Of this week’s readings, what struck me most was Hooks’ critique of both Paris is Burning and the general depiction of drag and alternative dressing in media, especially in conjunction with race. Hooks begins by discussing the performativity of gender and how the fetishization of femininity and the performance of it are often based off of white women. I never really thought of what types of women inspired drag. But it does make sense that the ones who often do are those that are more highly in represented in media. Whether it be television or the design of Disney princesses. Most characters have similar idealized features. All of which are white. In fact, even the supposedly ethnically different Disney princesses are made with white features. Hooks asserts that not only is there a fixation to be like specifically white females, but with that comes an implicit connection to the white male patriarchy. In this way, they as well as the greater society reinforce the dominance of white men. Hook goes on to declare that “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” (149). As a person of color, I find it really interesting that Hooks addresses racial diversity as something viewed in terms of whiteness. I think I increasingly find this as a defining factor of my own racial identity, especially in light of the current political climate. That is, what my race, as a Mexican, is in comparison to people who are white. I don’t think this is particularly the right way to go about race, but it is something that is definitely perpetuated by media and a view that I find people often expressing by extension.
This is particularly intriguing, when looking at the fact that Paris is Burning is a film directed by a white woman. Which is exactly what Hooks asserts many people in the drag community aspire to be. As the director, her experience and perspective is inherently ingrained in the film, so we quite literally see people of color through the eyes of a white person. As Hooks puts it, she is “an outsider looking in” (151), providing commentary and asking questions but never present on the same level as the people she documents. In doing so, “Livingston does not oppose the way hegemonic whiteness ‘represents’ blackness, but rather assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counter-hegemonic” (151). Hooks goes on to further criticize Livingston and her possibly white ignorance while commending Carey for his honest portrayal of the community. So even though the film is a documentary, full of real life content, it is seen, captured, and edited through the eyes of the other, not the people within it. It is inherently biased and created through a position of white privilege. Although it is true that the director may never be able to fully capture such a community and people without being apart of it herself, I think this does not discount the prolificness of Paris is Burning. It is rather, something that we, the viewers, should take into account when viewing it. Because of this, maybe we can evade some of the pitfalls that come with observing such content. So that we do not necessarily support “living exhibits” (155), but rather use it to gain further understanding of the portrayal of gender performance and its intersectionality.
Hooks, Bell. “Chapter 9: Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992: p. 145 – p. 156.