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When Luck Beats a Lady: The Tragic Woman as Gay Icon

norma-desmondContinuing our series on gay icons, this week we look at the women we adore despite– or because of– the adversity they face, both real, imagined and self-inflicted. Now, to be totally honest, there’s a whiff of misogyny in our collective love of tragic women, though at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good melodrama?

Whether they lived hard and fast and short or lingered on into a faded oblivion, these are the women who’ve inspired the gay community to keep your chin up no matter what the world throws at you– and that no problem can’t be solved with a sensible pump.

The Train Wreck
How You Know Her
Why You Quote Her/ Dress Up Like Her on Halloween
Marilyn Monroe
The original blond bombshell Sure, Elton John was the “young man in the twenty-second row” who fell for her, but in recent years, Monroe’s image has gone from just being a pretty, pilled up face to one of a serious actress, whether stealing the scene in a All About Eve cameo or as a sexy divorcee in The Misfits.
Judy Garland
You live on planet Earth Oh man, if we have to explain this one to you, you’re probably on the wrong site. A brilliant child actress who constantly sought approval from everyone she encountered and who died before her time. My college roommate would come home drunk and make us all watch her sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Britney Spears
Mousketeer to Muff Flasher A contemporary train-wreck, Britney Spears makes fantastic fluffy pop music, shaves her head when she’s upset and despite being treated as a cash cow by all who know her, still keeps getting up again and again.
Lindsay Lohan
From Page Six Drugs, lesbianism and Disney would be enough to make anyone a tragic icon, but the weird codependent relationship with her mother makes Lohan the most likely to one day wander around a dilapidated mansion talking to rats.
Katherine Hepburn
Iconoclastic leading lady Unlike most of the women on this list, Hepburn’s biggest tragedy came young, when her brother committed suicide. She channeled her pain into a career as a rules-breaking leading lady (as well as through a desire to cross-dress.) Her long affair with a married Spencer Tracy doesn’t hurt, either.
Lana Turner
The original Schwab’s discovery. Dubbed “The Sweater Girl” for her form-fitting look, Turner married seven guys, never shied away from the fact she liked boys “and boys like me” and had her 14-year-old daughter stab one of her ex-boyfriends while she watched.
Liza Minelli
Cabaret star We sort of feel bad putting Minellii on the list, but she has all the defining traits of a tragic heroine: pills, multiple husbands and an oversized diva’s approach to life.  Like the best tragic icons, Minelli has the good sense to kep getting up again and again.
Eva Peron
Over-the top socialist political genius. “Little Eva” came from nothing, slept her way to the top of power and became a force for labor and women’s rights in Argentina, where she is still adored to this day, despite the emeral casket she was supposed to be interred in having gone missing. Side note: Argentines really hate the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
Imelda Marcos
Over-the-top autocratic political dummy. Widow of Phillipines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda is most famous these days for her shoe collection, which numbers over 2500 pairs.  When not running for President, Marcos stands trial for the hundreds of crimes the Phillipines government keeps charging her with. She was acquitted last month in the most recent case.
Tammy Faye Messner
Televangelist wife Married to con-man-of-God Jimmy Baker, Tammy Faye once presided over a television network and Christian theme park. The money went away, but that didn’t stop Tammy from living large– or marching in gay pride parades.
The Train Wreck
How You Know Her
Why You Quote Her/ Dress Up Like Her on Halloween

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  • Kamikapse

    Lindsay and Britney as gay icons?

    Thanks but no thanks….

  • John from England(used to be just John but there are other John's)


    I know?? Are we that desperate??

    What about Nina Simone?! Nothing is more tragic then a god like singer who shot he next door neighbour in Paris, up to her eyeballs on smack!

    I mean the hair, the make up and THAT voice…??

    Also, Billie Holiday…..

    I wouldn’t call Peron a genius but an opportunistic marketeer…

    Also, why ISN’T Lauren Bacall there??

    Grace Jones is kinda tragic..even though she’s not, she SHOULD be there, if only for being Grace Jones!!

  • Queerky

    Many of these women were either married to gay men/had gay men as best friends or were styled by gay men. Men that obsess over certain kinds of women.

    All of which begs the question: Which came first the skank or the tranny?

  • John

    I don’t want to sound like a fag, but you need to check your spelling. It’s Minnelli.

    There are two n’s. And only one i.

  • ChristopherM

    Lindsay and Britney aren’t tragic. They are merely pathetic.

  • ggreen

    You missed the Merminator. Ethel Merman may not have been married to a gay man or been a drug addict but she was a gay icon none the less. Married briefly to uber-homophobe/right-winger/serial masturbator Ernest Borgnine. (that’s tragic). “I hope you like the words to these songs folks, because you are going to hear them tonight” –Ethel Merman before vocally bringing down the house.

  • ggreen

    PS I saw crying people kissing the hem of Imelda Marcos’ dress one day at Costco (disgusting). I don’t think one of them was gay.

  • Michael

    As G.O.B. would say, “Come on!” This isn’t supposed be the authoritative guide to Gay Icons and it’s focus is on the tragic.

    Just as not everybody loves Garland and Merman (don’t get me wrong, I love’em!), Spears and Lohan speaks to a certain population who grew up seeing childhood stars be pimped out as sexy virgins, twisted by their desire to rebel against this impossible image, and attempt to rebuild their image with mixed results. (All sorts of grammatical errors in that sentence!)

    A good mix of the classic and the contemporary, in my opinion. Of course, no one should forget the queen of the wire hangers, Joan Crawford.

  • Chris

    Why the fuck is Britney Spears a gay icon? What is wrong with gay men?

  • Henry Holland

    I’m 49, so I’m of the age to have been one of those Marilyn/Judy/Liza queens and….I never got it, never will. All that “but they’ve been wronged by men! they’re surrogates for The Gays!” stuff just left me cold. I was too busy lusting after guys and getting laid to bother with building shrines to a woman.

  • Alec

    @Henry Holland: I was too busy lusting after guys and getting laid to bother with building shrines to a woman.

    Ditto, but I’m 26. Which leads me to Spears and Lohan….

    Are you guys nuts?

    Now, to be totally honest, there’s a whiff of misogyny in our collective love of tragic women, though at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good melodrama?

    More than a little. It also comes off as more than a little shallow. What you call “melodrama” includes an out of control paparazzi that frankly facilitates their emotional breakdowns by turning their lives into 24-hour soap operas. I’ll grant you, they seem to have some sort of symbiotic relationship with the tabloids, but this isn’t something gay men should embrace.

  • Jan Stapel

    Japhy looks stunning as Norma Desmond don’t you think?

  • Jonathan

    I don’t know who like half of these ladies are and don’t really care for any of them.

    Then again, my only real “diva” is The Yoncé, and she’s more bat shit crazy than tragic….

  • Elijah

    Uh, typos happen to the best of us, but your real problem is vocabulary. We can’t quite imagine what you and Alec think “misogyny” means, but, for the record, it means “hatred of women” by which you contradict yourself applying it to women some gays “adore.”

    If you meant some take pleasure in their suffering, then “sadism,” might apply but hardly misogyny.

    On the other hand, YOU must hate Garland, et al., to include wastes of oxygen like Spears and Lohan in the same breath.
    Some gay men are scat queens, too, but I wouldn’t include them in a discusion of the beauty of making gay love.

    @ Jonathan: the subject wasn’t exactly “divas,” but you have a Constitutional right to worship someone who spends gazillions to look glamorous and sophisticated but sounds like an illiterate fast food clerk when she speaks. I’d say the thing about Loretta Lynn and any number of other sequined but still cracker country singers so save your time hurling the RACIST flame.

  • Alec

    @Elijah: Or contempt or dislike. I’m assuming they meant “sexist,” and I’ll settle for just calling the trend “disturbing.” How’s that?

  • dgz

    Dear Japhster,

    and i quote:
    “Drugs, ***lesbianism*** and Disney would be enough to make anyone a tragic icon” (empahsis mine)

    how exactly, does lesbianism make someone tragic, especially in our community? perhaps change it to “a failed lesbian fling,” or something that doesn’t seem so pejorative?

  • RainaWeather

    @John: But you just spelled it with two i’s

  • Shawn

    Katharine Hepburn is NOT a tragic heroine! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Who writes these articles? She was assertive, had gumption, and lived as she pleased, despite what society said. She was/is a HEROINE in the positive sense; she rose above the tragic events of her life and went on with it. Judy did not. Marilyn did not either. They are tragic heroines, but Katharine, no way!

    Thanks for letting me vent!

  • DavidMichael

    Shawn, I gotta back you up on that one. Hepburn was in control, knew her game and played it as well as any human could. I don’t find that tragic, I always found her fully in gear with her head screwed on very well landing on all fours when tossed in the air.

    One could call Liz Taylor “tragic” because of multiple divorces, drugs and near death experiences, but she isn’t “tragic” in the sense used in this article, as she too was and is in control of her life as she really is Maggie the Cat.

    Tragic women whom we love are gorgeous with a sincere “I don’t quite get all this” quality, spinning out of control at times without knowing why. It makes them interesting and gains our sympathy because of their tenuous personality and beautiful way of stumbling strongly and rebounding with all the gusto it takes to be a winner, even when the fog is ever so thick as they blather through their never ending labyrinth called life.

  • mb00

    @Chris: “Why the fuck is Britney Spears a gay icon? What is wrong with gay men?”

    I dunno, it’s the new generation. Damn, I just aged myself.

  • nature boy

    Some things are inexplicable. They just are. You don’t have to understand it, just accept it, marvel at it, and move on. Yes I loved Judy. Yes, I love Britney. Could I explain why? Not entirely. I’m sure it’s a combination of things both learned and innate. I dvr’d her MTV music awards performance and watched it over and over again with great enjoyment. Compare her to Judy? Well she’s the ONLY contemporary celebrity I could put in a blue gingham dress and ruby slippers and credibly see in a remake of the Wizard of Oz. Think about it, it would totally work. Anyway, in summary, people do adore her, not just gays, it’s just that we gays are not so hung up on pretending NOT to like things we really DO like, we’re willing to admit it when it just happens… and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you have to criticize it either. To each his own, live and let live, y’all.

  • vernonvanderbilt

    I can sort of see where Britney fits in here, but Lindsay? Absolutely not. She’s not an icon…she’s just a mess.

    I’m wondering who else should be on here that wasn’t already mentioned. I’ll definitely give you Nina, Billie, and Liz, no arguments. How about Tallulah Bankhead? Or even Mae West, though I don’t think I’d consider her “tragic” in any sense.

  • vernonvanderbilt

    Ooooh…can’t forget Mama Cass as well. She’s my icon. Sort of. One of them.

  • vernonvanderbilt

    One more, and I’ll quit…Jayne Mansfield.

    I’m done.

    For now.

  • rogue dandelion

    yeah, this list is hardly complete, and i don’t believe britney or lindsey are nearly grand or tragic enough to make the list. Isn’t betty white a gay icon?

  • jake

    @Alec: Ditto.

  • BoBo

    I nominate Glenda the Good Witch… I mean, you’ld dress like her on Halloweenie and all the other 342 days of the year. Talk about tragic… trapped in a detergent bubble, surrounded by nasty little small people, has only 1 dress (but oh my whatta dress) and has a scepter permanently affixed to her vibrator hand.

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