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Film Sissies  
 
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"I liked the sissy," Harvey Fierstein said in an interview for the documentary The Celluloid Closet. This simple sentiment, though rendered apologetically, is hardly surprising coming from an actor who has played his share of such characters over the years.

What is surprising is that mainstream audiences, and sometimes viewers who have more at stake in such imagery, have mostly agreed with him, judging from the sheer staying power of the sissy archetype, which can be found everywhere from the earliest silent films (Celluloid Closet includes a sighting from 1895) to recent action movies (Rush Hour 2, 2001).

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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.

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.

The 1930s: The Heydey of the Sissy

The 1930s were the sissy's heyday, and the portrayals are more diverse than might be thought at first glance. Most of director Gregory La Cava's films from that era feature the enchanting Franklin Pangborn, whose roles offer a tidy précis of the possibilities of the 1930s sissy.

In Bed of Roses (1933), he is a pure figure of fun, whimsically associated with women's underwear as the fussy, commanding head of a ladies' department in a clothing store. In Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), he is unexpectedly pleased with his outsider status, confessing to his surprised wealthy boss: "We servants have all of the luxuries of the rich and none of their problems."

My Man Godfrey (1936) shows the sissy as morally upright arbiter, as Pangborn presides over an absurd scavenger hunt by cheating wealthy "nitwits." Godfrey breaks one of the cardinal rules of sissydom by having Pangborn lovingly touch the hero (William Powell), provocatively stroking the latter's face ("Do you mind?" he says seductively) to see if his beard is real.

Despite their outsider status, sissies were not above public service to the culture's needs, sometimes taking on the burden of bringing together a warring heterosexual couple, which not coincidentally usually was part of the process of denying their own sexuality (expressions of homosexuality were forbidden by the 1934 Hays Code, though sissies were not).

In the 1933 Female, Ferdinand Gottschalk plays a mincing, homunculus-like secretary to a powerful female executive. While he mostly fawns over "Miss D," he ends up advising both her and her intransigent male love interest on how they can come together. Anxieties around the sissy character are also apparent in his role, as Female inexplicably has him courting one of the other secretaries, a woman, though it is treated as more campy than serious.

Other kinds of 1930s sissies were strictly exotic window dressing, brought in as novelties to liven up the "real" characters' lives or a stage show. Two examples are the lewd, prancing queens in the gay bar scene in Clara Bow's Call Her Savage (1932), or the Rocky Twins, professional drag entertainers in real life, frolicking onstage in the Marion Davies vehicle Blondie of the Follies (1932).

The 1940s: The Sissy as Threat

By the 1940s, the sissy took off his gloves and shrugged off some of his comic and self-sacrificing impulses. In that era of war and noir, he could turn against the kind of man he once served obsequiously.

Clifton Webb's Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944) shows this scary new sissy, one whose threat to heterosexual norms becomes palpable. Lydecker is treated sympathetically in subtext even as the text shows him as a deranged killer; this is partly because the film endorses the values he imparts to Laura through their apparently sexless relationship--sophistication, deep friendship, an appreciation of beauty--even as it shows that relationship as hopeless.

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Eric Blore (1887-1959), one of several male actors famous for playing sissy roles.
  
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