U.S. Gender Roles Are Burning

The drag queen balls in the documentary, “Paris is Burning,” often have participatory events and competitions that allow transgenders, transsexuals, and gay people to feel their own form of “small fame” within Harlem’s black gay community. One of the queens described it as a type of high, and that the world would probably would be a better place if people replaced drugs with going to more balls. Although the documentary was released in 1990 and covers culture in the 80′s, still I can find comparisons in culture in New York today. The underground music scene in Brooklyn is small, elite, and very socially-charged. There are socialites, press in the media, shmoozers, bloggers, and of course, the musicians. I related the way that the drag queen described the small-time fame of drag ball culture to the often ego fueled music scene.

The organization and popular online blog, Pitchfork, is widely considered to be a cultural hegemon. The blog Brooklyn Vegan is notorious for its readers’ cut throat anonymous comments, tearing apart performers. When people can have recognition from these outlets, it fuels their egos. There are many music venues that adopt a do-it-yourself attitude that are integral to this process as well. Brooklyn venues such as Death by Audio, 285 Kent, Shea Stadium, Big Snow Buffalo Lodge, Market Hotel, and Glasslands are popular venues that are the foundation of the underground music scene. When performers sell out shows, whether the cover charge is five dollars or fifteen dollars, their egos tend to be boosted also.  The comparison to drag queen culture is that they are both centralized and specific cultures. I imagine that no one outside of that direct circle has any inkling of who these people are. Yet when all eyes are on them, idolatry exists, and others are enabling their egos to inflate, it is difficult not to experience a high. Perhaps because the cultures are so small and specific, there is a certain insecurity of their true influence on the world, and the ego is more prone to inflation because of that insecurity. I can imagine that the drag queens in Paris is Burning are more influential than the now-stars of the Brooklyn music scene, as I don’t imagine anyone making a well-known documentary about their lives in the future.

A ball competition that I found particularly striking was the competition to appear completely straight, weather it be male or female. This competition reminded me of Marlon Riggs’s “Tongues Untied” video because it brings to the light the issue of how gays feel they must choose a gender identity, and fit it well. It also saddens me to be reminded of gays that I know who feel they must straight-act, because they are afraid of judgment. I also know gay people that naturally appear straight, but I find that subversive rather than sad, because he or she can be mistaken as straight, but does not deny his or her identity as gay.

United States culture is riddled with heteronormative standards, and there are many who do not identify with the image of the American Dream. With the country’s strong Protestant background, the principles of a typical U.S. citizen will ultimately always exclude a great proportion of the populace. U.S. culture is based on the ideal of masculinity and the nuclear family. A father and a mother who are still married, and two children, ideally one boy and one girl. The family shares a home with a white picket fence. The mother may have her own career, but the father will be the primary breadwinner.  Protestant ethics dictate that if you work hard all your life, then you will have lived honorably.  It is the paradigm in which capitalism is based upon. Christianity in general will never be accepting of the lifestyles of the subjects of “Paris is Burning.” For them, the American Dream will never be a possibility. They are simply too alternative, unique, and forward thinking in terms of radical self expression.

In the reading, “Is Paris Burning,” the author comments on the audience of the documentary upon first viewing. The seemingly privileged audience was exchanging comments such as, “Didn’t you just love it?” to which the author inwardly responds, “No, I didn’t just love it” (149). The movie, indeed, places colonized whiteness upon a pedestal. I immediately thought back to a sociology article I once read that described how in the U.S., the image of an attractive black female appears very “white,” or possesses white features. The typical African look–very dark skin, large lips and nose, are not glorified in the media as beautiful. Society may point at people like Tyra Banks and claim, “Look, America has accepted a BLACK supermodel!” Yet Tyra is light skinned, and her facial features are characterized as “white.” I immediately made this connection during that particular excerpt of the reading.