Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"I Yam What I Yam"

Robert Boyd

Jeet Heer, in a recent post on Sans Everything, pointed out that gay people have long been portrayed in comics, but usually negatively. It almost seems ridiculous to comment on--of course they would be portrayed negatively. When was the first positive (or neutral) portrayal of a gay person in popular culture?
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).
But as I was reading Popeye vol. 4: Plunder Island (reprinting strips from December 1933 to July 1935), I came across something weird. Cartoonist E.C. Segar repeatedly has Popeye wearing women's clothes--and liking it.

The first example I found is from June, 1932.

Which is followed by:

Popeye isn't reveling in his female attire (he reasserts his manhood in the second strip), but he clearly is not one bit uncomfortable with wearing a dress or even being mistaken for a woman.

Then in January, 1934, Popeye finds a homeless woman and her baby. He gives the baby clothes that he has purchased for Sweetpea, then trades his own clothes for her ragged dress.

What is interesting here is that Popeye seems to enjoy his women's clothes. It's done is a jokey way, natch--he and the now rather butch woman in Popeye's sailor outfit have a good laugh together.

It is later that year that Popeye spends an extended period in drag. He dresses up in fancy women's clothes to disguise himself for the purpose of infiltrating a gang of criminals.

Surprisingly, the men of the gang are totally smitten.

Popeye then changes into a tutu in order to get a job as a dancing girl at the local saloon. The leader of the gang falls in love with Popeye.

Popeye uses his hold of the love-struck villain to find out his secret, a drug that turns men mean.

As they are about to get married, Popeye reveals that he is actually a man. he says "I yam amphibious. I wears both women's an man's clothes-arf! Arf!"

I don't want to make too much of these comics. Obviously Segar is playing on the hilarious notion that someone as crude and macho as Popeye would be so comfortable in drag, or that dressed so, he would be attractive to other men. Still, it is an example where behavior associated with gay men was presented in early comics without the negative judgment implied in many of Jeet Heer's examples.