Sunday, October 23, 2011

That Progressive Machine

The Playboy Club has scuttled off the new fall schedule and into a hole in the ground, never to show its fluffy tail again. I’m not complaining. I’m thankful that this particular historical lens won’t get a chance to focus on, say, the JFK assassination, because I just can’t imagine myself enjoying the sight of a woman in a rabbit costume falling to her knees in despair, then pulling herself together and bunny-dipping the night away because “that’s what President Kennedy would have wanted from me!”

I mean, that is what JFK would have wanted her to do, of course. It’s just not the kind of TV I’d want to watch.

All that said, one of the historical footnotes the show did offer was the story of the Mattachine Society, one of the first U.S. gay rights organizations. Really, this plotline was a surprising inclusion, and I have to imagine that the gay characters resulted from NBC’s desire to fight the perception that The Playboy Club was more than just a liberal interpretation of history plus jiggletits. (“See? We got homos on this show. That oughta shut up them women’s libbers.”) For what it’s worth, I thought it was a welcome distraction to watch this depiction of a lavender marriage and a clandestine civil rights movement whose goals are only today being realized.

actual gay sean maher discussing gayness with gays, in a gay manner.

But what’s with that name, Mattachine?

Henry Hay, one of the founders of the group explained the name in 1976: The group took its name from a medieval French group, the Société Mattachine, which donned identity-concealing costumes and performed public rituals during the Feast of Fools. Explained Hay:
Sometimes these dance rituals, or masques, were peasant protests against oppression — with the maskers, in the people’s name, receiving the brunt of a given lord’s vicious retaliation. So we took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.
Etymologically, the term is a bit more complicated. Mattachine, as a French word, comes from the Italian Mattaccino, the name of an Italian jester character who, according to Wikipedia, would “speak the truth to the king when nobody else would.” (There is a word for this, by the way: narrenfreiheit. Also the diamond-based design that the Mattachine Society often used as its logo was apparently inspired by the similar diamond patterns that you sometimes see on harlequin costumes.)

mr. mattaccino and his decidedly less-than-colorful costume

Italian, in turn, took Mattaccino from mattachin, Moorish dancers who, like the jesters and the French Mattachine performers, wore brightly colored costumes. And mattachin, comes from the Arabic mutawajjihin, meaning “mask-wearers.”

Now, often, when you trace a word’s etymology, you see how wildly its meaning can change from the present to however far back you can follow it. And I admit that this one has gone pretty far — from Arabian masks to a bygone American gay rights groups. But at the same time, it’s interesting to look at how the meaning has retained a lot, and how the literal meanings have been twisted into figurative ones. As Hay pointed out, the Mattachines were still wearing masks in the mid-twentieth century. (Make what you will of the brightly colored clothing.)

Surely, this etymology is something the show would have explored in its third season. Surely.

  • Not that I’m going to make a habit of writing about strange costumes of medieval Europe, but I did recently post this.

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