Winner of the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature

An innovative exploration of postwar representations of effeminate men and boys

Sissy! The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Culture expands on recent cultural criticism that focuses on the ways men and boys deemed to be feminine have been—and continue to be—condemned for their personalities and behavior. Critic Harry Thomas Jr. does not dismiss this approach, but rather identifies it as merely one side of a coin. On the other side, he asserts, the opposite exists: an American artistic tradition that celebrates and affirms effeminate masculinity.

The author argues that effeminate men and boys are generally portrayed using the grotesque, an artistic mode concerned with the depictions of hybrid bodies. Thomas argues that the often grotesque imagery used to depict effeminate men evokes a complicated array of emotions, a mix of revulsion and fascination that cannot be completely separated from one another.

Thomas looks to the sissies in the 1940s novels of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers; the truth-telling flaming princesses of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; the superstardom of pop culture icon Liberace; the prophetic queens of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; and many others to demonstrate how effeminate men have often been adored because they are seen as the promise of a different world, one free from the bounds of heteronormativity.

Sissy! offers an unprecedented and counterintuitive overview of cultural and artistic attitudes toward male effeminacy in post–World War II America and provides a unique and contemporary reinterpretation of the “sissy” figure in modern art and literature.

Harry Thomas Jr. received his Ph.D. in American literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he teaches high school English at Durham Academy and sponsors the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. His work has been published in Twentieth Century Literature, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Rolling Stone.

“In an era of increasing gender tumult, Sissy! The Effeminate Paradox in Postwar US Literature and Culture represents a rumination on the nature and consequences of effeminacy that is both relevant and timely.”
—Peter Hennen, author of Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine

“A much-needed intervention in the exploration of male femininity in US literature and culture from World War II to the present. Importantly, it helps to explain the ways that both mainstream American culture and gay culture continue to blur the lines between gender and sexuality in constructions of nonnormative and, as Thomas usefully calls them, ‘hegemonic’ masculinities.”
—Michael P. Bibler, author of Cotton’s Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936–1968

264 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1963-2 Cloth
ISBN: 978-0-8173-9148-5 Ebook