“THE AGGRESSIVES”— Exploring and Expanding the Definition of Sexual Orientation


Exploring and Expanding the Definition of Sexual Orientation

Amos Lassen

Daniel Peddle’s “The Aggressives” is an insightful exposé on the subculture of lesbian butches and their “femme” counterparts who fit somewhere on the line between gender definitions. Filmed over five years in New York City, those featured in “The Aggressives” share their dreams, secrets and deepest fears.

In this documentary about a subset of New York City lesbians, six New York women define themselves through their sensibilities and habits, and in so doing show us the many directions in which sexual orientation can take a person. Each woman is in the category called “aggressive,” but several modify the term further, reluctant to have their individual impulses listed under any label. Each woman has her own imaginative ways of telegraphing her butchness. Each woman declares her profound and hard-won peace with who she is, but many endure problems of fitting that peace with society. The women’s personal histories include poignant episodes of broken relationships, family strains and even incarceration.

We go back to  the summer of 1999 and sunset on the Piers at the West Side Highway across from Christopher Street in lower Manhattan. There we meet Kisha who introduces us to what seems to be a group of gay boys but are real girls who call themselves “Aggressives” and ranged in masculinity from pretty tomboys like Kisha to the blatantly butch. It was a haunting vision of androgyny, seemingly stripped of device and pretense. By passing as boys and enjoying all the freedom associated with their young male urban counterparts, they transcended “lesbianism” and create a new place in society’s gender tapestry. There is something authentic, sincere and original about the Aggressive style and presence. In this intimate portrait of six very different young mainly Black lesbians from New York, we see stress placed on their masculine sides  and identification with the term “aggressive”.  They wear the pants and yet what really defines these women from just being called bull or butch dyke is never really explained, but each of the interviewees is determined to take control of how they are perceived.

Kisha is striking in appearance and  works as a part-time messenger in masculine attire and as a freelance femme model. Rjaj was on the Ricki Lake Show talking about how she is perceived, and now loves the fact that she is stopped still today on the street by fans. She prefers to dress her bulky frame in gentlemen’s attire to impress her latest feminine girlfriend. Marquise joined the Army because it gives her a college education that she couldn’t get otherwise. Once in the service, she realized that maybe she was not cut out to be quite so macho. 

All of the women are unapologetic about their masculine physical appearance and each one has explicit and set rules about who does what in bed.  The women are a dramatic and highly mercurial group. While each woman has her own view of what it is to be an Aggressive, they all agree that she is a strong, dominating personality that was “born that way”. For these women, their aggressiveness plays strongly in their relationships. Peddle went so far as to also interview and their mothers, fathers, friends and many lovers. 

By becoming close to each of the six women, director Peddle was able to gain access into their personal lives and his subjects reveal their most intimate of secrets, dreams and aspirations, as well as, the struggles and obstacles of their lives. 


Marquise carefully masks signals of her sex. She does biting exercises to keep her jaw line firm. She adopts baggy clothes and a close-cropped hairstyle. She uses tape and bandages to flatten her chest because femininity is decidedly not her thing. Her girlfriend, however, knows her truth intimately, and admires Marquise’s thuggish disguise. Other women find love just as easily, and it is for us to decide if the bond exists because of, or despite, the costumes. Rjaj favors men’s suits in her daily life. She seems most empowered when showing off her ability to pass as a man in celebratory drag balls, where she wins applause and trophies for striding around in construction-worker gear and with a cinder block she balances on her shoulder.

Peddle follows young Octavia to prison and we learn more about how power dynamics and sex acts take place within these relationships, and such descriptions will challenge even those who don’t consider themselves prim.

Watching this film, we learn about identity and the comfort these women have obviously found in learning to be their unusual, unfettered selves. All of the Aggressives have unique stories and have their own unique personalities which is way more interesting to learn about than elaborating solely on how they express or don’t express themselves sexually or what (specific) gender orientation they subscribe too. These are things that are prone to change with time as they mature and evolve.

In reality, the world is a stage upon which we all act our individual parts yet we still come together to create our lives and how we live. And we all do this in our own ways as do the aggressives. We must learn to enjoy who we are like these women obviously do.

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