How I Turned Straight Actors into Badass Butch Queers in Three Days Flat

27-year old New Yorker Gabrielle Rivera made “Spanish Girls are Beautiful” because none of the lesbian media she saw looked like the queer girls she knew. You probably relate to that feeling, yes? The 20-minute short, which is really more of a TV pilot, caught our eye straight away for its rare authenticity. Then we emailed, and then we all had a beer, and now we’re all in collective common-life-goals love with Gaby. We hope this is the first of many times you’ll see her on Autostraddle! Check out her story in the Lambda Award-nominated Tales of a Portland Queer, her interview with My Latino Voice and follow her on twitter.

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My twenty-minute short film “Spanish Girls are Beautiful” is a glimpse into a youthful Latina and Caucasian urban lesbian lifestyle. Three of the main characters are what you might label as either “butch” or “AG.” Although casting Easy, Taylor and Casey wasn’t terribly difficult, directing the actresses into portraying believable butch/AG characters was an entirely different situation.

I started sending out casting notices via Facebook, MySpace, Craigslist and almost every other social networking site out there, figuring the lesbians would come out in droves. I daydreamed about lines of queer women linking around our casting space psyched about auditioning for a film about young, queer, badass chicks. That DID NOT happen at all. The majority of women who auditioned were young straight women who’d let me and my producer, John Accardo, know that they were “totally cool with the gay thing.”

We found three talented and uniquely feminine women to portray Easy, Taylor and Casey. I’d only wanted queer women involved in the project, especially in the more masculine roles, so casting three straight girls was a bit of a compromise for me. However, we needed to push forward within a certain shooting timeline, so I accepted the final casting decisions. I was ready to test my limits as a director.

Easy

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Nikolitsa Boutieros, the actress who played Easy, demanded all of my attention the second she walked into the casting room.

Nikolitsa strolled in with Slash hair and a David Bowie demeanor, wearing tight, studded black jeans, a black button down shirt and shit-kicker, steel-toed boots. Nikolitsa’s intensity secured the role, but I knew that transforming her into an urban Latina AG lesbian was going to take some work. For those of you unfamiliar with the term AG, here is a brief definition of my own:

“An aggressive or more masculine acting female who adopts a style and way of dress associated with urban culture and hip hop music. AGs are usually also women of color.”

(Again, this is a definition I’ve come to from conversations with friends and people who label themselves as AGs. If you find fault with it, please feel free to politely add to my definition.)

She stood like a rock star, and I needed her to lean like a G. I wasn’t completely confident that I could teach her to be an AG, but I wasn’t going to compromise Easy’s portrayal.

“Yes, everyone’s an individual but there’s a style and attitude that’s associated with AGs and she needed to capture it.”

We put the dialogue aside and worked on her body language. I gave her some homework, which was to go to Fordham Road in the Bronx and observe AGs in the hood with their girls. I told her to watch how they walked and moved through the world dressed in urban gear: do-rags, fitteds, fresh kicks, hair done in rows etc. Yes, everyone’s an individual but there’s a style and attitude that’s associated with AGs and she needed to capture it.

Nikolitsa even used her brother as a research aid. Nikolitsa told me, “I naturally channeled my brother…he is very much like Easy’s character.” From Fordham Road to familial interactions, Nikolitsa busted her ass to get into character.

We also slowed down her walk and pushed her shoulders out to give off a “don’t fuck with me” attitude. Instead of pointing at someone for emphasis, I opened up her hands and lowered them to create a barrier around her personal space that would dare anyone to enter it. At the same time, I needed her to be gentle with her on screen love the way that AGs are gentle with their ladies. It’s a tough but sweet, protective, thoughtful kind of love.

However, Easy still had more jagged edges than tender spots. Nikolitsa felt that playing Easy was “fun but also sad at the same time, because the soft and feminine side seemed to be imprisoned by the overriding side of ‘thugging.’” We were still able to find a middle ground, and by the time we rolled, she had the swagger, ferocity and gentleness of any AG from the hood.


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Taylor

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Maria Dalbotten played Taylor, my sweet, soft butch doe-eyed loverboi main character. She walked into our casting space in a pretty skirt, light blue tank top and silver sandals with painted toenails. She was fucking adorable, and again, she nailed that dialogue. I knew she was Taylor from the second she opened her mouth. But there was not a trace of tomboy in her.

Our first rehearsal was almost disastrous. She wore a pretty skirt, crossed her legs (again) and began her lines. It was completely wrong.

I switched her skirt for a pair of black cargo shorts. Gone was the tank top; a sick graphic tee took its place. We ditched her sandals and threw on a pair of Vans. Automatically, her demeanor changed. According to Maria, the clothes “were a total change for a sundress queen…it really affected the way I carried myself.” She was no longer physically constricted by her feminine attire and was able to delve deeper into the character of Taylor.


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Casey

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My fun-loving, stoner, sporty dyke was also in a similar situation. Brooke Morgan came in with the goofy sensibility and lankiness that was needed for the role. She was also a bit of a tomboy, so it was easier for her to become Casey. However, there were two elements that both actresses hadn’t ever explored before, having never played or been around butch lesbians: they needed to conquer the space around them and engage their female love interests from a masculine point of view.

Straight or feminine-acting women cross their legs and fold their arms in an effort to sanctify and protect their personal space. Also, we’ve been bred to make room for men by taking up as little space as possible. During one of our rehearsals, I asked them to sit with their legs open and their arms stretched over the back of our couch. I wanted them to own the space around them. I explained to them that this is one of the ways butch lesbians absorb their spatial surroundings and create their own world. You need to make room for yourself because no one is going to give it to you.

In baggy shorts and boys’ T-shirts, it was easier and more fluid for them to take over that space. They fucking loved it. Maria (“Taylor”) even gushed at one point, “God, it’s comfortable to be a lesbian.” YES IT IS!

Now I needed them to be able to believably approach a woman with confidence and positive aggression. This was much harder to explore because, generally speaking, straight women are usually pursued by men and lack experience in making the “first move.” My actresses needed a lesson in how to get their mack on. I didn’t want them to portray some false macho pimp version of how to get a girl, and I floundered on how to explain the difference. Then Brooke (“Casey”) pulled out a T-shirt that belonged to her boyfriend and asked if she could use it as part of her wardrobe. Speaking of him, her face lit up and she told us how awesome he was and how much he supported her in all of her artistic endeavors. Swear to God, it hit me at that very moment that I had forgotten the most crucial element of this entire project: LOVE. Fucking love. Love was the foundation of this project and of everything around us.

I asked them to connect with the love that good men had given them and how they were approached by those men. In essence, they needed to channel their boyfriends as women loving other women. Now some of you might be like “fuck that! Butch lesbians aren’t men!” No they aren’t, but it was the best solid point of reference to give these pretty femmy straight actresses.

It all clicked. They fucking got it. My AG got her swag on through finding her own confidence and connecting with an urban identity. My two soft butches utilized their love experiences to channel the necessary components of loving another woman, even just on screen. All three women were also able to overcome the ingrained spatial restrictions put on females. Also, looking at the men in their lives (brothers, boyfriends, etc.) allowed them to explore emotional spaces that are usually taboo for women, like aggression and natural confidence.

Masculine-identified women enter into territory usually reserved for men every day while still maintaining the feminine energy that connects them to other women. Granted, femmes and other types of female-identified queers play with these lines as well, but for the sake of my short film, it was the butch lesbians who had to shine and be fierce. As straight females playing lesbians, these actresses learned that gender and sexuality are mutually exclusive entities, and they did so by pushing through learned and limiting gender norms. This opened their eyes to the concepts of personal space, the way we express love, and the way that masculinity is presented in all of us. “Spanish Girls…” became a journey not just for me, but also for the actresses expanding their ideas of gender. We conquered swagger, space and love in one short film — or, as we refer to it now, looking towards the future, one short webseries pilot.

Avatar of gabrielle

Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for Autostraddle.com while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabrielle has written 66 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I loved your description of the wardrobe choices completely altering the performances. It’s really interesting how clothing can give way or permission to act more butch or femme, right? For example, straight girls in sports. Once they put on uniforms and get on a field it seems all the usual rules go out the window in terms allowing girls to become aggressive and take on typically male or “butch” traits. I also kinda love that these actresses are straight playing butch, but maybe that’s just fascinating to me :)

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    I love this article.

    As an actress I am constantly examining the way I carry myself. I adopt different traits depending on where I am and who I am trying to portray. I am going to move differently at an audition for an ingenue than I would walking down the street in a dangerous neighborhood. I watch girls and see how they cross their legs vs. how their male counterparts do it. Gender is taught to us from such a young age that often it is difficult to understand how many feminine traits we have been taught growing up. Often many of us re-examine those feminine qualities when we enter the lesbian community. I love the freedom that comes with being cognizant of gender and how that affects our movements.

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    I wanted to be an actress when I was younger and was always cast as a man, consistently, literally in every single role I ever played. Always a dude — there’s always more girls than boys in theater, and better I play the man than a short girl with boobs. Between that, being as tall as the average man and growing up with hippies, I think I never learned how to move like a woman — but did learn, later in life, that women shouldn’t take up too much space, and tried to be more compact for those reasons which is often the same as being “ladylike.” I think, as Julia mentioned, that being gay offers you an opportunity to re-evaluate your gender presentation.

    Anyhow loved it obvs

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    my mom always wanted me to “sit like a good young lady.” meanwhile, i had my legs dangling from jungle gyms and wanted to run around with my boy cousins.
    I had to create a body language that suited me even though it contrasted all my “good little girl training.”
    I’m good now and i like my boy clothes. i can run around a playground with my little cousins or go to the batting cages with my boys in them.
    At the same time, wearing feminine clothing makes me feel more comfortable at formal events like weddings…so i’m somewhere comfortably in between.

    and it’s cool and beautiful…

    and the actresses were all so professional and quick to pick up on what i needed from them.
    i can’t wait to make more episodes and really f*ck shit up!

    thanks AS. u make my little brown heart swell with homo love.

    :D

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    really friggin good. the mini pilot had my attention the whole time, i’m waiting for more.
    ‘Now some of you might be like “fuck that! Butch lesbians aren’t men!” No they aren’t, but it was the best solid point of reference to give these pretty femmy straight actresses.’

    it worked well…

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    “Also, we’ve been bred to make room for men by taking up as little space as possible. ”

    As someone who has spent more time than usual on aeroplanes over the last year and a half, I would like to say – Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It’s something I’ve only noticed more recently and it’s driving me crazy now. Even when it’s something that I want to deliberately not do, I still feel like it’s expected of me. And it’s the only way for me to keep my personal space. Middle-aged men seem to be the worst at spreading out and expecting you to just kinda deal with it.

    Maybe it’s time for me to start consciously challenging this. Hmm.

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      I completely agree with that. Personally, I’m a proponent of everyone keeping their personal space bubble pretty wide, but I think the next time some guy is trying encroach I won’t budge (unless it’s for smoochies in which case GTFO). Lots of time I fall into this trap when I am shoved in the middle of the backseat of a car but ya know what? Trying to cross my legs and put my hands in my lap isn’t going to make a dammed bit of difference if I am between two boys with their legs all spread eagle style. I think we deserve the same amount space thanks.

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      I think I probs do that a lot — consciously challenge it. I have long legs so I can manage to take up a shit-ton of space if i want to, which I do on airplanes and a lot of places. But I probs do it most on the subway, but still, ultimately, I’m the one expected to go compact when a dude sits down — or maybe I still just do it. Like I can be BIG when i want too but don’t let that fool you icanalsobesmall. Although really everyone should make space for everyone else. Equally, etc.

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        I have tried to challenge the space issue on the subway, but typically then my leg is touching some dude’s and they never move when you touch them. If someone touches my leg with their leg I move, guys often don’t. So then I figure it is better to not challenge gender norms than touch some guys leg with my own. There is a lot of pervy stuff that goes on down in the subways. It is just super frustrating when some dude thinks that half of my seat is for his leg.

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          “So then I figure it is better to not challenge gender norms than touch some guys leg with my own.”

          Ugh, exactly! Hence I generally just give up and be uncomfortable.

          “It is just super frustrating when some dude thinks that half of my seat is for his leg.”

          Again, agreed. It can be really bad on some of the more squishy buses that I have to catch, especially during peak hour. It’s also one of the reasons I walk pretty much everywhere these days, if I have the time.

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      I commute by train, and I used to have a 1 1/2 hour, peak time journey each direction. It got to the point where I started pushing back – some guys got the hint, most didn’t.

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    everything about this article was so great i can’t even handle it. i don’t know anything about acting or directing and so hearing it explained was fascinating, and even though i hate watching videos on the internet i watched all of Spanish Girls and loved it! i am overwhelmed with the desire to be best friends with Gabby and also to start calling everyone I know ma

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    Nice film Gabrielle. You really should turn this into a webseries..There are very few voices for lesbians of color and I appreciate your take on the Latina experience.

    With regards to the article it is funny how you taught these straight women how to be “AG” “butch”….tapping into that seems like it was easy once you taught them about commanding their own space…As a femme who loves AG’s I must say that your cast of characters were “FUEGO”..I think I have a crush on Taylor (LOL)

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    as bitchy as she was, Lindsey just did it for me (well they all kinda did.) I blame the voice and that dress looked really good on her!

    also, co/sign on the whole gender as a social construct/ gendered space thing etc!

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    It’s interesting that you mention the gender issues around “taking up space”. I was back in NYC recently and thus had the opportunity to observe this very thing happening on the subway. On the subway, men and women sit differently. Women try to take up less space, since it’s crowded, while many men (but very few women) love to spread their legs wide. And it’s almost completely a subconscious behavior, which makes it all the more fascinating to observe.

    I also kind of wonder about the “it’s comfortable to be a lesbian” thing, and whether straight women will adopt some style ideas from lesbians, for reasons of comfort or just to express a different side of their personality.

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    Really, really great article. I have a lot to do with actors in my job, and the ones I’m working with at the moment, they talk a lot about the intentions of their characters but things like this show that physicality is as important, if not more so than what you say which I’d like them to get, but it’s not my place to say that to them :) This is SO interesting. I found reading it before watching the pilot added a different facet for me, but I’m a big old dork and love backstory like the article gave.

    Hadn’t seen anything like that pilot before.More please!

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    I really enjoyed this article and the short. It made me realize that that my body language is very masculine and that I do take up more space than I thought. I never really associated this with being gay but it makes sense. Also being a sensitive soft butch is my life but that is another story. 20 min is way to short, I would watch this as an hour long show for realz.

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    you guyssss, we loved this short/pilot instantly. love the writing, love gaby’s vision, love where this is going. REALLY EXCITED.

    as far as personal space is concerned, i am amazingly skilled at taking up as little space as humanly possible. in the photo pits at bonnaroo, i managed to become nearly invisible, as most of the other photogs were gigantic men and it was either fold up or get squashed. usually someone would be nice and let me in front of them b/c i was “so tiny,” which was at once very polite and also super fucking annoying. it got to the point that if one more person told me how fucking small i was, i would probably have clocked them.

    after reading this article, i’m going to make a conscious decision to take up my fair amount of space. i’d never really thought of it this way before — as a feminist issue.

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    So I was at a White Sox game tonight, and for some reason I haven’t had the issue of sitting next to strangers at a game in awhile… always seemed to get an aisle seat.

    I instantly thought of this thread and made sure to ‘stand my ground’ in keeping my leg space exactly that, my space!

    Sorry to the dude next to me, but I’m not about to let you spread your legs wide while I keep mine closed or shift away from you.

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      no it’s not wrong at all.

      matter fact, the more suburban moms let loose and rock what they wanna without care, the more dope and open the suburbs will be.
      do ur thing mama…and if u can’t find any bamboo earrings where you live, then i will send you a pair :)

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    I love this! I’ve watched it at least three times already. I can’t wait to see more.
    I would have more intelligent observations but I am currently two drinks into a very long and lonely night with only web-series to keep me company. I’m glad yours was one of them Ms.Rivera. :)

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    I love this, seriously.
    I thought 7:03-7:45 especially was beautifully shot/directed, it caught my eye.

    I hope to see more from these talented actors and the producers!

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