Little Gender-Bending Rascals

26 May

First, let me apologize for BLoGT’s recent bout of blogging negligence. I have no excuses because so far I have spent most of this summer watching old episodes of The Little Rascals (of which my family somehow owns the entire series on, yes, VHS).

If you’re not familiar, The Little Rascals was a Depress series about a group of goofy street children known as “Our Gang.” (It was hilarious and much later made into a couple of bad movies.)

Yes, its child actors were totally exploited. Its racial dynamics were probably far from perfect, although I’m actually very impressed at the ways in which the series portrays race relations. The Little Rascals is about class and age warfare, in which the impoverished little kids in Our Gang are united in wreaking havoc on big kids and rich grown-ups. The show’s black characters–most famously Stymie, above on the left, played by Matthew Beard–play side-by-side with white kids who never seem to care about anybody’s skin color. (For television in the 1930s, I think this is way progressive.) The kids also aren’t afraid to dress in drag for their antics, and this, too, never seems to raise any eyebrows.

But I love me some Little Rascals and I’m here to talk about Buckwheat, one of the youngest and most adorable members of Our Gang. After watching a few episodes in non-chronological order, I realized I had no idea which gender the producers intended Buckwheat to be. The Our Gang boys rarely refer to Buckwheat using any kind of pronouns. But in one episode, called Mama’s Little Pirate, I finally heard Spanky and Scotty referred to “Little Buckwheat” as “she.” Aha! And yes, in some episodes, Buckwheat plays a little-sister type character, decked out in a sack dress and little hair twists:

But I kept watching, and soon noticed that in later episodes, Buckwheat–who was clearly played by the same performer–is referred to using male pronouns, and starts to look more like this:

After watching this continuous flip-flop across episodes, I looked up Billie Thomas, who plays Buckwheat in the series, and here is what I learned:

  • Before Billie Thomas, Matthew Beard’s little sister Carlena played Buckwheat in one episode (For Pete’s Sake!) and another actress took on the role in three other shorts.
  • After Thomas was cast in 1935, “the Buckwheat character slowly morphed into a boy, first referred to definitively as a “he” in 1936’s The Pinch Singer. This means the male Thomas was playing a female Buckwheat for over a year’s worth of episodes.
  • Buckwheat retained an “androgynous” appearance–“pigtails, a large hand-me-down sweater, and oversized boots”–until he donned his overalls and striped shirt for 1936’s Pay As You Exit.

…Wait. Seriously? “Slowly morphed into a boy”? How could that conversation have possibly gone over in a 1930s boardroom? “Do you think anyone will notice?” “I mean, we’ll just sorta..morph her into a boy.”

So meet Billie Thomas, gender-fluid Rascal par excellence.

As you can see, between watching the Little Rascals and Wikipediaing stuff about the Little Rascals there’s been no time to blog, but I promise you we’ll be on better blog behavior. Missed you, favorite queers.


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