Jim Fouratt's Reel Deal: Movies that Matter review
The Aggressives dir: Daniel peddle
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Daniel Peddle’s The Aggressives is a deep look at bodies born female who choose to express their gender in a very masculine representation.
It is the only film picked up at the SXSW, a mini Sundance of sorts, in Austin, Texas. It turned away crowds at queer venues everywhere, including SRO at New York’s New Fest, San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay film festival and Outfest in L.A. Programmers apparently misjudged the potential audience for this provocative peek inside the black, lesbian, butch-identified culture invisible to most of the white world.
The intense interest in gender expression, particularly in the academic world where there has been a shift from a focus on gay and lesbian identity to one on queer and trans-identity, makes the film particularly timely.
The Aggressives documents the lives of six very different women, each of whom identifies herself with the concept of aggressives. The street word “Ag” is a term popular among women of color to describe females very much in touch with their masculinity. Historically, the words used to describe such women have been butch, passing woman, bulldagger, bull dyke, and stud. “Ag” has joined this corner of the language of gender expression as a positive word that these women use to communicate both empowerment and community.
The portraits presented in this film break down the media stereotypes about the women these words are used to describe. The world they inhabit received a fair amount of above-ground coverage in the wake of the media reporting of the murder of 15 year old Sakia Gunn in Newark, New Jersey in May 2003. Gunn, who friends described as an “AG" ,” was murdered after she went to the defense of her girlfriend who was being hassled by two black men cruising the city’s downtown streets in the early morning hours.
Gunn and her girlfriend had just returned from a night of socializing on the Hudson River waterfront in the West Village, a gathering place frequented at night predominantly by black gay, lesbian, and trans-teens. The turnout of more than a thousand black teenage lesbians in butch/ femme pairings, sporting rainbow doo-rags, necklaces, and hair braids, at Gunn’s funeral in Newark was an eloquent testimony to these women’s willingness to be out and visible.
Daniel Peddle is an NYU film graduate and also holds a degree in anthropology in addition to being a children’s book author. Since he came upon the late night scene at the end of Christopher Street while scouting for talent (Peddle has also been much sought after as a casting director for “real people” models by a fashion industry fascinated by the culture he discovered) he knew he had stumbled upon a world he did not know. A slim, fashionable street-attired, white man, raised in the south, Peddle spent five years gaining the trust and confidence of the multi-racial community he found at the river.
The film’s representation is principally black, though he sensitively includes Asian and Latina aggressives and their femme girlfriends. Audiences everywhere can see a world of gender expression that is almost Genet-like, with heightened femme and butch identities. Significantly, the “Ags” identify as female despite their amazing expression of masculine gender in hair, clothes, names, and role-playing.
Peddle takes his camera inside a Newark contest hall where the best “Ag” is to be chosen. The gender presentation would confuse even those most sensitive to varieties of masculine and feminine expression. These “men” are stunning in their strutting of female masculinity, with the swagger and self-confidence of seductive Olympians. The film offers a clear perspective on butch women who express their female masculinity gender while remaining identified as lesbians, rather than living a male identity in presentation or through medical intervention.
Men, in particular, will also learn much from how these aggressives treat the women they love. Peddle realistically shows expression of male braggadocio, but there is none of the dismissive and sometimes violent behavior some men express towards women they desire. It is important for these images to be seen on the screen, and not only by those who identify with femme/butch gender expression. It would be a loss if this film were simply placed in a niche.
The film does not exploit its subjects. Instead, like Jennie Livingston’s 1991 Paris is Burning, and David LaChapelle’s more recent Rize, it humanizes people who are either invisible or stigmatized and marginalized in the media. Not only is Peddle’s film provocative with its revelations about gender expression, it is also full of humor and warmth with which any sensitive individual can identify.