Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Queering the Image 4: The Mollycoddle



Mollycoddle n.- a pampered darling; an effeminate man

Here is a (queer) fragment from the visual culture of the early twentieth century, a postcard circa 1910 depicting the Mollycoddle,  a mere 40 years after the homosexual became a species in the words of Foucault and not just a sexual act. 

The caption of the postcard reads, “Mollycoddle- Male person who marselles (sic) his hair.  Note absence of suspenders.  Considered vulgar by Mollycoddles.”  Seated before a mirror like Narcissus and armed with his hot curling iron, the Mollycoddle fashions his hair into stylish waves known as a marcelle.   The hair style was invented by a French hairdresser named Francois Marcel in 1872 and it apparently remained popular for the next 50 years.  The act of hairdressing obviously expresses the effeminacy and (sexual) difference of the figure.  This difference is underlined by the rouge, powder and eau de cologne on his dressing table.  Not only will his hair be coiffed, but also his face will be adorned with makeup and his body will be scented.


The figure is also defined as somatically distinct.  In contrast to the (masculine, heterosexual) body, the figure wears a corset in order to create and display a feminine hourglass shape.  Curves instead of straight lines.   This reshaping of the body into a feminine display is also achieved by the fitted jacket with its large padded shoulders and the narrowness of the trousers that end in cuffs a bit too short, revealing polka dot socks and  high heeled shoes.  A masculine suit is redeployed into a feminine and queer spectacle.  This reforming of the body suggests the constructed nature of  gender itself.  Gender is achieved by a series of accessories, poses and gestures which are themselves relational.  Something is feminine because it is not masculine.

The caption signals this corporeal change as well.  The Mollycoddle does not wear suspenders, an item of (masculine) attire, but favors a corset to engender a feminine shape.  Suspenders according to the Mollycoddle are “vulgar” which suggests that he and his fellow Mollycoddles possess a level of taste, fashion and style in spite  of a  flagrant flaunting of  the rules of gender.  Rather the figure in the postcard displays a joy in his difference and revels in his gender performance.

And this in a sense is the point.  As I have argued in other Queering the Image posts, this postcard was intended to be a source of ridicule and amusement for it’s imagined heterosexual audience.  Yet, while this image in its small way attempted (and still attempts)  to define and privilege the center through the margin, it simultaneously becomes a reverse discourse in the words of Foucault.  A 1910 (homosexual) viewer of this postcard could perhaps see beyond the agency of control, beyond the gender regime and feel recognition, expression and identity just as the Mollycoddle sees himself in the postcard mirror.  And for myself as a 2009 homo/queer/gay/vext viewer, I see a continuity, a history and a past.

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