Paris is Burning Response Essay November 28th 2013
Paris is Burning is a documentary film from 1990 by Jennie Livingston that chronicles the drag ball culture of New York City during the 1980s as well as the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. This film contains thoughtful discussion and exploration of sexuality, gender, class, and race in America. Examining drags, where femininity/masculinity are performed by opposite sexes provides new insight to issues of gender. The film centers on the drag balls where gays and transsexuals living in New York perform femininity as drag queens by giving clues about how people define and evaluate femininity and gender. Drags are also a new form of community which creates a sense of belonging for these people who are rejected and marginalized by society because they do not conform to the expectations of white heterosexist, patriarchal culture, what is called as dominant culture. In drags, they compete over different categories, such as school boy/girl, which are evaluated under the title of realness, which can be defined as appearing as a straight woman or man. This realness issue and other implications about gender give very important clues about how they understand femininity and how to define and categorize gender. Although it seems that drags are the signs of opposition to white heterosexist culture, which is revolutionary, it can be seen that gays and transsexuals in the film have a conservative attitude against gender and femininity. They actually equate femininity with being a white, rich and beautiful real woman, which is dictated by patriarchal and heterosexist society.
While viewing “Paris is Burning” the first impression one may have is that these homosexual men and transsexuals are challenging dominant “straight” culture which is heterosexist/patriarchal culture whose norms are strictly defined to exclude what is different in society. Therefore the houses choose what aspect of society they will emulate in drag. Drag performs femininity as male-bodies, which brings forward a revolutionary idea, that gender is a performance. Though they possess male bodies, but in drag they impersonate woman from how they wear to how they behave and even the aurora that surrounds them. The object is to be as convincing as possible; the more realistic you seem, and the better you are. This makes drag important in order to understand the potential in changing dominant cultural norms based on the assumption that gender is always sex. Though bodies can be male or female based on physical features, however they are raised with a strict set of rules which tells them how to behave based on their “sex”
Judith Butler defines gender as a process. “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender (Butler).”
If we take Judith Butler’s definition of gender as a learned process that one could follow throughout their lives , someone born male would feel that he needs to behave within a framework of certain rules that indicates that he must like woman and must conform to masculine ideas. Paris is Burning shows how certain individuals, even groups, challenge the idea that gender is categorized into male and female. “Voguing” is a good example that strengthens the idea of gender performativity. Willi Ninja, mother of the house of ninja, teaches voguing and dance to women and although he is male biologically, it doesn’t prevent him from teaching how to model to other women, which shows that biology is not