Marlon B. Ross

In the course of composing my recently published book, Sissy Insurgencies: A Racial Anatomy of Unfit Manliness, I began to see sissies everywhere. Perhaps this is a liability of a study like this one — composed at a historical juncture when public talk about private gender and sexual propensities is so seemingly frank, and yet so titillating and sensationalized. In such a febrile context, the subject, in this case the sissified male, can become unintentionally objectified again. My inquiry is intended to disrupt the encrusted stereotypes of the sissified male, even as it necessarily engages with some familiar tropes that have stigmatized the sissy across the decades.

Even in the midst of what appears to be social upheaval — if not societal progress — in regard to the acceptance of gender nonconforming individuals, the sissy continues to be a stubbornly stigmatized figure. The sissy remains the gremlin of the American national imaginary when it comes to the rites and rights of manliness — whether on the battlefield, in the sports arena, in the halls of political power, in the corporate bullpens of business competition, or in the bloodstained streets of revolutionary protest movements. Sissiness haunts every sphere of vaunted masculine empowerment as a cautionary figure of the failure to win, which is assumed to result from a failure of manly drive. American men are still quick to call another man a punk, a wuss, a pussy, a sissy if he loses, especially if he loses in good conscience from over-scrupulousness in following the rules or too much empathetic regard for the foe.

The concept of sissiness, and the way the epithet is employed, however, is neither static nor universal. As my study attempts to document, the sissy figure encodes, embodies, and reflects the ongoing debates over not only what constitutes proper manliness but also how other social attributes — including race, color, region, religion, class, sexual orientation, and political affiliation — intersect with what is considered appropriate gender conduct for American boys and men.

We can learn a lot about how sissiness haunts our politics from the 2016 presidential campaign. It took very little for the most virulently, openly racist and misogynist presidential candidate in modern U.S. history to gain the support of some white gay Republicans, some of whom had previously pivoted to vote for Barack Obama, the most gay- and trans-affirmative candidate up to that time. Such white gay men were also swayed toward Trump, despite — or perhaps because of? — his hypermasculine posture so clearly intended to embody traditional, if not archaic, macho virtues. Even as Trump assured gays and lesbians during the campaign that he would make friendly with them, he exploited anxieties over gender nonconforming subjects so as to draw a line between gayness as acceptable while gender nonconformity — signaled especially by attacks on trans-persons — as still unacceptable.

Sissiphobia hovered over Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, as he proved the sociopolitical effectiveness of the big white male bully, especially when that figure is embodied through a righteously aggrieved white masculinity. That the previous occupant of that office and his spouse — President and Mrs. Obama — campaigned vigorously against bullying as a grave social sin can appear to be the utmost historical irony. As Jackson Katz observes, “As a black male leader who was un-afraid to talk about ‘empathy’ and the need to have dialogue with America’s enemies, he [Obama] represented a potential new masculine presidential archetype.” If the Obamas and their politically-correct allies were intent on employing empathy to make the nation safe for sissies, trans-individuals, the undocumented, victims of police brutality, and  all sundry of other un-American undesirables, the Trump supporters understood that gun-toting vulgar belligerence can out-muscle the moral high ground in the “real” America.

We should not overlook, as well, the extent to which an image of black power — the Obamas — coming to the defense of bullied sissies ricocheted into a backlash against both black people and those gender-nonconforming subjects that the Obamas sought to include and raise up. The full-throated answer to the Obamas’ anti-bullying campaign, quite naturally, was a bully president, not one who speaks softly and carries a big stick, but instead one who over-boasts loudly and harbors a small member, figured metonymically through ridicule of his little hands.

The Trump campaign thus sheds a light on how considerable progress on sexual orientation politics collides with a retrenchment of traditional white masculinity. Trump capitalized on a bloc of voters weary of gender politeness and yearning for a day when men behaved as men and women as women. If the 2016 presidential campaign hailed the victorious reign of the white male bully, as the verbal brawl between Trump and Cuban-American Florida Senator Marco Rubio attests, we might dub the unspoken target of this trouncing the uppity sissy — any man, especially any white man, who dared to break ranks and side with the soft enemy within. When Trump labeled Rubio “Little Marco” during the Republican primary campaign, Rubio retorted by remarking on Trump’s “little hands.” Trump’s response spells out what was already obvious, that this “debate” was a matter of whose penis is bigger: “And he referred to my hands — if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”

If Trump made soft punks of his white male Republican rivals while aggrandizing his own oversized virility, it is not because he possessed an unassailable upright masculinity, as his various escapades into adultery would attest. If Trump’s attempts to bully Hilary Clinton with predictable sexist jibes throughout the campaign rightly elicited outrage on the left, the treatment of his bullying tactics against Rubio and other male rivals elicited mainly titillating humor, as though Trump’s behavior, and Rubio’s reaction, constituted little more than expected schoolyard hijinks between two incorrigible white male teenagers. Coming after Obama’s effort to reform this belligerent paradigm of presidential politics, Trump’s literalization of the “bully pulpit” seems especially gender-reactionary in it sissiphobia.

If institutional politics remains captured by sissiphobic badinage, professional sport is yet another key venue haunted by eviscerating sissy stigma. Another small-scale social media scandal erupted as I finishing the book, and this little social media controversy further exposes how race continues to shape the deployment of sissy accusation. This attack targeted Dak Prescott, the highly regarded — as sportsman and man — black quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Prescott had given an interview in which he confessed to being depressed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in response to his brother’s suicide in the wake of their mother’s death. Seeming to emulate the Trump modus operandi of casting suspicion on male vulnerability as sissy softness, the infamous white sports critic Skip Bayless attacked Prescott on the September 10, 2020 Fox Sports 1 t.v. show, Undisputed, by suggesting that in confessing his experience of situational depression, Prescott had unwittingly opened himself and his team to a justifiable take-down by any team worthy of exploiting this weakness in leadership. Seeing this confession as a big crack in the fortress of hard, iron leadership that a quarterback must display, no matter the personal injury being experienced internally, Bayless pontificated for a solid ten minutes on Prescott’s confession as an error in judgment that would lead to the team’s unraveling on the field of play.

Roundly attacked, with calls for his being fired, Bayless eventually issued a clarification, if not an apology, by insisting that he had full sympathy for anyone experiencing “clinical depression,” implying that because Prescott’s depression was not clinically diagnosed that he still made a fatal error — of strategic leadership if not of sports ethics — by displaying his emotional vulnerability to his rival teams. Bayless just as well had called Prescott a n- – – – – -sissy, for everything he uttered on the September 10 show and afterward in his non-apology throws the epithet at the black quarterback through the usual sissiphobic mode of sowing suspicion through innuendo, while amplifying the charge through common knowledge of Prescott’s racial identity. Effectively insisting that Prescott man up, Bayless’ authority derives from nothing less than his over-confident white maleness, given that he is noted for being one of the few major sports commentators who has no experience playing either college or pro sports — having made a career by writing about sports since he was in high school.

Given the racial politics in which black quarterbacks are treated more skeptically by the football establishment, Bayless’ hyperbolic attack could easily be seen as harboring racial implications lodged in the long history of excluding African Americans as not competent to hold the vaunted position of quarterback. It may be that Bayless’ attack was so longwinded and convoluted exactly because he could not more directly call Prescott a black sissy, which would have been more honest, nor could he appear to be suggesting that Prescott, as a black quarterback, had not yet mastered the intelligence and discipline required of the most lauded position in the American sports pantheon.

Even despite this ongoing sissy stigma in the last vestiges of masculine exclusion like presidential politics and sports, it would be wrong to suggest that there has been no social movement in regard to non-conforming gender conduct for boys and men. As the vernacular usage of a word like “sissy” has changed, so has the social perception of the referent, or those persons to whom such labels are applied. With the increasing inclusion of same-gender-identified people into U.S. law and society, the word “gay” itself has bifurcated in curious ways that were not predictable in the 1960s and ’70s. The legacy of this bifurcation is still evident as late as the 2000s in a small scandal that occurred with the singing of “The Good Old Song” as a battle cry at University of Virginia sporting events.

Composed in the 1890s before “gay” referenced homosexuality in the common vernacular, the lyrics include these lines: “We come from Old Vir-Gin-I-A, / Where all is bright and gay.” In order both to retrieve the archaic meaning of the word and to eliminate any double entendre that would implicate the song with homosexuality, as early as the 1970s some fans started altering the lyric by shouting “NOT GAY” immediately following the phrase “bright and gay.” In 2003, when the controversy erupted, the Supreme Court was in the midst of hearing the case of Lawrence v. Texas, and in June of that year it struck down by a six to three majority the Texas same-sex sodomy law. Perhaps influenced by the court hearings and the broader public discussion in which it was clear that LGBTQIA rights were progressing swiftly, a smattering of fans chanting “NOT GAY” had turned into a landslide, and a much more influential queer movement, both nationally and on the University of Virginia campus, would not allow this insult to continue. After the circulation of a petition and the intervention of the University’s officials, the chant was abandoned, and eventually the fight song totally revamped.

I would suggest that as a group achieves greater social inclusion, and as the epithet once used to stigmatize them becomes neutralized, authorized, and affirmatory; other negative usages can pop up to restigmatize either that group or other groups seen as intimately proximate. While “faggot” has achieved censorious social opprobrium similar to “nigger,” other epithets begin to acquire a largely affirming signification, as in the case of “queer.” Under the radar, other usages continue to subside, bubble up, and fester. This is the case with the phrase “that’s so gay,” which emerged in the vernacular, especially on social media, among teenaged youth in the 2000s.

On the one hand, that middle and high schoolers would be speaking so openly about what is gay and what is not indicates the growing familiarity and acceptability of queer identities in the post-Civil Rights era. On the other, as “gay” references a generally acceptable sexual orientation — that is, becomes homonormalized — the use of “gay” as a negative epithet for the gender temperament of sissiness acquires a new life. When kids said “that’s so gay,” they meant it as a cute, innocuous way of indicating their hip understanding of sexuality, even as they continued to ascribe stereotypical gender characteristics and conduct long associated with sissiness: softness, effeminance, cowardice, histrionic speech and emotionality, campness, and triviality. Was the “that’s so gay” epithet a sign of sexual-orientation progress but retrograde reaction in relation to gender-inclusiveness? Perhaps the popularity of the phrase was itself a sign of the intensified panic over a changing gender surveillance whose outcome is yet to be determined. As the phrase “that’s so gay” has faded in its popularity, will another sissiphobic epithet simply take its place, or will the act of sissy stigmatizing itself become socially inappropriate?

To read sissies as insurgents may seem utterly counter-intuitive to the way we usually conceive of such boys and men. The sissy is still considered the contrary to all of the leading figures of masculine competence. Insisting that the sissy is a necessary presence in all of these venues is not to suggest that he is a gender subversive, toppling masculinity from the margins or undoing it at its core. Nonetheless, the sissy figure can occasionally erupt into consciousness in such a way that his presence temporarily disrupts the smooth racially-conditioned operation of masculine empowerment in ruling institutions, spaces, activities, and affects. At the same time, the increasing awareness of trans-identity puts pressure on sissiness from another direction. Whereas once noticeably effeminate men would create the knee-jerk reaction of mockery or violence aimed at the offensive homosexual, now when such a “man” is spotted, he may easily be assumed to be in some transitional state toward trans-womanhood.

With the rise of concepts like the gender spectrum, nonbinary sexualities and genders, and even a trickle of parents who hold off on naming the gender of their newborns until the child can decide the gender at an appropriate age, perhaps we are entering a time when the sissy as such will become archaic, obsolete even. Will the word “sissy” survive if American culture does progress beyond the traditional gender binary? Or will it mutate to stigmatize some other experience of gender? Only time — and the tireless efforts of those committed to gender equality for all — will tell. If in the long arc of time, we do lose the sissy as an emblematic figure of masculine failure, we should never forgot the history of gender nonconformance and insurgency that the sissy has embodied and represented against a brutally strict gender hierarchy that sought to subordinate and marginalize not only all women and African American men but also any man who refused to submit to the masculinist protocols of conventional manhood conduct and character.

Marlon B. Ross is Professor of English in the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, where his work focuses on African American, gender and sexuality studies, and romanticism. His books include Manning the Race: Reforming Black Men in the Jim Crow Era and The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women’s Poetry.

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