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Authors and Audiences: A Response to Jennie Livingston's Screening of Paris is Burning

jfwright's picture

I missed part of last class to attend the screening of Paris is Burning with the director, Jennie Livingston. I have loved Paris is Burning since the first time I saw it as a freshman, and have found it to be a powerful look into the lives of a community that is well-known as being underground (for the sake of safety) and not normally entered by outsiders. Imagine my surprise to find that the director, Jennie Livingston, was a white Jewish woman from a middle class background.

Honestly, until then, I hadn't thought about it: I had just assumed that the documentary was made by someone with an emic perspective. But, when an audience member asked Livingston to address the criticisms made by bell hooks in "Is Paris Burning?" she didn't have much to say. She hadn't realized that, for a brief moment, her face could be seen in the mirror while she was interviewing Dorian Corey, a well-known and well-respected performer in the Ballroom scene: she had intended to be absent from the film, and had assumed that the documentary that she had presented had been based on raw data that she had culled: how could someone else have presented this any differently?

In bell hooks' article, hooks cites many instances in which Livingston stated that she did not define the members of Ballroom culture based on their race or sexuality; however, as hooks describes, "[y]et it is precisely the race, sex, and sexual practices of the black men who are filmed that are the exploited subject matter" (hooks 221). hooks explains that by never intentionally showing her face, "Livingston does not oppose the way hegemonic whiteness 'represents' blackness but rather assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counterhegemonic" (220).

Livingston stated that she found hooks' criticisms to be "deeply disturbing" and stated that, as a female filmmaker, she too had been discriminated against. She said that she was young when she made her film, and hadn't considered showing herself and intentionally revealing her perspective.

I understand where she was coming from: sometimes, when people are young, they fail to consider how their own voices relate to their work. We discussed this earlier in the semester. If the writer fails to reveal their own standpoint, their work may be taken as a blanket statement of authority; how can a monolithic authority be questioned? We discussed how detrimental that could be to an equality of position between the author, the subject, and the reader. But, what happens when this inequality of position leads to depiction of the subject as "less than" that of the author?

hooks suggests that the viewer is being shown something akin to an early documentary of "natives" whose "heart of darkness" (220) had to be penetrated in order to show the good in them; I don't think I saw that before. I have to ask a fairly self-centered question: how did I miss that? How did I like this movie? I actually happen to know quite a bit about Ballroom culture in Philadelphia (the organization with which I intern does some work with individuals who participate in Ballroom culture), admittedly as an outsider who is not a direct part of it. How did I buy into Livingston's representation of Ballroom culture without questioning who she was, or why she created this movie?

I've been wrestling with these questions all weekend, and I don't have a good answer. The best that I can come up with, however, is that because of my own white privilege, I didn't think about it. I suppose that the best that I can do for next time is to be more inquisitive of the nature of the production of representations: who is represented? Do we know who is doing the 'representing'? It matters.


Hooks, Bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996. Print.


lwacker's picture

Reactions and Refractions

I would like to respond to chelseam and jfwright's posts as I similarly missed class last Tuesday for the Judith Butler and Jennie Livingston Paris is Burning screening. I a member of two Flexner classes this semester and for one of my classes we went to a pre-screening dinner and then sat together for the screening- it was very much an alliance-building experience in the complete Butlerian sense of the term. Chelseam's post discussed how last week's Paul Farmer reading Pathologies of Power responded ringingly to the Livingston piece that was screened. I was similarly struck by Farmer's construction of the dichotomy between “the poor” and “the powerful" and saw it echoed again and again in the film Paris is Burning and during the talk -back portion of the evening between Judith Butler and director Jennie Livingston. As jfwright so adroitly discussed I found myself wondering why Livingston herself seems to have done very little analytic reflection on her participation in structures of discourses of power v. poor or power v. privilege (she mentioned more than once she led a very privileged upbringing).  As a director she posits herself at a cross-section of precarity- she cites herself as a woman, a queer, a lesbian and a filmmaker, as an artist, as jewish.. etc. All of these identities entagled and interwoven and bound-up together and interlaced form her and are a part of her image reflected in the mirror during that interview with Dorian Corey in the film.  Livingston noted in her talk with Butler that since the film was made she hasn't done a lot of thinking about herself and her role within the film generally but her understanding of herself and her position to the film was a sort of disembodiment. She was there but only physically as an instrument of "power", the actual operator of the camera. She was a vessel to channel the voices of these "poor" masses through. When I heard Livingston's express this opinion my initial reaction was complete understanding and agreement... "how wonderful that she didn't try and insert herself into this... I don't need her opinions in this piece- they would have been so innappropriate here..." but now I wonder if they were implicitly embedded.