes a 1933 press release:

“Call Franklin Pangborn a sissy offstage and he’ll plant five hard knuckles on your proboscis,” adding, “The public acknowledgement that private sissyhood deserved a punch in the nose made clear the onus that society put on such real-life behavior.”

"Celluloid sissies served the same purpose for straight audiences that Stepin Fetchit did for white audiences—affirmation of their assumed superiority."

I completely agree with this statement, although that has more to do with how "sissy" behavior was framed in films and not necessarily the quality, sophistication, wit and creativity of the behavior itself. U.S. culture has always had an "anti-cosmopolitanism" built into it (which Vito Russo mentioned in the Celluloid Closet) and I think sissies did represent sophistication... which according to US culture is artificial, pretentious, unchristian and, yes, unmanly. I can still appreciate the performers and attempt to fit those portrayals into a wider understanding of sissy culture rather than dismiss them as wholly bigoted stereotypes (even if that's why they were included in those films... in the Astaire films they're there to add, yes, sophistication... as they did in many broadway productions in the 1920s... and to make Astaire appear more masculine, which wasn't easy).

I do also understand how a wholesale acceptance of these portrayals basically doesn't allow any critique of why they were included in the films. I've had similar issues with the film "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives" which presents "transgender women" using a lot of "tranny" stereotypes. Yes, they do represent an aspect of trans culture (just as screen sissies represent certain aspects of gay culture) but when they're blindly accepted and criticism of them is considered knee-jerk "PC", then they continue to repress and silence the communities who've tried to gain mainstream access to media.

I write a blog about the arcane art form known as the "juvenile operetta", original musicals written between 1920 and 1950 specifically for high school production. While gays and lesbians were an extremely rare sight in this genre, the occasional appearance was always worth the price of admission...

If it weren't for the sissies, we wouldn't even be in those older movies.