Sex-positive documentary report #9: “The Aggressives”

Clarisse Thorn's picture


Originally written on June 9

We're settling into a smaller audience at my sex-positive documentary film series -- I think it's possible that July 28 (which I have mentally dubbed "porn night") will draw the same kind of standing-room-only audiences we had at some of the earlier screenings, but I'm guessing that we'll otherwise continue to have smallish audiences (15-30 people). This doesn't particularly worry me; I somewhat expected it, in fact. The early films I scheduled for the series are both difficult to find information about -- few mainstream venues screen documentaries about BDSM! -- and quite accessible in tone. That is, early Sex+++ documentaries were more along the lines of introductory or "101", while the films I've scheduled later tend to be about more complicated or esoteric topics.

For instance, "The Aggressives" is about a specific lesbian subculture ....

... and I liked the film a lot! Thanks to Seventh Art Releasing for letting us screen it. And I loved the discussion after the documentary even more -- it was very focused, with some eloquent and diverse perspectives. I left grinning ear to ear.

The documentary is about the "Aggressive" subculture in New York -- possibly it also exists elsewhere; I don't know enough about this topic to say -- which is composed of lesbians of color. Apparently, Aggressive women focus on creating very butch identities, and have contests/balls where they compete to be the most masculine; these balls feature dress-up themes like "construction worker vs. painter" or "businessman vs. blue collar". Interestingly and perhaps obviously, this means that many Aggressives work hard to fit themselves into stereotypes of masculinity. Not only do they seek to look "obviously" masculine, but to change other patterns of behavior, like speech and body language; and some do go on male hormones.

Indeed, there was one fascinating interview in which an Aggressive talked about how she sees male hormones as an "edge" in the Aggressive contests, and cited this as temptation to take hormones. It was not apparent to me whether she was as interested in being masculine, as she was in beating other Aggressives at the masculinity game. And maybe it's worth noting that this particular Aggressive's femme girlfriend said she wasn't too excited about the idea of her partner going on hormones -- "I still like a woman," she said. One description I found for this film on the Internet states that the Aggressives challenge gender stereotypes by acting the way they do. But one question that came up in the discussion group was -- do they? If Aggressive identity is focused around being stereotypically masculine, then arguably they're working more to reinforce our cultural assumptions about gender than to challenge them. There was some footage showing Aggressives doing very "macho", "dominant" things like rapping misogynistically, or ordering femme lesbians to perform for them. One Aggressive talks about teaching boys to be men and says, "You don't have to be a man to teach someone how to be one -- it's about being responsible, being the breadwinner."

So, it does seem as though many Aggressives still fall prey to gendered preconceptions. On the other hand, the film also noted the existence of women who identified as Aggressive ... but femme rather than butch! I wish the film had spent more time explaining what exactly it might mean to be a "femme Aggressive". It seemed as though some Aggressives might switch between roles, but I'm not sure about that.

Speaking of switching puts me in mind of my experiences as a BDSM switch, and takes me to another thought I had during the post-film discussion: there were such obvious dynamics of power between femmes and butches in the Aggressive subculture ... it made me wonder what kind of BDSM practices might exist in these relationships, and how those practices might be negotiated. It also seems possible to me that some people in the subculture might be attracted to the ideas of power, strength and dominance so obviously typified in certain Aggressive stances -- I wonder if some Aggressives are more attracted to the power dynamics than they are to the lesbian (or, for some, trans) aspect of being Aggressive.

Obviously, this is wild theorizing on my part, and highly biased at that -- I am far more exposed to BDSM and BDSM desires than I am to LGBTQ. But I have met multiple people who stated that the BDSM aspects of their sexuality "trump" their straight vs. LGBTQ orientation. My last entry was about the idea of BDSM as an orientation, and Laura Antoniou left a comment that included the statement: As Califia once wrote many years ago, I’d rather be left on a deserted island with a kinky man than a vanilla lesbian; SM trumps gender identity and my otherwise primary orientation to other girls. So, who knows? I'd love to talk to some Aggressives sometime about power dynamics and violence in bed.

This also highlights another question I've thought about a lot -- how does the available culture shape how we approach alternative sexuality? That is, what happens to someone who has BDSM desires if that person is never exposed to a subculture devoted to BDSM? I see myself as "oriented towards BDSM", but what would my BDSM practices look like if there weren't an available subculture showing me certain images of BDSM? If I'd been exposed to the Aggressive subculture and never exposed to the BDSM subculture, would I have been likely to incorporate myself into that? Conversely, is it possible that some of the lesbians who find themselves in the Aggressive subculture are there more because it's the lesbian community that's available to them, than because they're drawn to masculine women or power or ... whatever?

Argh, over a thousand words and I'm only halfway through my notes ... and I have to run! I feel like I never have time to get out all my thoughts about these films. Oh well. You can buy "The Aggressives" online at the website for Seventh Art Releasing. And I definitely encourage all and sundry to attend the next Sex+++ screening. That's tonight, Tuesday the 9th, 7 PM as always! The documentary featured will be "Boy I Am": a look at the experience of three young female-to-male transpeople, and the way they're treated -- not just by society at large -- but also by some queer and feminist groups that see female-to-male transitioning as culturally suspect or problematic. Thanks to Women Make Movies for letting us screen it.

"Boy I Am" will actually be the last Sex+++ screening I facilitate because I will soon be taking advantage a professional opportunity abroad, but the film series will continue in my absence. I'll post more on that soon -- in the meantime, I hope to see you here at Hull-House Museum ... very soon!

Cross-posted at Clarisse's blog

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