Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning still remains as one of my favorite documentaries. As my interest in subcultures and documentaries grew simultaneously and exponentially over the past few years, I frequently had to consider and analyze the ethics of representing others. However, before my research on the perception of Livingston's documentary, which shines a light on one of the most influential subcultures, I had never felt guilty for being a fan. It was after reading feminist activist Bell Hooks' critique of Paris is Burning that I realized the issue of representing the Other, starts with the act of 'Othering'. It is not uncommon for a documentary filmmaker to assume the role of someone penetrating a community; looking from the outside in. But is there no possibility of a non-voyeuristic approach when representing others? How can the filmmaker prevent cultural appropriation?
Bell Hooks argues that, "Within the world of the black gay drag ball culture she [Livingston] depicts, the idea of womanness and femininity is totally personified with whiteness. What viewers witness is not black men longing to impersonate or even to become like "real" black woman but their obsession with an idealized fetishized vision of femininity that is white." Livingston is able to offer this portrayal through a number of different means. The most effective, of course, is by utilizing the subjects of her film to voice such opinions. For instance, One of the featured characters in the documentary, Venus Xtravaganza, unequivocally asserts, "I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want whenever they want it, and they don't have to really struggle with finances." As compelling as such a quotation is, the viewer has to remember that context and connotation frame everyone's speech. Moreover, a documentarian cannot include everything he or she films, and only includes that which he or she wants to in order to best convey the documentarian's viewpoint. It is these two facts which are largely responsible for the situation hooks mentions in which Livingston is accused of approaching her subject matter as an outsider looking in. In her critique, Hooks underlines the importance of the audience perceiving the documentary as raw truth rather than Livingston's version of the truth: "Since her presence as white woman/lesbian filmmaker is "absent" from Paris is Burning it is easy for viewers to imagine that they are watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay "natives" and not recognize that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a perspective and standpoint specific to Livingston."
That being considered, the audience is just as responsible as the filmmaker to keep in mind the presence of the filmmaker. That presence is not only illustrated by the audio Livingston chooses to insert within her film, but also with the imagery that she utilizes as well. The viewer needs to recognize that the "Livingston's directorial presence is evident, for example, in the insertion of images from magazines and footage of white businessmen to illustrate the fantasies of drag queens" (Cvetkovich). As such, it is just as important that audiences are educated about what they're exposing themselves to. It is not reasonable to take any form of art as the perfect mirroring of truth, or expect it to be so, which is why as the audience we should feel responsible to investigate further.
Moreover, there is a lengthy lineage of culture appropriation involving historic minority groups, which is akin to a form of neo-colonization. This truth certainly resonates with the subculture that Livingston chooses to portray in her work. One can posit the notion that Madonna famously exploited the culture of voguing (such as the cross gender dressing balls on the part of predominantly African-American and other minority groups is termed) in the early 1990's -- around the same time this documentary was released. In addition to titling a single and video off of an album Vogue, the pop superstar was also able to effect certain visual and nonmaterial aspects of this culture for the purpose of selling albums. The subsequent quotation greatly implies this fact. "It can be argued that Madonna turns to such subcultures only to appropriate them, thus perpetuating the long history of white mainstream culture's colonization and domestication of African-American culture" (Cvetkovich). Livingston herself acknowledged this fact when she mentioned that, "The fear that I might have been making an exploitative film is legitimate."
Hooks is not too quick to dismiss Livingston's work. One aspect the social activist is content with is Dorian Carey's. Carey, born Frederick Legg, was an American drag queen and performer, one of the subjects with the most screen time. According to Hooks: "Dorian Carey urges all of us to break through denial, through the longing for an illusory star identity, so that we can confront and accept ourselves as we really are- only then can fantasy, ritual, be a site of seduction, passion and play where the self is truly recognized, loved and never abandoned or betrayed." Dorian Carey is not a man of color. Thus, he stands as proof that the desire for love, for fame, for family cannot be contained within the limits of race, gender, or sexual orientation. He stands up against the "Othering" by…
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