In a cosmically ironic twist, since its release Paris Is Burning has become a mainstream piece of queer filmmaking despite the documentary’s focus on some of the most marginalized members of our society. Each reading from this week—despite having different perspectives—attempts to interrogate the film’s now mainstream status through discussion of the viewing experience of different demographics. Harper, Hilderbrand, and hooks are all asking how the social status and identity categories of the spectator affect their interpretation of the film and its subjects.
I found bell hook’s chapter Is Paris Burning the most affecting reading from this week as it parallels so clearly my experience of the film. hooks analyzes Paris Is Burning by asking how the lived experiences of blackness and whiteness contributed to the production, spectatorship, and reception of the film. When hooks discusses watching the film in the theater and wanting to scream as she witnessed white liberal spectators laughing at moments that broke her heart, I was thrown back to my very first (academic) viewing of the film. The screening was accompanied by an air of exploitative celebration, subliminally assuming that the world the film depicts is something distinct and untravellable. But for me, and many other spectators of color, that is simply not the case. As a black person, you don’t have to be a part of ball culture to see how the anxieties and concerns the queens express—admiring fame, wealth, and celebrity—as byproducts of the oppressive state of the white heteropatriarchy and the self-hate and internalized prejudices it produces. hooks’s chapter goes in depth in the many ways that the public reception and even the attitude of the director oversimplify and disregard the very real racial implications the film in favor of touting it as a neoliberal success of non-normative gender subversion. What hooks vocalizes is the way in which the subjects of the film vocalize symptoms of oppression and actually uphold conceptions of normative gender as it relates to understandings of both gender and race specific to the black community. Paris Is Burning and the narrative stories it tells are so rooted in of color experiences that it creates a certifiable gulf of experience between spectators who are people of color and those that are not. Non-black and non-POC viewers experience the film as majority spectacle, as an educational ethnographic trip into a world and a culture you know nothing about. But for spectators of color, where the novelty of the unknown functions on a much smaller level (as the subjects on screen come from cultures, worlds, and homes probably much more like your own) a distinct form of sadness remains.
There is a moment in the Hilderbrand piece where he discusses “With whom you saw the film and to whom you talked about it afterward shaped how you saw it” (120). The disparate experiences hooks articulates and my experiences vouch for are a representation of the moment when the people with whom you saw and discussed the film are not people who look or live like you and what the very real consequences of that are.
Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Chapter 3: Love Hangover (Debates).” Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic (2013): 119-46. Print.
hooks, bell. “Is Paris Burning?” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-56. Print.