Gayface and Blackface

Posted by on December 18th, 2009 at 12:44 AM

Dirk Deppey lately linked to Jeet Heer’s informal sampling of gay caricature in the comics, which set me to thinking about the interesting contrast with racial caricature.  Gayface has roots about as deep as blackface in commercial entertainment, and it remained an institution longer.  (Leaving aside female impersonation, which is another part of the forest altogether.  Gayface is low comedy while female impersonation was always considered an art form.)  While they never had pansy shows the way they had minstrel shows, the fairy was enough of a stock character in stage and movie comedy as to be a job description, encompassing for instance every role ever played by Franklin Pangborn and half the roles played by Edward Everett Horton.  The signal difference is that while it was always stigmatized and sometimes fatal to be black in those days it was never formally against the law.  But then, gayface wasn’t about sexuality, it was about effeminacy.  While the mass audience found the idea of a man acting in an unmanly way too funny for words, the last thing it wanted to think about was what two of them might do with each other.  I’ve made no systematic study, but my hypothesis would be that when a physical relationship between men is implied, effeminacy was played down.  Think for instance of Kasper Gutman and Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.  Some gayface performers were in fact gay, but then some blackface minstrels were black, and Mae West was the Bert Williams of female impersonation.  Given the legal issue and the aversion issue, until the Age of Total Frankness the gayface performer would always give the audience the option of thinking he was just fooling. 

The wild card in Heer’s examples and in comics generally is Milton Caniff.  While he must needs be coy about it Caniff’s homosexual villains are indeed sexual, and that gives them an added dimension of menace.  The mannish woman in commercial entertainment is almost always sinister unless it’s Marlene Dietrich.  Of her one thinks of the line coined I think by P.J. O’Rourke, “She’ll go to bed with anything in pants, and these days everybody wears them.”  It also brings to mind the apocryphal story where Samuel Goldwyn instructs an underling to obtain the rights to Radcliffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness, which prompts the following exchange:

“But boss, you can’t do that, it’s all about lesbians.”

“Listen, get me the book,” Goldwyn replies, “We’ll turn them into Chinks.”

Heer frames the subject around a three year old newspaper column by a second string cultural warrior named Brent Bozell in a way I found rather obtuse.  Heer concludes thusly:

[C]onservatives like Bozell never objected to these gay stereotypes when they flourished in the comics. So what people of this ilk are upset about is not the representation of homosexual per se, but about the fact that gays are increasingly shown in a neutral or favourable light. As long as gays are represented in a homophobic way, Bozell and his political allies would never raise a voice of objection. For the Bozells of the world, it is okay to show gays, as long as you don’t show them as human beings.

Well, yeah.  What I find strange about this is Heer’s implication that this is somehow hypocritical.  Bozell’s position is completely consistent.  The old regime of stigmatization is what he seeks to defend.  It’s just come to be so far out of the mainstream that it’s like calling for a new offensive on Fort Sumter.  Another difference between blackface and gayface in their heyday is that there was at least some sense in some segments of the society that blackface was cruel and unjust.  Stigmatization of homosexuality would remain an open question in the society well into the 1970s.  I think the one being ahistorical here is Heer.

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3 Responses to “Gayface and Blackface”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Well, it’s true that I could have provided more have context to my little essay. In particular as one commentator mentioned I could have contextualized these comics as part of the “pansy craze” of the late 1920s (discussed by historian George Chauncey, among others).

    And perhaps it was a mistake to frame the issue around Brent Bozell, although I think his point of view is commone enough. I wasn’t saying that Bozell is hypocritical, but rather that he’s homophobic. And part of his homophobia comes throught from the fact that he claims gays in the comics are a novelity, when in fact there have been gays represented for a long time.

    I think one nuance Fiore misses is that these images are more ambiguous than blackface. There is a long tradition of gays and lesbians themselves appropriating the pansy and butch stereotype. In Caniff’s correspondence I found at least one letter from a lesbian who enjoyed Madame Sanjak. By contrast, It think most blacks were pretty appalled by the blackface image.

  2. DJM says:

    Jeet,

    I would say most of the gays in the strips you sampled were there for novelty. I don’t think Bozell would have had a problem with those depictions, as they seem to be more his flavor (derogatory or for laffs). He was just disgusted by what he viewed as a sick novelty, positive depictions of gays in comics.

  3. One thing people seem to not be considering is that these racially and sexually-insensitive portrayals still exist. It is not as openly accepted, but racial crime has gone UP since Obama was elected, and numerous comics have taken his race and used it in cruel ways for a laugh (and this isn’t just underground web-comics, mainstream press has walked some shaky ground). As for “gayface,” couldn’t it be argued that “Will and Grace” was essentially a minstrel show of homosexual sorts that defended its hyper-sexualization and stereotypical portrayals by saying it was in fact gay-positive? We have a hetero-normative society and white-as-culturally acceptable culture.