The Aggressives. Directed by Daniel Peddle. Los Angeles: Seventh Art Releasing, 2005.

Black and White. Directed by Kirsty MacDonald. New York: Women Make Movies, 2006.

Boy I am. Directed by Sam Feder and Julie Hollar. New York: Women Make Movies, 2006.

Reviewed by C. Riley Snorton

Daniel Peddle’s The Aggressives, Kirsty MacDonald’s Black and White, and Sam Feder and Julie Hollar’s Boy I am all take up questions pertaining to the construction and maintenance of gender, gender expression, and gender identity as each documentary examines the relationships between race and gender expression, art, biology and self-articulation, and the (feminist) politics of female-to-male medical transition. These films make excellent primary texts for unpacking current modes of thinking about gender-non-conformity, gender variance, and transgender and intersex people.

Daniel Peddle’s The Aggressives follows the lives of six self-identified “aggressive women,” a phrase that both the film and its subjects struggle to define over the course of the full-length documentary. Fast-paced and poignant, The Aggressives explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and gender expression amid the frantic pace of New York City. Subjects Raji, Flo, Kisha, Octavia, Tiffany, and Marquise represent a spectrum of gender and sexuality identifications, including femme, butch, transgender, lesbian, and queer. Filmed over the course of five years, the storylines highlight the coming of age of each of the young “aggressives,” who we meet in their late teens and early twenties. The role of institutions such as prisons, hospitals, schools, and the military figure prominently in each of the stories that are told: Octavia, for example, is interviewed from prison, where she is serving time for dealing drugs; in other moments, Tiffany and Flo both discuss their histories of incarceration. The film, however, fails to explicitly discuss the broader structural forces that make prison experience, military service, and unstable employment common phenomena among this group of under- and working-class queer women of color. In its failure to do so, the film sometimes unwittingly reinforces stereotypes about black masculinity, writ large.

Assigning The Aggressives in courses broadly interested in issues of intersectionality could lead to generative discussions of queer identity, race, class, and gender politics. The filmalso provides a useful entry point for more contentious conversations about the politics of representation and the ethics of documentary filmmaking, the realities of internalized sexism, and the latent tensions within certain feminist communities around gender nonconformity. Interesting readings to pair with The Aggressives include Judith/Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity andCathy J. Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” in Black Queer Studies.1

Sam Feder and Julie Hollar’s Boy I am stages a series of difficult conversations between female-to-male (FTM) transgender people, feminists, and queer women.  With particular attention to the resistance some queer women have to transsexuality, viewing transition as a trend or an antifeminist act that taps into male privilege, Boy I am attempts to break down barriers and promote dialogue through a look at the experiences of three young transitioning FTMs in New York City: Nicco, Norie, and Keegan.   With a range of voices, including lesbian journalists, transgender activists, and gender theorists, the film presents multiple viewpoints while also serving as a powerful tool to raise awareness about transgender issues. Boy I am also does an excellent job of presenting the perspectives of the subjects’ family and friends, giving space for them to air their concerns at various stages in their loved one’s transition. Boy I am is among a small but growing number of documentaries to include the dynamics of transition for people of color. The filmic treatment of Norie, a black transman, who is preparing to undergo top surgery, also known as sex reassignment surgery, which refers to the removal of breasts and shaping of a “masculine” chest, is poignant as he describes his anxieties around being read as a black man in the United States.

Boy I am, in many ways, is pitched as a pedagogical tool, especially because it includes the voices of prominent transgender academics and activists, such as Judith/Jack Halberstam and Dean Spade. However, pairing this film with Jay Prosser’s Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality; Angela Pattatucci Aragon’s edited collection Challenging Lesbian Norms: Intersex, Transgender, Intersectional, and Queer Perspectives; Paisley Currah, Richard Huang, and Shannon Price Minter’s Transgender Rights; or David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category should yield substantive discussions about transgender visibility, the narrativity of transsexuality, and the heterogeneity of transsexual experiences, all themes the film attempts to address at various moments in this full-length documentary.2

Kirsty MacDonald’s short documentary, Black and White combines interviews with fifty-three-year-old New Zealander Mani Bruce Mitchell and footage of Mitchell’s collaboration with renowned photographer Rebecca Swan. Explicitly engaging the issues attendant to intersex invisibility and social change, Black and White explains both the medical definitions of the term and Mitchell’s childhood experiences of being intersexed. Mitchell’s story includes being assigned female sex as a young child after living the first year or so as male. Through interviews interspersed with childhood photos and contemporary images that highlight Mitchell’s body as artistic object and agent of change, the short appropriately focuses on issues of visuality, visibility, and representation. The film’s narrow focus provides an entry point into discussions of gender fluidity and the experiences of people who are not medically categorized as male or female. Black and White, however, does not include any substantive discussion of race, class, or sexuality, although there is a brief discussion of difference toward the end of the film.

Early on, Mitchell holds up to the camera a copy of Nathalie Josso’s The Intersex Child.3 Newer works in the field include Judith Lorber and Lisa Jean Moore’s Gender and the Social Construction of Illness, Sharon E. Preves’ Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self, and Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender.4 MacDonald’s film may also be of interest to courses on feminist media studies, identity and art, and the politics of representation.

Each film provides complex representations of the experiences of gender-non-conforming, transgender, and intersex people in the United States and globally. These films, when coupled with critical writing can begin rich conversations for the feminist classroom interested in interrogating the political, cultural, and visual dynamics of gender. Far exceeding a “census model of gender designation,” The Aggressives, Boy I Am, and Black and White offer viable inroads to discussions on the varied landscape of gender as lived practice.

1 Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 21-51.

2 Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Angela Pattatucci Aragon, ed., Challenging Lesbian Norms: Intersex, Transgender, Intersectional, and Queer Perspectives (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park, 2006); Paisley Currah, Richard M. Huang, and Shannon Price Minter, eds., Transgender Rights (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

3 Nathalie Josso, The Intersex Child (London: Karger, 1981).

4 Judith Lorber and Lisa Jean Moore, Gender and the Social Construction of Illness (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Sharon E. Preves, Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004).

C. Riley Snorton is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. His academic interests include queer and transgender theory, cultural studies, Africana studies, media ethnography, and pop culture.