If forced to choose from the more widely known descriptions of sexual and gender orientation, the six women whose lives are profiled in The Aggressives are almost impossible to label. They are beyond butch, masculine-identified but not transgender, and they perform their gender in competitive balls but do not consider themselves drag kings.
As Flo, one of the women profiled in the film says, “I’m an aggressive butch. I’m not trying to be a man. I don’t want to be a man.” “Aggressive” is a term chosen by a group of lesbians of color that might otherwise be mislabeled (or overlooked completely) by both mainstream heterosexual and gay cultures. In his documentary, director Daniel Peddle not only puts them in the spotlight but also provides a forum for the women to define themselves.
Peddle, a writer and fashion industry casting director who specialized in “real people” fashion models, met his subjects in New York in 1999 and documented their lives for five years. His film captures the women–Tiffany, Octavia, Flo, Kisha, Marquise, and Raji–growing up, coming to terms with their sometimes shifting gender identities, joining the military, facing illness and jail time, and finding success despite the disapproval of their families and the world at large.
The film is a compelling look at how they face marginalization with humor, bravado and courage.
Almost all of the women survived childhood years in which their masculine appearance and behavior was reviled both at home and in school. Tiffany recalls dropping out of school after facing non-stop harassment by a teacher (“What kind of name is Tiffany for a boy?”). She later pursued her GED through the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the oldest and largest non-profit agency created to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. With both parents dead, Tiffany is on her own and proud that she has “never been in the closet.”
Flo’s story includes childhood pictures of her dressed as a boy by a mother who would abandon her, only to return in Flo’s adult years and express both disapproval of and disgust with of her daughter’s lesbianism and ultra-butch appearance.
The way in which the mothers understand their daughters’ sexuality is complex. Both Raji and Octavia’s mothers claim to “accept” their daughters, but both wish their girls were heterosexual. In fact, Octavia’s mother says thinks there is still hope, “I know that’s not her. She’s got a lot of boyfriends coming up. I know that’s not my daughter.”
The deflection and denial surrounding the families approach to the women’s sexuality is not particularly uncommon, and it’s been the subject of many films about queer identity. But it does offer insight into the personalities of the women of the film, particularly the necessity for their self-reliance.
While some of the Aggressives are self-confirmed players, most of them talk at length about their desire for meaningful, long-term relationships. Some of the most fascinating moments in the film are discussions of gender and desire with their girlfriends.
Marquise considers taking male hormones, “I have thought about taking hormones. I look like a 16 year old boy. Guys grow up and guys get facial hair. Puberty has got to hit sometime.” Her girlfriend, Aniche will support her choice, “If she decides to do it or not, I’m still with Marquise. But, I just think that it’s too extreme for me. I still do like a woman.” Marquise retorts, “It’s not like I’m going to cut my breasts off. I’ll just get some facial hair.” Aniche isn’t so sure. “Breasts with facial hair? That’s wrong,”
Aniche tries to explain that Marquise’s masculine appearance may give people the wrong idea about the dynamic of their relationship, “We go thru feminine things together, but other people don’t get it because this is how Marquise looks.” Marquise says with laughter, “I eat her muffin, she eats mine. We are still lesbians.”
This exchange is a good example of the conflicting intricacies of Aggressive sexual and gender identities that comes up again and again in the film. All of the women are adamant about their womanhood and lesbianism, but equally insistent upon their masculine physical appearance (some of them can and do pass as men in their daily lives) and their dominant sexual roles.
Two of the Aggressives are celebrities of a sort. Raji is recognized on the street for her appearance on a Ricki Lake episode titled “Straight Women Who Can’t Resist Lesbian Studs” and is a frequent winner at the balls where she displays her ability to pass as a man (her ball trophy display case takes up most of her apartment). Kisha is a model who was discovered on the street in Greenwich Village and is trying to make the transition from underground fashion circles to the mainstream fashion industry.
Kisha explains, “Aggressive is your strength, your courage, your whole aura,” and it is fascinating to watch her bring her queer and androgynous sensibility to her work as a model. In terms of how she sees herself, she tells us, “I’ll wear the pants in the relationship. Being Aggressive basically is about who wears the pants. I’m aggressive. I’m femme aggressive. I’m a beautiful aggressive woman.”
Kisha is one of the few women in the film who is not in dire financial straits. We see her driving a motorcycle, asking girls out to expensive dinners, and sporting a stylish wardrobe. While she works as a messenger for a delivery service, she is also earning money for her modeling.
The other women in the film speak openly about their lack of money and how it motivates so many of their life choices. Tiffany and Octavia sell drugs, and Marquise joins the Army for the sole purpose of getting a college education.
In its stark portrayal of the poverty and discrimination they face and their creative responses to it, the film is much like Jennie Livingston’s documentary about drag culture in Harlem, Paris is Burning. But it feels more intimate and less concerned with the idea of performance as a tool of survival.
At the end of the film, when Peddle gives us a “where are they now” update on all of the women, it impossible not to feel a real concern for their welfare and a personal connection to each one of them.