Saluting the Sissy part 2.
In his book, The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo highlights how the character of the sissy has been an obsession of the American movies. From the days of silent films the effeminate actions of the sissy had their origins in the vaudeville, where men dressing up in drag was all part of the collective mixture of stage acts. The drag element would quickly full out of fashion in early silent films; the main contribution for this was America movies obsession of the all American, masculine hero and the inevitable need of a foil, the sissy. The role of the Sissy was the emphasise the manliness of the hero while underlining the message, to be female is to be weak, to act effeminate means you are not a real man.
Real men in movies are admired by other men and desired by women and to save the day. The sissy is not allowed any of these tropes. The role of the sissy in movies is to be camp, insignificant, a bit of a joke.
Over time, this idea of what it means to be masculine trickled down into the underground gay scene. A very good example was shown in Quieten Crisp’s autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. From his teenage years onwards Quieten Crisp made the decision not to hide his homosexuality. This he achieved through wearing make up, hennaing his hair and painting his nails red. Upon entering a 1950’s underground gay bar, Quentin sees everyone is dressed in tuxedos, men dancing with men. As he is to obviously gay, the host tears up Quentin’s membership card, with the clear message, if the place was raided, all the men can act masculine, act straight.
Over the next two decades the sissy would continue to be a fixture in films as the character that women saw as harmless fun and men saw as pests, but importantly echoed their own masculinity through the Sissy’s effeminate ways.
1969 America, the underground bars were filled with sissies, sashaying around, mixing with other groups including, lesbian’s, trans women and male prostitutes knowing that a police raid would be imminent. It is of great importance that we all remember that after another police raid at the Stonewall bar, this group of people had enough and fought back, including the sissy.
It would be great to say that after these raids, after the protest marches for equality that the gay community came together, excepting each other. Instead there was a backlash against the sissy. For many gay men, to be equal meant buying into the idea of what it means to be a man, a fantasy that could be seen on the movie screens. After all, we all know that to be queer in the movies means you will never make it to the final reel.
And so we had the rise of the ultra masculine man, taking notes from the Marlboro Man, to any one of Tom of Finland’s incarnations.
Some sissies scoffed at these images and carried on regardless, while other’s embraced the butch drag. From the 70’s onwards the idea of what it means to be a man has rumbled on, with the sissy being seen as the far end of the benchmark.
Whereas glam rock was seen as a bit un-masculine, it would be the 1980’s UK music scene that really shook things up with the idea of what it meant to be a man.
The tabloids went mad for the music fashion scene that would be coined as, New Romantics. Gender was fluid, what it meant to be masculine was played with, through the style of dress and the new trend to wear make up, even the boys from Village People gave the look a go….
It is without a doubt that the resilience of the sissy to stand up against adversity each and every tim, decade after decade that we witness the evolution of what it means to be a man. Most recently we have seen the New Man, now known as The Hipster, taking care of his appearance, being aware of what it means to treat not only the opposite sex, but all sexes with respect.
Of course there will always be those who think that to be a man they have to act rough and tough, not to show emotions and to dress in a certain way, but equally there are those who are comfortable living their lives at the other end of the spectrum. What we need to understand is that this does not make the sissy any less of a man, being a sissy is no longer an indication of a man’s sexuality, it never was; such ideas were created in the movies. Being a man comes in many different guises, the way we behave should never be taken as an indication of our strength as a loving human being.
Villiage People:5 o’clock in the morning,