Never having seen Paris is Burning, Bell Hooks’ piece “Is Paris Burning?” presented image of the film that exploited young men for their struggles, both in race and queerness. When she began to talk about her theater experience of audiences laughing during tender moments, I could not imagine what was possibly on screen. After seeing the film in our class setting, I was still asking the same question: “What could they possibly be laughing at?”
Yes, there were some moments that elicited unanimous laughter because of their sheer extravagance and light-heartedness, but during the interviews, which were presumably the most intimate and tender moments, the class was silent, absorbed in trying to understand the wisdom these individuals were trying to impart. They acted as wizened elders for a (mostly) queer audience. They were anxious, happy, complex humans. We knew who they were because we are them.
To a “straight” audience, however, it’s clear that some of the “advice” from Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey would seem ridiculous or dramatic, not real or advice at all. This is primarily attributed to that fact that they probably have no frame of reference to what it feels like to be a part of the minority. In Bell Hooks’ piece, however, she attributes much of the misinterpretation of the film on the framing from white, female director Jennie Livingston. It could be considered a pure case of voyeurism, intruding on this private world and exploiting the safe space for entertainment’s sake. Hooks says that by capitalizing on her own “innocence” and unfamiliarity of the world, Livingston “assumes an imperial overseeing position that is in no way progressive or counter-hegemonic” (151). From the title cards of the words that are about to be defined, to her own lack of presence in the film, she removes herself to use the ball setting and those who make it up as educational objects for the world to learn from.
As a queer observer, I found these words like read and shade secondary to the ideologies about queer life. What Livingston chose to highlight as obvious education was created for the heterosexual audience, and the camera assumes the position of the outsider. Her attempted dissociation from the camera gives the viewer the most agency. What should be noted, however, is the fact that even though the comedic phrases are what’s emphasized, the very tender philosophies about being alive are still included in the final cut. It would be too easy to say that Livingston destroys this world by intruding it with her camera, but instead this act immortalizes it. For both the out-group and the in-group, Paris Is Burning has outlined a queer culture that will never change. One that is spectacle to one audience, but very much home to another.