20 November 2019
hooks, bell. “is paris burning?” Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996. pp. 214–226. Print.
Phelan, Peggy. “The golden apple: Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning.” Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993. pp. 99-111. Print.
Both of these essays are critical explorations of Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary film devoted to drag balls in Harlem and the (mostly) gay black men who competed in them. The essays are not rave reviews of the film. Instead, they draw attention to the ways in which the film reinforces racial and sexual privilege for white viewers. They are notable not only for intelligent writing and discussion, but also for giving voice to concerns that lay outside the many accolades that the film received when it originally premiered. Both authors are intentionally clear in their subject matter: they are writing about the documentary itself and the filmic devices it employs. Please note: the essays are not about the drag balls themselves. They are about the film that happens to be about the drag balls and the men who participate in them.
One theme prevalent in both essays is that the identity of a director and the adjacent power dynamics of director to subject are necessarily embedded within the medium of documentary film, like it or not. There is no “neutral,” although audiences may be manipulated into believing this is so. When viewing Paris Is Burning, we are not watching an unfiltered or innocent version of the story. We are experiencing has been crafted in intentional and unintentional ways to a certain end. Livingston’s own identity as a filmmaker (white, lesbian) is part of the picture, pun intended. Furthermore, we are told that Livingston’s film becomes a “feel good” experience for many white viewers because it turns black ritual into spectacle and, in a larger sense, fails to interrogate whiteness. Racial and sexual binaries are dominant themes in both essays: white/black, man/woman, gay/straight. Phelan’s essay shines in its discussion of theoretical concerns related to performance, particularly the topic of “realness,” while hooks is more focused on race and gender. Both essays discuss how misogyny is a prevalent within male drag (men performing women).
How do these texts relate to scenography?
Both essays deal explicitly with costume design through a discussion of the racial and gender politics of cross-dressing in performance (male to female, black to white).
Also, Phelan’s essay raises important questions related to the creation of theatrical performance and its “look.” Her purview is the visual world and what that says - and doesn’t say - about various identifies, narratives and existence itself. By job description, stage designers are tasked with creating a literal “seen” environment for a performance. After reading Phelan’s essay, a designer might unearth a destablized performance environment. One in which what is unseen pulls at what is seen, and vice versa.
Additionally, Phelan give designers working within the tropes of naturalism are given a lot to think about. In her essay, she investigates “realness” and theatricality, and suggests that the two exist in tandem and play off of each other. Or, maybe she is saying that they need each to exist. Regardless, the essay leads one to question naturalism. Is it that when something is more theatrical it is more real?