Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Is Paris Burning?", bell hooks

In her book, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, bell hooks dedicates a chapter about the controversy of dressing in drag or cross-dressing. This chapter is titled, “Is Paris Burning?” Hooks starts off talking about the stigmatism of cross-dressing, appearing in drag, transvestism, and transsexualism. Oftentimes when one cross-dresses, one is questioned and seen as breaking gender norms. For example, if a man chooses to cross dress, others who have been strongly been influenced by society may feel that this man’s choice of outfit is inappropriate and does not fit his gender.

Hooks questions whether there is a difference of acceptance when a black man dresses in drag compared to when a white man dresses in drag. She provokes the idea that the stereotype of black men (e.g., highly sexual, manly, etc.) allows black males to cross gender more easily than white men. It is okay to accept that he may cross dress, because black men are perceived as ‘rapists’ and being overly sexual with women. However, in order to have black men taken seriously about cross-dressing or dressing in drag, he must oppose the stereotype of being heterosexual.

Another main topic hooks brings up in this chapter is about the film, Paris Is Burning. She comments on how the drag queens in the film have fantasies to act and feel like an upper-class white person. Although the video is about the struggles of how black men in Harlem who participate in drag queen balls, hooks argues that the film celebrates white privilege by glamorizing the white ruling-class. When critiques comment on the film as being “amazing,” “marvelous,” and “incredibly funny”, it shows that they did not see how the black people/people of color self-sacrificing themselves to fulfill their fantasies of being upper-class white people. The director of the film, Jennie Livingston indirectly does not recognize her white privilege in producing this film and hooks goes into explaining how.


  1. Bell hooks believe that drag is an event that acts to degrade minorities. Hooks believes that in its entirety it serves as a further advocate for homophobia. Those that are psychologically involved in drag do not recognize queer events such as drag as being only pleasure, desire and love. Through the event, she believes that the lives of white America is being upheld and glorified though the ridicule of women and oppression of black gay men. The film proposes that black men can conquer the heterosexual norm by acting in queer events such as drag. Hooks believe that oppression cannot be undone through queer events such a as drag. In participating in drag, Hooks believes the desire to fit the heterosexual norm is being implemented further into the minds of queers.

    While drag may be seen as a way to undermine women, normal heterosexual views of society play an even bigger role. The way we believe heterosexual to be normal acts in an oppressive way towards those not included in the norm. One of the main ideas behind this is the recognition of white and straight as the only norm. Through the film, Hooks believes that ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness is reinforced. As evidence of her believing so, Hooks quotes on page 149 that “The whiteness celebrated in Paris is Burning is not just any old brand of whiteness but rather than brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself--its way of life--as the only meaningful life there is.” If this is to be said about America, it leaves no place for the queer. It represents the fact that the drag will never fit into the norm. The drag will never be able to exemplify true acceptance within normal society. With participating in drag, the participants are upholding the belief that they only way to be admired sexually is to fit the heterosexual norm.

    Using minorities as the main drag participants, Hooks believes that this speaks further to the oppression caused by the normal heterosexual population. Along with the participants being mainly minorities, Hooks is concerned with other social factors that often cause intersectional oppression. Being a white gay man is more acceptable than being a black gay male. The film clearly ignores many of the social factors involved in the lives of drags. Black men are often thought of in a sexualized stereotypical way. In the film, there is no sense of pride lost as black drags try to imitate this sexual normative. Society has over sexualized black men in a way that is associated to power. Therefore they can participate in drag without losing pride. This factor contributes to an even more oppressive status of black gay men. Once again, black gay men are faced with the impossible task of becoming members of the heterosexual normal society. Many fail to realize that this on surface advantage works in an even more oppressive way to further there oppression.

  2. The above comment was my initial interpretation of the piece written by Bell Hooks. I found that through her analysis of drag, she is not convinced that the event is one that the queer community should take pride in. It seems that Hooks believes the event does not empower the participants, but in fact cause more psychological harm. I also found that Hooks believes further oppression is caused in making the film. Hooks does not feel that their true lives are represented. The film in Hooks opinion seems to oppress them even more by denying the drag’s the opportunity to speak about their outside lives. This once again forces the drag participants into a world that is not included in the norm; the drag ball. Viewers of this film may forget that these drag participants are faced with surviving in a world outside of the drag ball. Their true struggles are once again untold and unrecognized.

  3. @lyric I think you missed hooks' critique of drag. I don't believe she's saying minorities shouldn't participate but that the participation isn't inherently good or bad. Some pieces are disruptive of gender norms while other pieces reinforce class and race hierarchies. Your second response seems to get closer to that.

    @natylime thank you for your summary. I also think hooks was making a distinction between the drag performed at a ball versus the drag that is performed by black male comedians at the expense of black women. What did you think about the film in relation to what hooks was saying about it?

  4. hooks definately brought up a good point. The director failed to capture the real lives and the hardship these drag queens went through when the ball wasn't around.