Sunday, July 19, 2009

Queer Imaging: A 1920 Postcard

07-17-2009 09;56;59AM Postcard 1920 New York

This postcard combines text and image in order to produce a comic result. It is the representation of a queer which is the crux of this combination and is essential to the production of its humor, a humor which is clearly absent in 2009. However, it still is an intriguing and fleeting piece of mass culture in terms of its historical depiction of homosexuality.

In 1920 within popular culture and queer culture as well, homosexuality was understood as gender inversion. The figure in the postcard displays this inversion while still being understood as possessing a penis. He is unequivocally coded as queer.

07-17-2009 09;56;59AM

The first indicator of the figure's difference is his stance and the silhouette that it produces. Left hand on the hip, leaning slightly forward, standing on delicate feet emphasizes the smallness of his waist and creates a fullness to his chest which suggests the feminine. The narrow waist is further indicated by the large head of the figure.

The figure wears a man’s suit but the green window pane fabric and yellow vest remove it from the masculine sartorial realm. In fact, a green suit within certain urban spheres at the time was considered a signifier of homosexuality. It certainly expressed its difference from usual masculine attire.

The close cut of the suit at the waist as well as the narrowness and shortening of the pants also deemphasizes it’s masculine character and evokes gender inversion. The fitted cuffed nature of the trousers further signal the figure's sexual/gender deviance.

The combination of the carefully coiffed hair into waves, the high arched almost painted on, perhaps plucked eyebrows, the large nose and ears which stick out give the face an unusual appearance. In part, perhaps the oddness of the appearance is meant to add to the comic nature of the postcard. Yet at the same time these facial attributes serve to code the figure as feminine, as queer especially the eyebrows and the hair.


The facial features of the postcard figure remind me of Oscar Wilde. The prominent nose, the large chin, the manicured hair and the setting of the eyes suggests something Wildeish. Perhaps this allusion was intentional?

Such an allusion is intriguing in terms of viewers of the postcard. In other words, this postcard was intended to amuse a mass culture audience at the expense of the queer, but simultaneously, it could also speak to a queer audience as well through it’s suggestion of Wilde. As queer men began to create a community among each other, the recognition of homosexual historical figures was indeed important. Wilde was of course well known through his writings, his visit to America in 1882 and the notorious trials beginning in 1895.

It is important to note that many men in the beginning of the 20th century who desired other men assumed the identity of the queer along with its visual signifiers in order to deploy what Michel Foucault would call a “reverse discourse.” The language and meanings of oppression were used instead to create a sense of community, interaction and defiance. The figure in the postcard is not just simply an expression of the dominant discourse, it is a sight of resistance as well.

An additional signifier of the figure’s queerness is the handkerchief with a crenellated edge, suggestive of lace. The handkerchief is placed in the sleeve of the figure’s jacket- a feminine location rather than in the masculine breast pocket of the suit jacket. The manner in which the handkerchief dangles out of the wrist conjures up stereotypical images of a lady dropping her handkerchief in order to attract the attention of a man. This allusion again codes the postcard figure as different, as queer.

The cut of the figure’s high heeled black shoes denotes completely the inversion of gender. These shoes are clearly not the type worn by a man in 1920 and allude to the shoes worn by aristocrats in the 18th century before The Great Renunciation. The size of the shoes in comparison to the body and large head additionally imply a feminine delicacy.

The continual coding of the figure as feminine is underlined by the text of the postcard which states: Some men imagine they are aristocrats because they are too lazy to work. Work is a masculine domain with the implication that the home is the feminine sphere. Men who do not enter this domain are lazy at best and queer at worst. They become effeminate, use handkerchiefs in the wrong way, choose gender defying shoes and present an appearance untouched by work.

The postcard text also infers a notion of class. There is a suggestion of the perversion and debauchery of the upper class. The limitless freedom of their time, not having to work, could lead to sexual deviancy. Also, in the early 20th century the relationship of the queer to middle class and working class culture exhibited several intriguing differences. See Gay New York by George Chauncey for an in depth consideration of queerness and class.

In the end, this simple piece of ephemera gives us a frame in which to view a different historical moment and how in that moment same-sex desire was given meaning, was deployed by mass culture and perhaps how it was used in a “reverse discourse” by those it was meant to mock.

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