The following is an essay written for my African Americans in the Media class. I was told to do a screening of a film. So I did a screening of Paris is Burning and I decided to write a critique of the film for its worship of Whiteness.
Paris is Burning is a film in which we see intersection more prominently, but in a more problematic way. The film centers around the Drag Ball scene in the Bronx. You have drag queens who are disenfranchised. some of them are trans, some of them black. This film is about using your body to live your best life. In Bell Hooks’s response to the film she talks about the idea it evoked as she heard about it.
When I first heard that there was this new documentary film about black gay men, drag queens, and drag balls I was fascinated by the title. It evoked images of the real Paris on fire, of the death and destruction of a dominating white western civilization and culture, an end to oppressive Eurocentrism and white supremacy. This fantasy not only gave me a sustained sense of pleasure, it stood between me and the unlikely reality that a young white filmmaker, offering a progressive vision of “blackness” from the standpoint of “whiteness,” would receive the positive press accorded Livingston and her film. (Hooks, 149)
Hooks is saying that the name itself gave her a sense of belonging and the utopian idea of overthrowing an oppressor such as the white man. However, there is more to film than just being nonconforming to gender norms, there is a clear statement of how we view whiteness. We have this eschewed vision of the way we view whiteness. We see it as the “ideal beauty”. It is a big step back when it really comes down to things. When Octavia has her model pictures from the magazines on her wall, she explains she wants to look like this one day. The high-class evening wear, furs and other over-the-top outfits are all representative of how all of these queens wish they were, rich and white.
Watching Paris is Burning, I began to think that the many yuppie-looking, straight-acting, pushy, predominantly white folks in the audience were there because the film in no way interrogates “whiteness.” These folks left the film saying it was “amazing,” “marvelous,” “incredibly funny,” worthy of statements like, “Didn’t you just love it?” And no, I didn’t just love it. For in many ways the film was a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit. The “we” evoked here is all of us, black people/people of color, who are daily bombarded by a powerful colonizing whiteness that seduces us away from ourselves, that negates that there is beauty to be found in any form of blackness that is not imitation whiteness.(Hooks, 149)
We see the problematic way that Paris is burning is portraying whiteness. Instead of having the queens reject all that whiteness stands for and be proud, they are actually idolizing these oppressors.
“The whiteness celebrated in Paris is Burning is not just any old brand of whiteness but rather that brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself—its way of life—as the only meaningful life there is” (Hooks, 149).
We given the representation we were missing in How to Survive a Plague; but at what cost? Instead of the erasure of black folks from the narrative, we get an entire movie dedicated to the black queer worship of the white oppressor. One example of white worship is when Venus talks about her job as a queen as well as her motivation for things like prostitution. She uses the example of upper-class white housewife who wants a dryer and she can get that dryer by having sex with her husband. Venus’s comparison of sex work to a white woman trying to get something by using sex.
The interesting thing about this film is that Jennie Livingston, the director of the film is queer itself. However, this intersection doesn’t work for her position because she does not know what it is like to be black/queer/gender nonconforming. Hooks explains that in this way, intersectionality didn’t work out in her favor.
Jennie Livingston approaches her subject matter as an outsider looking in. Since her presence as white woman/lesbian filmmaker is “absent” from Paris is Burning it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives” and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a perspective and standpoint specific to Livingston. By cinematically masking this reality (we hear her ask questions but never see her), Livingston does not oppose the way hegemonic whiteness “represents” blackness, but rather assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counter-hegemonic (Hooks, 151)
We have a shift because when you are looking through the lens of the camera, we see this narrative from her eyes and realize that she is totally looking at it from an outsider’s perspective. One of those scenes in the movie in which we are given a setup, but no resolution was the Venus is murdered by a man who was paying her money for sex. We are not given any time to grieve. It happens and the film ends.
The cinematic narrative makes the ball the center of their lives. And yet who determines this? Is this the way the black men view their reality or is this the reality Livingston constructs? Certainly, the degree to which black men in this gay subculture are portrayed as cut off from a “real” world heightens the emphasis on fantasy, and indeed gives Paris is Burning its tragic edge. That tragedy is made explicit when we are told that the fair-skinned Venus has been murdered, and yet there is no mourning of him/her in the film, no intense focus on the sadness of this murder. Having served the purpose of “spectacle” the film abandons him/her. The audience does not see Venus after the murder. There are no scenes of grief. To put it crassly, her dying is upstaged by spectacle. Death is not entertaining.(Hooks, 154)
In a sense, Paris is Burning started a drag revolution and it was one of the most iconic queer movies of the 90s, but it was at the cost of disenfranchising the queens featured in the film. When it comes to representation, Paris is Burning hits the mark. However, due to its idolization of the white body, it undermines what it means to be black and queer.
Hooks, Bell. “Is Paris Burning?” pp. 145-156
Black Looks: Race and Representation.
Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992. Print.