Unknowingly Outside: A Study of Perspectives

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Unknowingly Outside: A Study of Perspectives

Sara Ansell


Livingston's documentary Paris is Burning inspired an awareness of being that I had not previously experienced. The film urges the spectator to reevaluate not only one's breadth of knowledge of the black gay culture in the 80's, but also the perspectives from which one views the film. Personally speaking, the easiest evaluation of the latter topic would be the perspective of a privileged white straight female born into a sheltered and socially traditional household. This background would thus color my reaction to the film: one of intense sadness for the featured interviewees who yearned for an existence which was mostly unobtainable except in the case of extreme sacrifice and typically led to social ostracizing and ridicule (even in some cases, death) yet this existence they yearned to emulate was something I had been born into without struggle nor appreciation, it was simply my life.
But one could say my perspective of pity and guilt was actually somewhat of a perversion of the deeper meaning of the film. My feelings were not enlightened but the opposite I was subjugating the people's identities in the film by not recognizing their independent validity, and only reacting to their performance of emulation with condescending sympathy. My depression over the film resulted not from what Bell Hooks's depression stemmed as she explains her views on the film: " [It is] a documentary affirming that colonized, victimized, exploited black folks are all to willing to be complicit in perpetuating the fantasy that ruling-class white culture is the quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power, and pleasure." (Hooks, Is Paris Burning? pg. 149) I was only saddened by the fact that the performers in the film were unable to obtain their dream. I had not looked at the dream itself and critiqued the presentation of such a perspective on our societal hierarchy. This new found perspective, achieved during class discussions and readings, was the finale of the topic for me until I checked my mailbox after class the following day.
In my mailbox was an honor code abstract detailing a case brought before the council in previous months. My first thought when carrying the abstract home with me was curiosity at what felt and looked to be a massive case summery of around 30 pages. I settled down to read it. The case abstract dealt with an occurrence two semesters ago during a Halloween dance on Bryn Mawr's campus. Two Haverford male students attended the Hallween party at Rhoads dressed as "two specific female Black popstars. They had painted themselves brown and attached prosthetic breasts and buttocks to their bodies." (The Muppets abstract, pg. 1) The case abstract is incredibly detailed in documenting all parties' statements and reactions.
After the Halloween party where they wore their costumes the entire night the two males felt necessary to write an explanation to the community after hearing some rumblings about their costume from friends and strangers alike. They explained that they had no intention on offending anyone in the community, but had simply chosen the costumes because of its ridiculous nature. The abstract explains, "[Bert said] they saw white plastic breasts and considered dressing as topless women. Then they saw the black breasts and butts and decided to wear them instead. [He thought] the black body parts would be funny because they were so different from his own. [He said] they then purchased jewelry and brown face paint." (The Muppets abstract, pg. 3) A student of color on campus contacted the two male students and requested to meet with them along with other students concerned by their actions. The two male students did not attend and thus they were brought before Honor Council as the confronting party felt a dialogue was necessary but had not been achieved.
The Council met several times with the confronting party and the confronted party. In a series of dialogues the passion and pain felt by the confronting party is obvious even within the somewhat monotone voice of the abstract. A member of the confronting party explains, "[I] felt disconnected from Haverford when [I] saw [I] could be dehumanized like this...[I] now feel vulnerable and unprotected on campus." (The Muppets abstract, pg. 3) In an even more impassioned description of the effect the two Haverford male's actions had on some members of the community, another member of the confronting party says, "[I] didn't have to see the costumes to [my]self to feel this hurt. [I] pose the hypothetical question that if someone is murdered, [I] could feel the pain without being there. [I am] slaughtered very day. [I] must always be on guard against disrespect." (The Muppets abstract, pg. 10)
At times, the council requested breaks in order to calm both parties after certain strong words. Repeatedly, the abstract mentions how the anguish and emotion of the confronting party was a surprise to the Haverford males: "Bert said that he saw Zoe angry and shaking. He explained that he hadn't seen this level of emotion or hurt before." and "...he [Bert] had not thought of or heard the concern that his costume might remind women of rape, possibly even a rape perpetrated on them. The intensity of emotion was also new."
The two Haverford males had not dealt with such an intense new perspective on their actions, and at times, it seems that new perspective was their own. One can not deny the inherent relationship between the incident described in the Muppets abstract and the initial reaction viewers (including myself) had to the documentary Paris is Burning. In both cases there existed insensitivity within the portrayal of, in one case, the white upper class, and in another, two black female performers. Paris is Burning situates the audience in a singular position of spectatorship and removal. Hooks describes this state in her article.
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 bothers, 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, Is Paris Burning?, pg. 149)

Hooks is clear in her biting criticism of the film claiming it misleads the audience to think that the film celebrates the gay, male, Ball culture, when in fact it is subtly reaffirming and even strengthening the racial, social, and economic hierarchy which oppresses the exact people she features in her film. A similar pattern of deception and an unknowing 'outside' existence exists within the Muppet abstract. The two Haverford males did not view themselves as ridiculing or creating caricatures of African American women. They were unaware of their own outside existence to the African American experience and seemingly unaware of such an existence at all. Additionally, their decision to wear breasts and butts reinforces their outside existence to females as they lacked understanding that this display of the body was offensive and degrading. Their male-centric and racially insensitive attitudes are apparent in their unapologetic tone and use of various discriminating terms. They repeatedly refer to "colored friends" and in their responses to the concerns and hurt put forth by the confronting party. Ernie speaks clearly on his opinion of his actions. He says, "[I] know many people who have no problem with [my] actions and who think this is ridiculous." Ernie goes on to say, "[I] recognize the hurt, but not necessarily the wrongness of [my] actions." (The Muppets abstract, pg. 5)
Bert and Ernie's story is another example of how condescension, racism, sexism, and oppression can be highlighted within seemingly innocent actions when one party represents another unknowingly from the 'outside.' Bert and Ernie lacked perspective of what their choice of costumes would signify to others because of their male-centric and superior attitudes. They were not only unaware how their decisions to paint their faces brown and wear prosthetic breasts and butts would reference historical oppression, but that this historical oppression still effected people of today and was not simply a story of past times, but a continuing struggle.
Like the deeply rooted racism and classism of Paris is Burning, a film seemingly celebrating the culture and people it serves to eventually dehumanize, the actions of Bert and Ernie stood for much more than two Haverford students lacking perspective and foresight. Bert and Ernie's actions stand for a more deeply rooted problem of young people today forgetting that we are still struggling for equality and respect within our society and that no one is immune from this necessity for empathy and understanding.

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Hook, Bell (1992). Is Paris Burning? , Black Looks. (pp. 145-156).
The Muppets Abstract. Oct. 5th, 2004.


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