Monday, March 14, 2011

bell hooks- Is Paris Burning?

This text is a critique of the documentary film "Paris is Burning", directed by Jennie Livingston. The film is about Drag Balls in New York City which focuses mainly on black cross-dressers and transgendered individuals. In the text, we receive here and there ideas about identity theory (queer theory?), such as the idea that "identity is always perceived as capable of construction, invention, change"(145). I don't know much about queer theory, but I think this notion is extremely important for feminist theory. I relate it to sex vs. gender- sex being the biological components and gender as the construction of identity. Gender, as being part of our identity, is a full on construction- it is not natural, it is something that has been shaped by our conscious (or subconscious?) decisions and also by the society around us.

Another important line in the text is "The mastery of the feminine is not feminine. It is masculine..." (148). The cross-dressers try to look as realistically feminine as possible but by achieving this they are actually acting in a 'traditional' male way since they are dominating what is female. What's confusing is that they're trying to construct a 'feminine' identity, but really they end up with a 'male' one anyway? If the cross-dressers original goal is to appear feminine, doesn't his conscious construction of this identity make him so, at least partially? Who decides that this makes him masculine?

What interested me most in this text though was when hooks talks about the "neutral" gaze and the assumption amongst whites that this is possible for them to achieve. If we acknowledge that no gaze is ever really "neutral" then the whole idea of a documentary film becomes problematic. Usually, we refer to documentary films as a portrayal of reality but we're not quick to think about the fact that the documentary film, just like every other film, is manipulated by its creator. What we are shown (and what we are not shown) is deliberate. Therefore, is it really a 'realistic' portrayal of reality? The text seems to be suggesting that it is not.

Lastly, I don't completely understand how the title is related to the actual film itself because it is filmed in New York City. Maybe it was mentioned, but I forgot? Anyway, the reference to Paris just makes me think of Josephine Baker.


  1. documentary films are scripted, just like feature "fiction" films, they are also edited. Some of them may seem more "realistic", as you say, but that doesn´t mean they are less of a representation of reality than Alice in Wonderland, for example. Its just a different form, and not even that, sometimes, most of the times.
    "voguing" could be another word to describe "Paris is burning".

  2. The notion about the cross dressing is an interesting one...when women dress as men they gain a physical power (because this is what they're portraying) but that's it...when men dress as women they loose power because they're entering into the world of powerlessness. Yet, since they never have a real constructed identity, the power is not complete. I don't know if this answers any of your questions but it's another approach that the text offers.

  3. The title is called Paris is Burning becuase that's a title of one pf performances on drag balls and Paris is represented as the place of right way of thinking and dressing(as mentioned in the movie)