We recently watched the film Paris is Burning, a documentary about black drag queens in Harlem and their culture surrounding balls. Directly related we also read two feminist critiques, Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion by Judith Butler and Is Paris Burning by bell hooks. Two areas of critique I focus on and question are the critiques regarding the filmmaker, audience and drag queens and how they participate to reinforce a heterosexual racist patriarchy. Furthermore I ask if this line of investigation is the most beneficial way to view and understand the film and its various participants.
By dissecting the film, the director, Jennie Livingston's methodology and the audience's perceived response I believe we can easily ignore a different and more positive way of understanding the film despite the many flaws easy for feminist minds to criticize. This is in no way saying that these critiques are not valid, or that it is not beneficial to look at works of any form through the many and various feminist lenses.
However, one cannot lose sight of the humanity within the film. The spectacles of the balls themselves intimately show a mirage of human emotions including passion, desire, joy, humor, grace, and delight. The featured men willingly share the pleasure they feel through participation in the balls with us, the watching audience. They attempt to describe the exhilaration of being able to "become anything and do anything." (1.)
We, the audience, are entertained and interested by the interviews, the balls and the featured persons. bell hooks sees audience enjoyment as exploitative and says, "...It is this current trend in producing colorful ethnicity for the white consumer appetite that makes it possible for blackness to be commodified in unprecedented ways, and for whites to appropriate black culture without interrogating whiteness or showing concern for the displeasure of blacks." (2.)
However, many of the stars clearly want an audience and we provide that on a large scale. They are happy to speak to us, perform for us and even wow us. hooks acknowledges this point saying, "it is easy to place Livingston in the role of benefactor, offering these 'poor black souls' a way to realize their dreams." (3.) Even while criticizing those who condescend, hooks herself condescends by simultaneously dismissing any agency or valid desire of the stars themselves. Not only does Livingston provide them this particular opportunity to reach a larger audience, but they very conscientiously want and take it. The audience may exploit the stars by viewing the film with a 'dominant' or 'condescending' curiosity but the black drag queens featured choose to be documented.
Is every interaction involving pleasure, creation, observation or any other form of existence between two people or groups not of the same exact categories, spaces and backgrounds a form of simple exploitation? By a certain definition of getting pleasure from another, this may be the case. However, this is also an uninteresting approach to take and does not allow for appreciation of the insight, brilliance, creativity or individuality of those who create and, particularly in this case, comprise the creation itself.
While Livingston's work does not focus on breaking down existing imperialist systems in society, it can still be appreciated as both art and an academic text. It does function to reflect current systems and their existing domination. However, the film, if not revolutionary, does serve to highlight the various issues such as race, class, and an unrelenting and uninviting social hierarchy. It functions, whether with intention or not, to draw attention to these issues and their construction.
This film, while reinforcing the norm, also does function to rearrange space within society. It brings the culture of black drag queens in Harlem out of the ballroom in Harlem and into the consciousness of a much broader audience. It is no longer something hidden, obscure, unknown but in fact crosses over into a larger realm of visibility and legitimacy within the dominant society.
Both hooks and Butler critique aspects of Livingston's film technique and choices. The two feminists point to the idea, "...that within this culture the ethnographic conceit of a neutral gaze will always be a white gaze, an unmarked white gaze, one which passes its own perspective as if it were no perspective at all." (4.) They accuse Livingston of being guilty of claiming such a "neutral gaze" in her film technique.
Butler also discusses Livingston's lesbian desires and the phallic representation of said desires by a photographer within the film and how, through the camera, the privileged male gaze is directly represented. (5.) hooks focuses on more on the idea of exploitation. She critiques the film for its dominant white gaze and its entertainment value and Livingston's success at the 'expense' of the black drag queens. (6.)
While Livingston does film the movie in a way to entertain, she did in fact choose Dorian Carey, an older and intelligent black drag queen, to narrate it. She/he speaks with seriousness and insight about the balls and surrounding culture. Through this, the film engages in a continuing dialogue that encompasses many different strands which comprise the lives of black drag queens in Harlem. She/he speaks of racism, poverty, and violence in addition to joy, pleasure, dreams, and death to paint a picture of yes, a harsh reality, but not one without hope and a sense of intimate humanity. The film ends with Carey's narrative, "You left a mark on the world if you just get through it. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think its better just to enjoy it. Pay your dues and enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you." (7.)
By and large I feel it is pertinent to acknowledge the feminist critiques of bell hooks and Judith Butler but that in this case it might be beneficial to think outside of these critiques and focus more on the pleasure and experience of watching Paris is Burning. Through the interviews it is apparent that the stars are very aware of the performance involved with themselves, the filming and society at large. I would go so far as to say they might want us to enjoy the film and the various aspects of it including the spectacle, theatrics, drama, performance, and their own individual stories.
Art, academics, indeed anything that is created, will always be interpreted in a million different ways; good, bad and ugly. But, as film critic Ed Sikov says, "If nobody could say or write or film or paint anything about anybody else but themselves and their exact demographic group. What a dull fucking world that would be." (8.)


1. Dorian Carey. "Paris is Burning"
2. bell hooks. "Black Looks". Pg 153 & 154.
3. bell hooks. "Black Looks". Pg 153
4. Judith Butler. "Bodies That Matter". Pg 136
5. Judith Butler. "Bodies That Matter". Pg 135 & 136
6. bell hooks. "Black Looks". Chapter 9
7. Dorian Carey. "Paris is Burning".
8. Ed Sikov. Email commentary in regards to "Paris is Burning".


Butler, Judith. "Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'". New York. Routledge. 1993

hooks, bell. "Black Looks: Race and Representation". Boston, MA. South End Press. 1992

Livingston, Jennie. "Paris is Burning". Los Angeles. Off White Productions. Distributed by Orion Home Video. 1992

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