- Sissy! The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Cultureby Harry Thomas
Harry Thomas's Sissy! The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Cultureis an ambitious book that investigates the fascination with effeminate men in American culture since World War II. It looks at a number of case studies: effeminate prepubescent boys in the fiction of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote; effeminate men in Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillarand James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room; heterosexual women's fandom of Liberace and Edward of the Twilight series; effeminate gay men in depictions of the AIDS crisis, including Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On, Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Sarah Schulman's Rat Bohemia; "sissy memoirs" of the late 1990s and early 2000s by Mark Doty, André Leon Talley, and Kevin Sessums; and finally, in the conclusion, an analysis of a music video, Your Make-Up Is Bad, and the television show RuPaul's Drag Race.
Thomas has incorporated a wide range of theory, history, and literature, introducing the reader to historical contexts, accessible versions of queer theory, and literary traditions. He has clearly read widely, and, following the footnotes, readers can learn much about American culture, queer literary trends, and gender and queer theory from this book. Thomas has also made accessibility a priority, which makes the book an excellent teaching tool, particularly in high school and undergraduate classrooms. It is an outstanding introduction to the social construction of gender in contemporary American literature, because each case study is framed both theoretically and historically.
Sometimes this focus on accessibility leads to overly simplistic summaries and formulations. Thomas's affection for capitalized types in each chapter—the Sympathetic Sissy, the Straight-Acting Gay Man and Truth-Telling Queen, Boys Who Sparkle, Healing Queens, and Triumphant Sissies—sometimes feels a bit gimmicky, a Candace Bushnell affectation that does [End Page 124]not always illuminate. Sometimes, in his overviews, Thomas moves too quickly: just as one example, his one-paragraph dismissal of John Rechy's City of Nightmisses Rechy's intense sympathy for the effeminate men in the queer underground and the narrator's self-critique of his own narcissistic hypermasculinity, not unlike David in Giovanni's Room. The readings of the primary texts are often pedestrian, heavy on summary, and occasionally reductive and unnuanced. Sometimes, Thomas claims too much; his persistent claim that McCullers and Capote are the first positive descriptions of sissies overlooks the long tradition of witty queens, from Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, and Christopher Isherwood to books by American writers in the 1930s, including Nightwood, Butterfly Man, and The Beautiful and the Damned. Later in Sissy!Thomas mentions, almost as an aside, the longstanding tradition of truth-telling queens in drag, but it does not seem to affect the narrative he decided to tell. It simply is not necessary to overclaim in this way, and Thomas's repeated insistence on making such an absolute claim sometimes overshadows the excellent analysis he is doing in these case studies.
It is in the final three chapters that the book makes an original contribution to scholarship, mapping out the plethora of powerful sissies in American culture since the 1990s. I think the book would be stronger if it focused on more recent phenomena and developed these analyses. Heterosexual women's attraction to effeminate men is a fascinating topic, one that could have benefited from a broader analysis, from analysis of female-authored slash fiction to interviews with fans of Twilightand Liberace. Queer culture of the 1990s and 2000s created a number of celebratory spaces for sissies as well, from Queer Eye for the Straight Guyto Michael Cunningham's The Hours; placing AIDS literature within that larger context would have been productive. Scholarship on sissy memoirs of the 2000s is rare, which makes chapter 5 the most original contribution to scholarship. The conclusion, too, on RuPaul's Drag Racemerited its own chapter...