Daniel Peddle’s film examines the rich culture of black, butch aggressives
No surprise that Daniel Peddle’s film “The Aggressives,” the only film picked up earlier this year at the SXSW film festival, a mini-Sundance of sorts in Austin, Texas, should turn away crowds at queer venues everywhere, including SRO at New York’s New Festival, San Francisco’s International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Outfest in Los Angeles.
The New Festival here made a mistake by programming the film in its smallest theater space on the first day of the festival, a weekday, at 5 o’clock. Much to the festival’s surprise, more than 200 unhappy people were turned away from its only screening of the film. NewFest apparently misjudged the potential audience for this provocative peek inside the black, lesbian, butch-identified culture invisible to most of the white queer 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 is AG, 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, bull dagger, 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 these women inhabit got a fair amount of aboveground coverage in the wake of the lead Gay City News took in reporting 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 to Newark after a night of socializing on the Hudson River waterfront in the West Village, a gathering place frequented late night predominately by black gay, lesbian, and trans teens. The turn-out 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 the women’s willingness to be out and visible.
Daniel Peddle is an NYU film school graduate and also holds a degree in anthropology as well as being a children’s book author. Since he happened about the late night scene at the end of Christopher Street six years ago 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. Peddle, a slim, fashionably street-attired, white man, raised in the South, spent five years gaining the trust and confidence of the multi-racial community he found at the river.
The representation in Peddle’s film 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 of a Newark contest hall where the best aggressive 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 toward 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 nitched as such.
Peddle has made a beautiful and moving film that does not exploit its subjects. Instead, like Jenny 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. Even in it specificity, “The Aggressives” opens a window on how all men and women can relate with their sexual partners and those they desire.
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.
Jim Fouratt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.