Brent Bozell is one of those right-wingers who has made a career of being indignant at every hour of the day, always on the lookout for an excuse to whine and complain. One of the things that upsets him is that some comic books feature openly gay characters. “The world of comic books has sure changed a lot since we were young,” Bozell wrote in a 2006 column. “Who would have predicted, 10 years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?”
Like most professional moralists, Bozell has no real sense of history: he’s a traditionalist with no grounding in the past. If Bozell knew anything about earlier times, he would realize that gays have been portrayed in comics for decades, not just in comic books but even in comic strips that ran in family newspapers.
What could be more wholesome than Mickey Mouse, the big-eared emblem of the Disney empire? Yet a Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 22, 1931 shows the little rodent meeting a big cat who displays all the markers stereotypically given to gay characters during that period: a lisp, a limp handshake, and a general effeminacy of manner (in this case, batting eyelashes). Revealing himself to be not just homophobic but a violent gay-basher, Mickey attacks the big cat.
In the early decades of the 20th century, many cartoonists featured characters that were gay stereotypes: swishy men and butch women. I’ve sprinkled examples throughout this essay. Here are some notes on them (to maximize enjoyment of these images, I suggest clicking on each one):
1. In an April 11, 1925 Wash Tubbs sequence, the hero meets a “girl” who turns out to be Desperate Desmond, a cowboy actor.
2.In a January 11, 1927, Little Orphan Annie strip, the pupil-less waif talks to Miss Brussels, a very manly woman who runs an all-girls schools (which were, in popular folk-lore, places where Sapphic love flourished). “Hm-m-m- Never saw anyone just like that before,” Annie reflects. “Dresses lots like a man, doesn’t she, Sandy?” Like many of the masculine women in Annie, Miss Brussels turns out to be a very bad egg, who mistreats the poor orphan. (Later on in the Cold War era, Annie meets some traitorous State Department diplomats who seemed very effeminate, conforming to the commonly-held notion that gays were more likely to betray their country).
3. A 1930 Sunday page of The Smythes, a domestic comedy drawn by Rea Irwin, the famed cartoonist who was so instrumental in creating the visual ambience of The New Yorker magazine, features a very foppish interior decorator named Mr. Bullfinch.
4.Frank King also used an “interior decorators are gay” gag in a June 06, 1930 Gasoline Alley strip.
5.Terry and the Pirates in the late 1930s, which had a lesbian villain (Madam Sanjak from 1939) and a gay villain Papa Pyzon (in 1936) based on Charles Laughton (who was himself gay and also collected comic strip art). Madame Sanjak specialized in kidnapping and hypnotising young girls, and making them her slaves. For more on these characters see this article.
6. A Spirit story, by Will Eisner, from September 07, 1941 introduces a character named Miss Dorothy Heartbern, who turns out to be a very fey man. Asked to impersonate the Spirit, he says, “The Spirit! Oh! How romantic!! I just love bad men!!” The phrase “a friend of Dorothy” was commonly used to describe gay men in that period.
There are enough of these gay characters that one could easily do an anthology called “The Gay Image In Comics before Stonewall.” The general point to make about these characters is that they are all homophobic stereotypes, although the tone of the representation varies greatly. Sometimes the cartoonists were mildly satirical (as swishy she-men), sometimes melodramatically hostile (as vile seducers of children).
One last point needs to be made: conservatives like Bozell never objected to these gay stereotypes when they flourished in the comics. So what people of this ilk are upset about is not the representation of homosexual per se, but about the fact that gays are increasingly shown in a neutral or favourable light. As long as gays are represented in a homophobic way, Bozell and his political allies would never raise a voice of objection. For the Bozells of the world, it is okay to show gays, as long as you don’t show them as human beings.
This is the third is a series on comics and stereotypes. See also my posts on the blackface tradition and on the simian Irish stereotype.
32 thoughts on “Mickey Mouse, Homophobe”
I’ve been reading the new Popeye collections, and it has struck how often and how enthusiastically that Popeye wears women’s clothes. (He describes himself at one point as “amphibious”!)
Yeah, you’re right about Popeye’s persistent cross-dressing. I should also have added Krazy Kat’s gender ambiguity. Krazy Kat is perhaps the most postive transgender character in all of popular culture.
It’s probably worth noting that most of the pieces you’ve posted are from the late 1920s and early 1930s. This is the period usually described as “The Pansy Craze”. There was a profusion of lisping sissies and effete hairdessers, interior designers, and shop assistants in films (Franklin Pangborn, etc) and cartoons (Betty Boo). the Hays Code in America, implemented in 1934, meant every film script had to be cleared before production. The Hays Office, working in tandem with the Legion of Decency, employed a hard line on sexual morality, forbidding all “impure love”, “which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law”. Even the word “Pansies” was forbidden. Gay jokes largely vanished for the next 25 years from TV, radio, films and cartoons until the end of the 50s/beginning of the 1960s.
I’ve been making a study of the use of humorous comic stereotypes over at my blog:
Other books have made lists of “pansies” in films and cartoons, but I’ve never seen any comics of the time. So thanks for posting these
– matthew davis
Hi Matthew — yeah, your right that most of these strips came out of the “Pansy Craze”. But there were pansy type characters in the comics before the late 1920s — I don’t have them on hand but I remember seeing some. And of course from later periods as well.
It may be that the butch femme persisted a little longer than the male pansy.
The other week I just happened to pick up and thumb through a Blackthorne collection of 1944 KERRY DRAKE strips depicting a villainess called FRISCO CICERO (nice name), a squat-bodied dame whose only feminine accoutrements are earrings. She wears man’s clothes and is taken for a man a couple of times.
Cole’s early PLASTIC MAN had a couple issues in 1941-42 with MADAME BRAWNE, another butch femme who led a gang of delinquent girls.
Of course Brawn was preceded in comic strips by SALA in late thirties PHANTOM strips, though Sala wasn’t butch and was more in the tradition of the glamorous lesbian with a harem of obedient girls.
One last point needs to be made: conservatives like Bozell never objected to these gay stereotypes when they flourished in the comics.
To the extent those conservatives are “like Bozell” (b. 1955), they weren’t alive when those gay stereotypes flourished in the comics, so it’s hard to fault them for not objecting at that time.
Jeet, this is great stuff! Reminds me a bit of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. If you’ve read that then you’ll recall that the image of gay people in the movies of that period were pretty much the same.
“Who would have predicted, 10 years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?”
you seem to overlook the word “superheroes” in Bozell’s statement
Small quibble: “The phrase ‘a friend of Dorothy’ was commonly used to describe gay men in that period (1941).” Was it? I thought that it stemmed from extent to which gays identified with Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Since the movie was released in 1939, I wonder whether that expression had really become common just two years later? When did Judy Garland become an icon of gay culture?
Well, there is some dispute as to the origins of “a friend of Dorothy” but wikipedia says it was being used at least as early as the World War II era. The Spirit strip ran just before America entered the war. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friend_of_Dorothy
Good article. Dorothy Heartbern is almost certainly meant to evoke Katherine Hepburn, who played a “manly” woman –meaning one that was assertive and confident, traits that didn’t fit the stereotypes of the day.
Mickey does not seem homophobic at all, he seems more tough-guy-aphobic instead. Do people not realize that the /phobic/ part means “fear”? The term homophobic is quite the misnomer.
And as for stereotypes, if the majority of gay men are effeminate and the majority of gay women are butch, then how is it a stereotype (in the derogatory sense), or prejudice to characterize gays as such? It’s like a convenience store owner in a bad neighborhood who has been robbed ten times. If nine of those ten times it was a black guy who robbed him, it’s not racism for him to be wary whenever a black guy enters his store, it’s statistics and history. Duh.
haha you’ve got some amazing “statistics” that you are just kind of inserting into your comment. I would say next time don’t bother commenting, there is no hope for you and your bigotry.
stereotypes within stereotypes…that all effeminate men are gay…sheesh…
Oh Guy, you better hide from me – I’m a dumbassophobic.