Questioning the subversive power of Paris is Burning

Although Harper, Hilderbrand, and hooks question the subversive power of Paris is Burning from different angels and in varying degrees, they seem to agree that one reason for the films failure to offer its subjects actual real-life agency are the subversive limitations of drag itself. Through exaggeration, drag exposes the norms by which heteronormativity can operate, but does not undermine them entirely. It can deconstruct the system, but not necessarily reconstruct it. After all, the marginalized in society (in this case black gay men) are usually left to use whatever form of expression is available within the system, precisely because they do not have enough power to fight it. A mode that troubles and disrupts the norms of the system (like the hyperbolic statements of drag), still does not necessarily subvert, and more importantly, reconstruct those norms. The drag performer’s imitation of rich white women fails as an affirmative form of self-representation or identity creation, because it is rooted in the power structure that organizes a dominantly-white heterosexual society. As bell hook’s argues, “the tragedy and sadness of this film is evoked by the willingness of black gay men to knock themselves out imitating a ruling class culture and power elite that is one of the primary agents of their oppression and exploitation” (150). That’s not to say that the drag performers can’t, and don’t, take pleasure in exaggerating and satirizing the images of the white rich elite. In deed, their drag imitations are a form of criticism, rather than just pure fascination. Still, whether drag in this form is de facto liberating for any given participant is arguable.

I think that when it comes to undermining any gender, sexuality or race oppressive system, rejection and reversal of set roles is a first step. However, it’s vital to recognize that that is not enough, because the reversal still operates within a system of binaries. We should work to dissolve the categories and distinctions that confine and disempower certain groups of individuals. 

hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-56. Print.

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