Sissy!: the effeminate grotesque in U.S. literature and culture since 1940 Public Deposited

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  • June 27, 2022
  • Thomas, Harry Osborne
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • In his memoir Firebird, Mark Doty explains that being effeminate in postwar America means being treated paradoxically: The queer boy's dynamic, he writes, is to be simultaneously debased and elevated. This study explores the paradox that Doty describes by examining representations of effeminate men and boys in U.S. literature and culture from 1940 to the present. I argue that effeminacy has routinely been depicted in terms of the grotesque, a mode of visual and textual representation concerned with bodies that provoke mixed feelings of both revulsion and fascination. By reading effeminacy through the critical lens of the grotesque, I re-evaluate its queer theoretical potential, and highlight a previously overlooked discursive tradition in U.S. literature and culture. In this tradition, effeminacy is embraced, rather than rejected, because it models new modes of masculine embodiment and functions symbolically as an alternative to the strictures of heteronormativity. This claim both extends and complicates previous scholarship on effeminacy, which focuses almost exclusively on how effeminacy has been hated in U.S. culture (for instance, sociologist Michael Kimmel's claim that American men have always been anxious about appearing feminine). Sissy! acknowledges the breadth and depth of effeminacy's negative reception while also drawing new attention to a wide variety of texts and performances--including literature by Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tony Kushner, and Mark Doty, as well as non-textual performances by figures such as the pianist Liberace--in which effeminacy has been portrayed as something otherworldly, powerful, and desirable. The project thus explains why effeminacy is--as Doty would say--both debased and elevated; effeminacy signals other ways of living and being gendered that are both threatening to those empowered by a given regime of sex/gender and fascinating to those marginalized by it.
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  • ... in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
  • Gwin, Minrose

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