The earliest known surviving film containing what we now call the “sissy” is Algie The Miner (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912), although with so many films from the period lost, it is likely that there were films prior to this which featured similar characterisations. The narrative of Algie the Miner tells how Algie, a rather effeminate man, is sent away by his girlfriend’s father to prove himself a man within a year; if he fails the marriage cannot proceed. Algie goes West, encounters a variety of cowboys, including Big Jim, with whom he becomes good friends and whose life he eventually saves. Once the year is up, Algie returns to claim his girl, having slowly but surely changed from a mincing, effeminate pansy into a gun-wielding, butch and altogether more “manly” man. Her father then “allows the two to marry under the watchful eye of Big Jim’s gun” (McMahan, 2002: 224).
Richard Barrios writes that Algie has a “dandified air, fluttering hands, pursed and apparently rouged lips, sly smile and eyes that he bats while fondling the barrel of a pistol” (Barrios, 2003: 17). He goes on to suggest that “Algie is heterosexual in only that he has a girlfriend” (ibid). Alice Guy-Blaché’s biographer, Alison McMahan is in agreement: “At the diegetic level of narration the movie is about Algie becoming more virile, skilled and confident, but at an extra-diegetic level the film is a love story between two men…To satisfy American mores, [Alice Guy-Blaché] added the sweetheart subplot, but as we have seen the sweetheart is barely a presence” (McMahon, 2002: 223-4).
Yet if these characters do not have male partners within the films or refer to themselves as homosexual there is always going to be some element of doubt as to the intention of the filmmakers and the extent to which contemporary audiences would have read these figures as gay. In other words, how do we know that Algie and other characters like him are homosexual, rather than effeminate and yet heterosexual?
Within this mire of uncertainty, one film from 1916 explicitly informs a modern-day viewer as to contemporary understandings of the sissy. Behind The Screen is a short film starring Charlie Chaplin as a scene-mover at a film studio. Chaplin’s regular leading lady, Edna Purviance, plays a young woman who dresses as a man in order to get a job on the set, and is employed when the other manual workers go on strike. Chaplin is the only person to know about the disguise and falls in love with the young woman, eventually kissing her. However, the kiss is seen by Chaplin’s boss who believes that he has just seen his employee kissing another man. At this point he taunts Chaplin by impersonating a gay man, thus accusing him of being homosexual in the process. It is this impersonation which is telling here, for he is mimicking a sissy character, therefore showing us that this type of portrayal on screen was linked intrinsically with homosexual behaviour, despite such apparent inconsistencies as sissy characters having girlfriends or, in some cases, wives.
Bearing this in mind, we can, perhaps assume that Algie the Miner was intended to be read as gay. This in itself is problematic in that the notion of homosexuality as an identity did not exist in America at the time. And yet Algie has a girlfriend, and returns to her at the end of the film despite seemingly enjoying his adventures in the West with his male companions. Rather than an inconsistency, this is arguably a reflection of the experiences of many gay Americans of the time. Algie is a character who is depicted as choosing a safe, heterosexual life despite obvious homosexual inclinations. To follow those homosexual impulses would have possibly resulted in being ostracised from his social circle. Therefore Algie does not miraculously turn straight at the end of the film, but makes a choice to become something he isn’t having spent a year in training during his travels.
Barrios, Richard., 2003. Screened Out. Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall. London: Routledge.
McMahan, Alison., 2002. Alice Guy Blache. The lost Visionary of the Cinema. New York: Continuum