Exploring the meaning of liberation in
Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning
2018 Queer Appreciation series continues with a piece I wrote in 2002 when studying film and theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. This paper focuses on the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning which, as Caitlin Breedlove recently noted, "[gave] the world its first peek into the exclusive 'ball' culture and [gave] drag queens, trans men and women, femmes, and gay individuals a spotlight unlike any they’d had before."
Paris Is Burning has been in the (entertainment) news recently with the release of writer and director Ryan Murphy's FX drag ball series Pose. According to Noel Murray of The Verge, the premiere of Pose is "the perfect time to revisit the landmark documentary that captured the scene that started it all." As you'll see, my piece on Paris Is Burning takes a more critical look at the scene it documents.
My interest in writing about Jennie Livingston's documentary film, Paris is Burning, revolves upon five interrelated questions:
• How do the majority of ball participants understand "liberation"?
• How and why is this understanding problematic?
• Does the film lift up a dissenting voice?
• What is a feminist/queer theological understanding of liberation?
• How could such an understanding translate within the ball scene?
For many of those interviewed by Livingston, the drag ball circuit, or scene, offers a sense of belonging and community. Because of their "otherness" in terms of race, gender-identification, and/or sexual orientation, these individuals are marginalized by society. Yet at the balls they feel free to express themselves. As black men, such expression can potentially be of challenge to the status quo: "For black males to take appearing in drag seriously, be they gay or straight, is to oppose a heterosexist representation of black manhood," notes author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks in "Is Paris Burning?", one of the essays in her 1992 book, Black Looks: Race and Representation. "Gender bending and blending on the part of black males has always been a critique of phallocentric masculinity in traditional black experience," says hooks.
Right: Octavia St. Laurent in Paris is Burning (1990).
Evidence of this alteration and its implications abound in Paris Is Burning. "To be real is to look like your straight counterpart, cynically notes Dorian Corey, one of the black participants in the ball scene. Another notes that it is every minority's dream to "live and look and work as the white person." Still another states that if one has "captured the great white way of living and looking" than one is "a marvel." This "great white way" is epitomized for the ball circuit participants by '80s television shows like Dynasty and by white "supermodels." Accordingly, bell is adamant that what viewers are witnessing in Paris Is Burning is "not black men longing to impersonate or even to become like 'real' black women but their obsession with an idealized fetishized vision of femininity that is white."
Above: Pepper LaBeija in Paris Is Burning (1990).
Thus for many of those who participate in the balls, liberation from marginalization and disempowerment is achieved by becoming just like a wealthy white female. Theologically, such an outlook implies liberation is about looking beyond one's own intrinsic, God-given worth and seeking to imitate another who by their external appearance and circumstances represents that which is "worthy and good." Furthermore, it implies that God gives this worthiness and goodness to some while denying it to others, and that the hallmarks of such worthiness and goodness are outward signs of wealth and power. Finally, it reduces our struggle for liberation to a personal, individual striving for economic betterment.
The achieving to be just like a wealthy white female is also problematic for hooks as she observes that "the longing to be in the position of the ruling-class woman . . . means there is also the desire to act in partnership with the ruling-class white male." Thus the oppressive power structure – the "brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness" – which ensures that those who populate the ball circuit are disempowered and marginalized, remains unchallenged.
Above: Willi Ninja in Paris Is Burning (1990).
Indeed, the power structure is viewed as something to aspire to, as the exclusive club that one must strive to join. There is no (or little) sense of awareness of the systematic injustice and oppression at work, no desire to band collectively in order to expose, undermine, and transform this system into one that ensures that no one suffers marginalization and disempowerment. For hooks, the glow from Paris Is Burning does not come from the flames of a transforming fire but rather from a sacrificial altar to a false god. The film, she notes, portrays "the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit."
left) tells viewers that "the desire for stardom is an expression of the longing to realize the dream of autonomous stellar individualism." Corey laments that the ball scene is no longer about what you can create but about what you can acquire. He understands the way that consumer capitalism has undermined the subversive power of the drag balls, in much the same way, I would argue, that capitalism has undermined the subversive power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) movement in general. The end result is that conformity masquerades as liberation.
What, then, might a queer theological understanding of authentic liberation look like? I use the word queer as defined by feminist theologian Mary Hunt, as meaning "all whose sexual identities and practices fall beyond the parameters of 'hetero-patriarchy'." Hunt insists that queer theology with feminist input "signals a new way to bring together people from a broad spectrum of 'sexual outlaw' positions and invite their theological reflections."
Theologically, liberation, says Joyce Ann Mercer, is "the struggle for freedom from oppression as subjugated people become conscious of their situation and work to transform the conditions of their existence." It is important to note that such transformation includes personal and social change. within the Christian sphere, theologians of liberation emphasize "the biblical theme of God's action on behalf of enslaved, poor, and outcast persons as a central paradigm for faith." A key tenet of liberation theology, Mercer reminds us, is God's "preferential option for the poor," which is understood as "a call to solidarity with suffering persons, including those oppressed by unjust power relations structured around gender."
One of the reasons I am drawn to Paris Is Burning and, in particular, to bell hook's critique of it and, by extension, the wider realities of capitalism and patriarchy, is that I see hook's analysis similar to my own of the wider LGBTI community/movement. It was hook's viewing of Paris Is Burning that was instrumental in the articulation of her broader critique. For me, it was a "fashion spread" in OUT Magazine's April 2000 edition entitled "Burmese Dreams." What made this particular marketing ploy especially repugnant was that OUT Magazine editors not only approved the putting of brown face paint on a Caucasian model but also showed this model holding various tools and implements used in Burma's slave labor camps. These camps, established by Burma's brutal military dictatorship and populated by an estimated six million men, women, and children, serve the interests not only of the corrupt military regime but also of Western corporations which profit from the military's trampling of human, labor, and environmental rights.
In an article I wrote for Lavender Magazine, I lamented that "the selling out to corporate rule is a betrayal of all that makes our journey as LGBTI people and as authentic human beings unique – heightened conscious insight, increased creativity and inclusivity, and greater compassion."
I also responded to this "sell-out" by establishing a network of LGBTI activists called Queers United for Radical Action (QURA). One of QURA's primary aims is to inform its members and the wider LGBTI community on the threats to democracy, human life, and the environment posed by corporate-led globalization, militarism, and environmental degradation. One way that we seek to do this is by establishing working connections with other justice, peace, labor, and environmental organizations within the Twin Cities. This "bridge-building" is itself a "radical action," as it helps facilitate an awareness of the root or source of the problems facing not just sexual minorities, but all who are oppressed by "brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness," in the words of bell hooks. Although QURA is not a "religious" group, within my own life and work I understand the activity of bridge-building as part of God's liberative action in and through people.
How would God's liberating action look in the community depicted in Paris Is Burning? First, the competitive aspect of the balls would be absent. People would come together not to compete but to share, compare, learn, and celebrate. These qualities would be valued for what they are; they would not have to be legitimized by and through competitiveness. Everyone would be considered special and a winner by virtue of their unique gifts of self.
Free of competitiveness, there would be a return to creativity – a lifting up of the beauty and giftedness within as opposed to the outward seeking and acquisition of the perceived beauty and gifts of others. Such lifting up would be challenging as it would reach out to and empower others to free similarly themselves from imitating standards and norms set by entities bent on domination, control, and exploitation. Connections would be made with others who have suffered at the hands of this system, stories would be shared, and suffering and hardship utilized as vehicles to self-understanding, social solidarity, and radical action.
Imbued and motivated by liberation grounded in the sacred dimension of creation, the drag queen ball circuit would serve not primarily as a refuge but as an empowering force for positive transformation – for both individuals and the wider society. Indeed, in time the wider society would become the drag queen ball circuit, just as it would become the home for other groups which had once felt compelled to construct ghetto-like subcultures. Fantasy, within this re-envisioned society would be employed for purposes of exploration, not as means of escape. Furthermore, the ever-expanding self that such fantasy would encourage to emerge would be cherished, respected, and honored; its journeying path would be celebrated and made way for by all.
– Michael Bayly
Above: Performers featured in Jennie Livingston's
1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
(Photo: The Kobal Collection)
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Making the Connections . . . Then and Now
• Reclaiming and Re-Queering Pride
• A Lose/Lose Situation
• Michelangelo Signorile on the Rebellious Purpose of Queer Pride
Related Off-site Links:
The Ballroom Revolution: Behind the Glitter and Glamour Is a Sad and Tortured History – Arkee Escalera (Esquire, May 31, 2018).
The Music and Meaning of Paris Is Burning – Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (NPR News, April 30, 2012).