It seems strange that our understanding of human diversity is still so shallow in 2016, especially about our gender differences. Shouldn’t this particular human difference be one that we all know a lot about by now? It’s often the case however that we cover our ignorance or discomfort with certain topics by laughing about them.
Comedy as Bullying
Sometime last year, as I thought about the portrayal of comedy in motion pictures, I pondered the notion that comedy is used as a vehicle for poking fun at (i.e., bullying), and thereby possibly further marginalizing, under-served groups in the US such as gays.
The popular films of the Golden Age could only hint at homosexuality and often portrayed gays as simpering characters, objects of scorn or merriment, or insidious villains (Top doc, 2016).
As it turns out, other researchers have had those same thoughts, and have both studied and written about them, eg, Lugowski (1999).
As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, … queer men tended to appear as one of two types. The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy” sometimes befuddled, incompetent, and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn).
Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier type sporting lipstick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere.
Can We Learn about Human Diversity through Comedy?
Recognizing the extraordinary influence of movies in shaping our culture, I then wondered about how, in contrast, comedy might gently introduce us to people and situations that may be uncomfortable or unknown to us, and therein provide education that possibly leads to new knowledge.
At the same time, and especially given the social taboos historically associated with particular topics and types of people, I thought it might be difficult, but not impossible, to track how we have portrayed genderqueers in film over time. Yet again, but no longer surprising, I find that this very topic has been investigated already.
However, what is surprising, is to learn who did the investigation. Vito Russo, writer, and director of this month’s film—and author of the book on which it is based—provides evidence of gay and bisexual actors and stories in Hollywood since the beginning of motion pictures. “It proved to be revelatory, in part because of Russo’s embrace of bricolage, a concept borrowed from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss” (Kennedy, 2011).
Schiavi (2009) states that Russo’s work is “indispensable to our reading of gender and sexuality on-screen.”
Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies is approaching its thirtieth anniversary. Prior to its 1981 publication (and 1987 revision), there had been only two major critical works on the portrayal of homosexuals in film: Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1971) and Richard Dyer’s Gays in Film (1977), neither of which has enjoyed the popularity or influence of Closet.
Even though dismissed as inadequate in queer film theory, Vito Russo’s activist works are important and visible in today’s texts on the topic because they record his particular contribution to film history and to film criticism related to gay rights and human diversity. In Celluloid Activist, Schiavi (2011) realigns Russo’s legacy, positioning both his politics and his film scholarship on twin pedestals.
Film History and Public Policy
Now, let’s turn to public policy and see how film history might correspond to regulation, which is also a measure of public values and public sentiment. At the outset, motion pictures profoundly affected communication and society, and as now, created fear in the minds of many as to the potential changes they might bring.
By speaking to mass audiences directly, movies all too easily bypassed traditional agencies of socialization—the church, the school, the family. For many they came to symbolize the important changes taking place in the structure of power and influence in the early twentieth century United States, and those groups who feared that their own influence in society was diminishing viewed them as a threat. Fierce debates over the content and control of this new medium arose in the early days of silent film and intensified with the advent of sound technology (Vaughan, 1990, p.39).
The new film industry created an uproar across the nation in its content produced for public viewing, typically about sex-related content. Last month, we discussed censorship and the structure of the MPAA in the U.S. The Hays Code became the “official” self-regulating guidelines for what was released for viewing by the six major studios during the Golden Age.
However and before that, the government had been involved in its regulation, which had begun in the legislatures of various states. In fact, interestingly we have just passed the 100 year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of 1915 in Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230 (1915), in which, by a 9-0 vote, the Court ruled that the free speech protection of the Ohio Constitution — which was substantially similar to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution — did not extend to motion pictures. It was not until 1952 that movies were granted protection under the First Amendment.
At that point, the Hays Code was eliminated and replaced with a rating system similar to what we have today, which is becoming more and more relaxed. To relate the rating system to its effects, now two-thirds of Hollywood movies made each year are R-rated; most young people have seen these movies long before they are the required 16 years old (Greenberg et al., 1993).
A person emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to both men and women. This attraction does not have to be equally split between genders, and there may be a preference for one gender over others.
A construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.
Closeted (In the Closet)
Refers to a homosexual, bisexual, queer, trans* person, or intersex person who does not or cannot disclose his/her identity or identities to others.
1) The process by which one accepts one’s own sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status (to come out to oneself); 2)The process by which one shares one’s sexuality, gender identity, or intersex status with others (to come out to friends, etc.). This can be a continual, life-long process for homosexual, bisexual, trans*, and intersex people.
1) Term used to refer to homosexual / same-gender-loving communities as a whole, or as a personal identity label for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual; 2) Term used in some cultural settings to specifically represent male-identified people who are attracted to other male-identified people in a romantic, erotic, and/or emotional sense.
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity is outside of, not included within, or beyond the binary of female and male; 2) Gender non-conformity through expression, behavior, social roles, and/or identity.
Lifestyle norm that insists that people fall into distinct genders (male and female), and naturalizes heterosexual coupling as the norm.
Briggs, K. C. (2013). Trans, genderqueer, and queer terms glossary. University of Wisconsin. Retrieved from
Brown, J. D. (2002). Mass media influences on sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, vol 39, pp. 42-45.
Dyer, R. (1983). Review essay: Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the movies. Studies in Visual Communication (Spring), pp. 52-55.
Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1996). The Celluloid Closet [Motion Picture]. USA: Home Box Office (HBO).
Greenberg, B. S., Siemicki, M., Dorfman, S., Heeter, G., Lin, G., Stanley, G. (1993). Sex content in R-rated films viewed by adolescents. In B. S. Greenberg, J. D. Brown, & N. Buerkel-Rothfuss (Eds.), Media, sex and the adolescent (pp. 45-58). Gresskill. NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
Jowett, G. S. (1989). A Capacity for evil: The 1915 Supreme Court mutual decision. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 9(1), pp 59-78.
Kennedy, M. (2011, Jul 10). ‘Celluloid activist,’ by Michael Schiavi: Biography. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Celluloid-Activist-by-Michael-Schiavi-2355090.php
Lugowski, D. M. (1999). Queering the (new) deal: Lesbian and gay representation and the depression-era cultural politics of Hollywood’s Production Code. Cinema Journal, 38 (2), pp 3-35.
Mann, W. J. (2001). Behind the screen: How gays and lesbians shaped Hollywood. New York: Viking.
Schiavi, M. (2009). Looking for Vito. Cinema Journal, 49 (1), 41-64.
Schiavi, M. R. (2011). Celluloid activist: The Life and times of Vito Russo. University of Wisconsin Press.
Top documentary films: The Celluloid Closet. (2016). Retrieved from https://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-celluloid-closet-special-edition/
Vaughn, S. (1990). Morality and entertainment: The Origins of the motion picture production code. Journal of American History, 77 (1), p 39.