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Paris Is Burning, between spectacularization

The 1990s American documentary Paris Is Burning has definitely sparked a great deal of critical debate among the LGBTQI community throughout the years. Beginning with an insight into the African-American, homosexual and trans subculture in Harlem

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The 1990s American documentary Paris Is Burning has definitely sparked a great deal of critical debate among the LGBTQI community throughout the years. Beginning with an insight into the African-American, homosexual and trans subculture in Harlem, Paris Is Burning elaborately witnesses New York City drag ball competitions, in which the so called ball-walkers used to pose and/or dance like fashion models, who were finally judged for the ‘realness’ of their ‘drag’.

Winner of fifteen festival awards for Best Documentary, among which the “Teddy”, or official queer award at Berlin International Film Festival (1991), and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (1991), Paris Is Burning leaves unanswered questions about the consequences of the dominant heteronormativity and whiteness portrayed in the movie itself, despite it successfully endorsing the right for the NYC drag-queen community to be heard.

To begin with, beyond the LGBTQI community members’ need for reintegration through spectacularization, it is striking to watch Paris Is Burning and find some of the interviewees who see themselves just as ‘performers’. For instance, the case of drag queen and fashion designer Pepper Labeija, who goes by “she/her” pronouns but still says:

“I’ve been a man, and I’ve been a man who emulated a woman, but I’ve never been a woman. I’ve never had that service once a month, I’ve never been pregnant. I can never say how a woman feels. I can only say how a man who acts like a woman or dresses like a woman feels.”

 

Paris Is Burning Pepper Labeija - UberAura

 

Hence, Labeija referred to her gender as a representation, which in American theorist Susan Stryker’s words is “a performance, a costume on the model of the drag and, therefore, not true”.

However, Labeija’s awareness is not only about gender but about a too specific and restricted depiction of gender, which derives from an heteronormative society that reduces the idea of truly being ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ according to a merely physical predisposition. That is why, when Labeija talked about the impossibility for her being a woman without having period or being pregnant, she drastically confined the potential of doing and undoing gender, which, as in Gloria Gaynor’s lyrics “I Am What I Am”, is the freedom to be your own special creation.

Another critical aspect of Paris Is Burning lies in the “whiteness” worshipped by some drag queens, like Octavia St. Laurent and Venere Xtravaganza, who admits: “I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl”, as well as Dorian Corey’s awareness that “nobody want to look like Lena Horne. At my times, they wanted to look like Marylin Monroe.”

 

Still of drag queen Venere Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning © 1990 Jennie Livingston

Still of drag queen Venere Xtravaganza Paris Is Burning © 1990 Jennie Livingston

 

In other words, keeping in mind what gender theorist Bell Hooks questioned in her book Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, is Paris Is Burning or its subversive attack on patriarchal heterosexual dominance compromised?

Considering the white audience’s appreciation of black rituals’ depiction as mere spectacle, we could put it in Bell Hooks’s forerunning perspective and recognize that director Livingston, as a white, lesbian filmmaker, failed to push her documentary to a real critique of the phallocentric masculinity and “the representation of white womanhood”. 

 


Paris is Burning poster - UberAuraDirector: Jennie Livingston

Cast: Andrè Christian, Dorian Corey, Paris Duprèe, David The Father Xtravaganza, Eileen Ford, Junior Labeija, Pepper Labeija, Sandy Ninja

Year: 1990
Trailer

Jay Manari is an Italian Film Director, Screenwriter and Editor, currently working in the film industry between Europe (Italy) and in the U.S (California - LA & New York). Jay is also a painter, and a freelance writer. manarìfilmarts.com

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