Oscar Wilde has become in our mind the embodiment of effeminate homosexuality. Throughout his career he performed with consummate brilliance the role of an effete and leisured dandy, a lily-like apostle of aestheticism. According to Alan Sinfield, however, Wilde’s studied effeminacy did not necessarily suggest homosexuality to his Victorian contemporaries. Before the prison sentence that effectively ended his career, “Wilde was regarded by society, the press and the public as rather wicked, but by no means as a pariah.” Even the Marquis of Queensberry was surprised to discover that his accusations of sodomy were well justified.
Sinfield’s argument is nothing if not ambitious in its historical scope, which ranges from Shakespeare to the present day, examining the discourse of effeminacy in both Britain and the United States. Effeminacy, no less than homosexuality, is revealed to be a social construct with a peculiar history of its own. Sinfield glances backward at the role of effeminacy in Shakespeare, Restoration plays, and [End Page 178] eighteenth-century novels, where he discovers that it is almost never associated with sex between men. If a man was effeminate, it simply meant that he was debauched, ineffectual, or a bad soldier. It could even mean that he was a little too heterosexual, too enamored of women for his own good. A man could gad about in a frock, chitchat about divas and sonnets, compose clever and naughty epigrams, and still not be widely identified as a sodomite. In the past century, however, the same behavior sets the gaydar wailing in even the most obtuse observer.
The argument certainly makes sense. It is difficult to recall a queer dandy before Pater and Wilde: Brummell, Barbey, Disraeli, Baudelaire, all of them peculiar in their way, yet none of them queer. But try to imagine a dandy after Wilde who is not an “unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” Admittedly, the argument is a bit overstated. Sinfield has to walk gingerly around the “molly houses” of the eighteenth century. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick refers to the connection between effeminacy, aristocracy, and homosexuality as the King James Version of queerness, and with good reason. Surely the decadents themselves found no end of effeminacy and sodomy among their favorite emperors. We might also question Sinfield’s characterization of the present century. Do the majority of people presume that Michael Jackson is gay—even after the accusations of pedophilia? Is Pee-Wee Herman presumed to be gay, or Prince, or Porky Pig? Camp, for all its outrageous effeminacy, is not presumed to be gay in our culture, provided that it appears in rock videos, Disney animation, or children’s television. Don’t ask me why. Despite the occasional exception, however, the thrust of Sinfield’s thesis still holds: before Wilde, you could do a lot of camping without ever being called a queer, but today, if you so much as drop a hairpin, people think they know your life story.
The final chapters of the book are disappointing. I wanted Sinfield to tell me what made Wilde so attractive to gay men in this century. What have we accomplished in his name? Unfortunately, the final chapters are not about Wilde at all—nor any of his fabulous descendants. Nor is there much about literature or art or anything else we nellies like to read about. One chapter is on Freud, which unfortunately leads us to wonder if we are not in a Freudian century—very different indeed!—in which effeminate gay men are mother-identified narcissists prone to fits of hysteria, compulsive sex, cross-dressing, and pointless [End Page 179] fantasy. I think that psychology has been more influential than The Importance of Being Earnest in shaping public attitudes toward homosexuality. In the last chapter, Sinfield treats us to a fireside chat about contemporary queer theory and queer politics. Not only is Wilde missing from the discussion, but were he there he would probably have found it quite dreary. Sinfield would have done well to heed Camille Paglia, whom he dismisses unfairly as a “right-winger...