The readings this week explore the problems of perspective, authorship, and authority at play in the film Paris is Burning. In “The Subverting Edge,” Harper identifies and then deconstructs the film’s underlying, complicated issue: it is a documentary film about black drag queens produced by a white female filmmaker. Harper breaks down this relationship between the filmmaker and her subjects by focusing on subjective agency. Does the film grant the queens’ agency or does it deprive them of it in favor of the filmmaker’s own perspective? Harper argues that, due to the very nature of documentary film, the “dissemination of the critique implicit in the queens’ activities must always also be a rearticulation” which seeks “to render intelligible in the larger social sphere discursive practices that do not partake of its terms in normative mode” (Harper 98). In other words, the (never neutral) representation of the queens’ activities, this “rearticulation,” is shaped by the filmmaker; the queens themselves have no agency or control over how their practices are ultimately presented. This extends to the portrayal of the queens as people. Harper highlights that even their private or seemingly real identities (suggested through the documentary’s interviews, for instance), are fictive constructions created by the filmmaker (101). The only aspect of their personal entities that the queens have agency over, therefore, is the persona they perform in the drag ball context (102).
But to achieve widespread visibility of these personas (and hopefully their social significance by extension), the queens had to forfeit a majority of their agency. Harper notes that allowing a white filmmaker to shape their visibility seemed like the only feasible way to gain any visibility at all, given financial and social circumstances of the queens themselves (102). The hopeful aspect of Harper’s essay lies in the clear and simple solution it highlights: if the queens had a sufficient amount of funds, they could create “their own wide publicization of drag-ball practice,” a method which would, of course, allow them to maintain agency over their own stories (Harper 102). This solution is framed by Harper as almost idealistic, the result of a total overhaul of socioeconomic structures. Recent shifts in the technological and social structure of the film industry, however, are slowly breaking down the barriers– blurring the lines that dictate who can make a film and who cannot. Today, the possibility of the queens making their own documentary feels much more feasible than it did even only 25 years ago.
- Harper, Phillip Brian. “‘The Subverting Edge:’ Paris is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency.” Diacritics. Volume 24, Number 2-3 (Summer/Autumn 1994): p. 90 – p. 103.