Pushing the Right Button
The PBS Special Oliver Button Explains the Pain of Stereotyping in Language a Child Can Understand
"What's a sissy?" Mary Cowhey asks her class of first-graders gathered around her feet for a reading of Tomie dePaola's classic children's book Oliver Button Is a Sissy. "Someone who acts like a girl," one child blurts out. So goes the opening salvo of Oliver Button Is a Star, a thought-provoking new 60-minute documentary video that is now making the rounds of gay and lesbian film festivals and airs on PBS stations throughout June.
Mhe newest project from New England filmmakers John Scagliotti and Dan Hunt (After Stonewall), Oliver Button is rooted in DePaola's 1979 storybook about a boy who's harassed and scolded for wanting to tap-dance and pick flowers instead playing football. But Oliver goes from outcast to star when his tap-dance number brings down the house at his school's talent show.
Using a clever mix of animation, news stories, footage from Cowhey's class, the Twin Cities Gay Men's chorus, and interviews with four real-life Oliver Buttons, Scagliotti and Hunt examine tolerance, bullying, and society's often rigid notions of gender roles. The filmmakers hang back and let the interviewees-DePaola, explorer Ann Bancroft, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, and the late makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin-speak candidly about the pain caused by traditional perceptions of masculine and feminine.
Jones recalls an older brother chastising him for "sitting like a girl," while DePaola recalls his father buying him a gym bag so he could "hide" his tap shoes on his way to dance class. Aucoin tearfully recalls getting beaten up "constantly" at school for effeminate behavior. The only one, it seems, who didn't get harassed is Bancroft, who recalls pummeling a few schoolyard bullies instead (although she too dealt with not-so-subtle hints to don dresses and grow her hair out).
But the film shows that with self-belief, happiness and success can happen: Dancer Jones has fulfilled his dream of "wanting to fly"; Bancroft has conquered the Arctic; and before his untimely death in May, Aucoin had become the Wayne Gretzky of the makeup world.
"I didn't want any child, boy or girl, to be called a negative name," DePaola says in discussing why he wrote his book. As for that gym bag his father gave him, he threw it away and carried his tap shoes proudly over his shoulder.
Oliver Button Is a Star . Directed by John Scagliotti and Dan Hunt . PBS (check local listings for dates and times)