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The Sissy

While Hirschfeld was pleading for tolerance, Hollywood was playing for laughs. Hirschfeld's theories were based on the radical idea of a "third sex," whereas contemporary popular conceptions identified homosexuality as an inversion of ordinary gender: women in men's bodies, men in women's. Hence Hollywood's most enduring stereotype: the sissy.

In his benchmark history, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo, the prodigious researcher and author, picked out characters such as the dressmaker in Irene (1926), played by George K. Arthur, and Grady Sutton in Movie Crazy (1932) as early examples of the sissy type. In Movie Crazy Sutton shrieks and leaps on a table at the thought of a mouse; it is this sort of incongruous and effeminate behavior that marks the early characterizations.

In later films the shading of the sissy becomes more complex; the dialogue often juggles with their sexual ambiguity. Comedians Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, and Franklin Pangborn most often occupied these roles.

In The Gay Divorcee, Horton plays Fred Astaire's priggish friend Pinky, who enjoys some quick banter with Blore (tagged as having an "unnatural passion for rocks"); besides the innuendoes, the homosexuality of the sissies lies in their easy association and their comic conspiratorial conversation compared to the edgy air between would-be lovers Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Naturally, most gay people would now dispute the causal connection between gender and sexuality, but there is also something to celebrate in the sissy image. There is a flip-side to the sissy's intimations of conspiratorial behavior, over-emotionalism, and frivolous humor: companionship, sensitivity, and back-bite wit. David Wayne as Katharine Hepburn's best friend Kip in Adam's Rib (1949) is a shining example of these fairly noble qualities.

Women Behaving Like Men

If the sissy was premised on the idea of a man behaving like a woman, it did not work out so well the other way round. In Turnabout (1940), a convenient genie enables overworked husband John Hubbard and jejeune wife Carole Landis to swap bodies. Whilst Hubbard arrives at work with a clutch-bag and enjoys a bit of gossip with stockings salesman Franklin Pangborn, Landis takes to full-throated thigh-slapping, donning men's pants, and mountaineering on the roof of their Manhattan apartment. But the woman-in-man's-clothing gag lacked the longevity or easy humor of the male sissy; as an image it rarely attained sexual tenor.

According to archivist Andrea Weiss (in Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema), lesbian interest in early Hollywood figured less on broad comedy and more on drama's major stars such as Garbo, Hepburn, and Dietrich--who all had their moments of cross-dressing in films such as Queen Christina (1933), Morocco (1930), and Sylvia Scarlett (1935)--and who in their combination of sexual objectification and stage-center action became pinups for women as much as men.

The Tragic Homosexual

The sissy is something that can be signaled immediately, in the flick of a wrist or a rapid sashay. The other predominant image in mainstream movies is a little more elusive. If the sissy belongs to the domain of farce and comedy, the tragic figure haunts the genres of crime, melodrama, and horror. As a stereotype, the tragic homosexual is to be found wherever Hollywood is required to signal shady bars on the wrong side of town, bohemian decadence, or the ill-effects of same-sex proximity.

As with the sissy, so much is signaled by certain visual conventions. With Gloria Holden in Dracula's Daughter (1936), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), and, later, Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), the tragic homosexual's torture is concentrated in the eyes--sunken, searching out love, or, in the thrillers, young prey.

His or her most common profession is in roles of minor authority (schoolteacher, warden, housekeeper), or some equally small part in the criminal world (blackmailer, get-away car driver), or merely as devoted mother's boy or best friend. Often the male characters were pictured in a bohemian context--this is what writer and critic Richard Dyer has identified as the image of "the sad young man."

The Sad Young Man was not merely an invention of Hollywood; like the sissy, which can be traced back to nineteenth-century images of the fop and dandy, it already existed in literary and art history. The Sad Young Man is part Dorian Gray, part Narcissus. In Now You See It, his exhaustive study of the American lesbian and gay underground, Dyer finds the image in the films of Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos.

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