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Film Sissies  
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The nominal hero, the stolid policeman Mark (Dana Andrews), is portrayed as thuggish, dismissive, cold; and for once (but not the last time) the sissy moves from background decoration to the starring role. Webb, unlike the simpering, sometimes frail, or just plain weird sissies of the prior decade, is an attractive, charismatic creature. The title is misleading; Laura is really Webb's film, and thus the sissy's.

1950s Sissies

For some observers, the sissy's golden age ended in the 1940s, but the character remained a minor but persistent force.

Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956) was a major postwar text on sissydom, wringing its hands in the manner of the liberal problem picture over the troubling effeminacy of the character dubbed "Sissy Boy" by cruel schoolmates. In the play he was homosexual, in the movie he is "sensitive"--and rescued from sissydom by a sympathetic woman.

Also during this decade, Jerry Lewis perfected what Parker Tyler called the "sissy-boy clown," but Lewis's schtick, derived from vaudeville, was more manic than queer.

1960s Sissies

In two of his 1960s movies, Lover Come Back (1961) and A Very Special Favor (1965), Rock Hudson pretends to be a sissy in order to win over a woman, a dizzying collision of reality and fiction in the case of a gay actor such as Hudson.

More adventurous sissies arrived with the late 1960s counterculture. William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band (1969, based on a play by Mart Crowley), for example, featured a slew of sissies brimming with superb dish and self-hate, dancing, smoking dope, making out, discussing Maria Montez.

For some sissy-watchers this was the ultimate treat, a rare film made up entirely of sissies with only a single disturbed heterosexual to spoil the fun. (And he's soon relegated to the background where sissies once dwelt.)

More politically minded queers dismissed Boys as an unappetizing tableau of self-loathing homosexuals that pandered to heterosexist morality. (Critic Vito Russo called it "a homosexual period piece just as Green Pastures was a Negro period piece.")

The 1970s and Beyond

In the gay-inflected prison drama Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), audiences were treated to a previously unthinkable image: the sissy unclothed. The film's Queenie (professional drag entertainer Michael Greer) is in some respects the apotheosis of the threatening effeminate queer, reordering the prison as a kind of personal fiefdom for his own pleasure and, in a startling sequence, entertaining the prisoners, guards, and their families by doing a lewd drag number that ends with him exposing himself and verbally lacerating the audience. Queenie shows the intransigent sissy's resilience, surviving a brutal beating to reclaim his place.

Queenie's legacy of the out-of-control sissy did not last, however, and, aside from the curious conflation of queer and killer that made a popular subgenre in films such as Silence of the Lambs, and an occasional perverse-powerful sissy such as Louis XIII in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), mainstream post-1970s films mostly featured more subdued sissies.

From Harvey Fierstein cowering under a desk in Independence Day (1996) to the drag queens of To Wong Foo (1995) who sacrifice their sexuality and transform the lives of small-town heterosexuals, from neurotic Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (1996) to Jeremy Piven as a Versace salesman flirting wildly with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2, the modern sissy has returned to more familiar and culturally reassuring territory: a minor but provocative diversion in the comic-decorative mode that he played so memorably in the 1930s.

Gary Morris

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arts >> Overview:  Film

Since cinema began, Hollywood has been fascinated with finding ways of representing homosexuality.

arts >> Overview:  Film Noir

Queer characters were a crucial component of the film noir landscape, part of the genre's challenge to complacent American values.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sissies

Although sometimes reviled by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, the sissy has historically helped define gay culture, and has questioned the dominant constructions of sex and gender.

arts >> Crowley, Mart

Playwright Mart Crowley deserves honor for having blazed the trail for gay-themed theater with his 1969 groundbreaking play The Boys in the Band.

literature >> Fierstein, Harvey

Award-winning Harvey Fierstein is one of the finest gay male playwrights currently working in the American theater.

arts >> Fierstein, Harvey

Actor Harvey Fierstein has had phenomenal success as both a performer and a playwright, and has been steadfastly committed to the cause of glbtq rights.

arts >> Hudson, Rock

A product of Hollywood's star system, Rock Hudson became an international symbol of heterosexuality, wearing a mask until it was savagely ripped off when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

arts >> Lane, Nathan

Highly-acclaimed actor Nathan Lane is not only openly gay himself, but has portrayed gay characters in several plays and films.

arts >> Minnelli, Vincente

One of Hollywood's greatest directors, Vincente Minnelli kept his sexual orientation quite private, but his gay sensibility is visible in many of his films.

arts >> Reilly, Charles Nelson

Funnyman Charles Nelson Reilly gained fame during the 1970s as a regular guest on game shows and celebrity talk shows, but he was also an accomplished character actor, director, and teacher.

arts >> Webb, Clifton

American actor Clifton Webb rescued the film sissy from secondary status, then moved on to a variety of comic and dramatic roles.


Davis, Ray. "The Sissy Gaze in American Cinema." Bright Lights Film Journal

Howes, Keith. Broadcasting It: An Encyclopedia of Homosexuality on Film, Radio, and TV in the UK 1923-1993. London: Cassell, 1993.

Murray, Raymond. Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. New York: Plume, 1996.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.


    Citation Information
    Author: Morris, Gary  
    Entry Title: Film Sissies  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 19, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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