What has not been written about the 1991 documentary, Paris is Burning? From it being referenced, recited, reinterpreted to inspiring political oppositions to Livingston herself, as she was one of the very few people that was benefited from the documentary’s success. Undoubtedly, Paris is Burning has become a cinema and queer culture staple, even for people who are not adhering to the specific culture itself.
However important, if challenged alongside the notion of androgyny, both constitute within them to different extends, a hidden re-establishment of gender. Livingston attempts to celebrate and document the underground culture of the ballroom scene and aims to pinpoint similar notions as Judith Butler in terms of gender being performative. In the film, style and appearance are the primary weapons in which the participants of balls would guarantee their success. The people within the subculture use the stereotypes of “real women” and “real men” in order to alter the perception of society about their eligibility as respectable citizens. “Butch queen” and “Realness” are categories where contestants use their appearance to be “passable” as either straight men or biological women within the limits of the film, and the then ballroom. As Butler argued, gender is a corporeal style since being female has no meaning but to be a woman is to have become a woman (123). Modeled after the normalized stereotypes of gender in society, the balls pictured function as a space for the participants to feel included and live their own fantasy. They are superstars within the underground, yet when they leave the ball, their tragic reality of marginalization is again re-established. Categories such as Executive Realness, showcase that the aim of the participants was not to overthrow the dominant culture, but rather to change its requirements of inclusion. Their gender representations cannot offer them opportunities within the societal contest of norms, since the “appropriate” representations remain the winning ones. Moreover, the interviews reveal a way of living that exists within the margin, as it is highly self-protective and structured.
With a critical eye, Paris is Burning unveils the performativity of gender and elucidates both the act and the potential strategy of disavowal which constitutes and conceals it. Through the documentation of the ball circuit, Livingston shows exactly how the perpetuating of specific gendered stereotypes can lead to people’s lives being suffocated within the margins of society. By the exaggeration and ironic treatment of specific characteristics as essentially masculine or feminine, the participants of the ball shown by Livingston, indicate that gender can indeed be performed within such context, thus arguably everywhere else too. Taking that assumption into consideration, androgyny would share the same performativity. What’s more Livingston shows that the failure of a successful adoption of such characteristics leads to a detrimental reality. In this way what’s indicated is that the bearers of gender, and similarly androgyny, mean nothing ontologically. Contrastingly they bring to the surface the dramatic cultural interplay of gender in a way that doesn’t distort the stereotypes but rather solidifies the preconceived homogeneity each gender is supposed to embody (Butler 131). If indeed androgyny, even in a radical feminist reading, implies the adoption of both masculine and feminine traits, then what is insinuated is that there are inherent characteristics in either gender. Paleolithic conceptions of “sitting with my legs open”, “square jaws”, “I feel like wearing makeup” and so on. Evidently, within a socio-historical discourse such performative elements have gained specific gendered meaning. However, by the acceptance and the “merging” of them, they are not redefined. They are simply re-iterated and re-established for those that “can” perform them, or have to privilege to be celebrated for their successful performance. Illustrated through the documentary, the ball creates a space of an alternative manifestation of gender. As participants take on exaggerated roles of “normal” people, their heavily embellished outfits, highly stylized hair and intricate glittery performances create another type of gender expression which celebrates its own performativity. As nothing is inherent and essential to performance, gender is treated in the same way. There are no essential male or female characteristics, as all that matters lies on the surface. If it is through the repetition of acts that gender is consolidated, then it is the restructuring of such repetitions, that triggers the replacement of gender, with genderqueer. Some people have a gender which is neither male or female. They may identify as both male and female at one time, as different genders at different times, as no gender at all or dispute the idea of a gender binary (Richards). This transformation of social relations then becomes a matter of transforming not just gender acts but the hegemonic social relations established by and within the acts themselves. In this way, what is shown is that any gendered ideal is simply socially created, performed and most importantly, fictional.
It’s one thing to say that gender is performed and another thing to say that gender is performative. Performance usually implies that one has taken on a representation which is crucial to the gender they are and which they are presenting to the world. Moreover, each representation is established through an amalgamation of characteristics comprising their believability. However, performativity presupposes a series of consequences with each performance. In this way, the treatment of either male or female gender identities as concrete, is simply due to the consolidation of these representations by the believability of their performed characteristics. Thus if the distinction between the two is expanded, then the acts themselves are also expanding. Some acts are for women and others are expansive in terms of what is a woman. Hence, the proclaimed unity of preconceived characteristics placing androgyny as the ideal is a false ontological utopia on the part of radical libertarian feminists, or any pink-washed unaware by-passers. By treating what are merely cultural differences and artefacts as absolute essences reinforces the binary itself. By putting forth a female specificity as the ideal, what is perpetuated is the inherent stereotype itself, while also a generalization which may or may not correlate to the concrete lives of women. Gender expression is not one’s alone. It is expressed as well as expressive and thus delimits one in a shared cultural situation which in turn may or may not enable and empower them, as seen in the example of the film. Taking it even further, Paris is Burning is an old viewpoint on ballroom. The culture itself, has expanded in modern-day times to a lot more intricate, freeing, non-binary categories. However, the documentary being within the mainstream of queer cinema, still functions as a point of reference. It shows that as Levy said” Style and appearance is pervasive in speech, vocabulary and manner but more importantly attitude”. If in the same way, gender expression itself is pervasive, then androgyny simply sets up another unrealistic stereotype for people to follow. When talking about androgyny, it should be perceived as a cautionary tale of stereotypes. If we speak of androgyny it should be only to call attention to the lie that specific characteristics are, in truth, more natural or more desirable in one gender as opposed to the other. (Warren 181) What should be established is a genderqueer space of acceptance for people to express their gender in society with no preconceived notions. During WWII, Hitler asked “Paris brennt?”, wondering whether the city had fallen. The documentary, and I, are urged to answer this question. It’s not only because Paris DuPree’s ball and runway are “hot”. More so, by walking down that runway, what will burn is not only the accepted gender spaces that the participants were allowed to occupy but the consolidation of those spaces at large. In other words, it is not only Paris that is going down in flames, but gender itself.
Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning (1990; film).
Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” in The Twentieth Century Performance Reader, ed. Michael Huxley and Noel Witts (London: Routledge, 1996): 120-134.
Levy, Emanuel. “Paris is Burning.” Emanuel Levy. http://www.emanuellevy.com/review/paris-is-burning-1/. 7 April 2006. Accessed on 20 May 2018
Richards, Christina. “Abstract.” Non-binary or genderqueer gender.” Taylor & Francis Online. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09540261.2015.1106446. 29 Jun 2015. Accessed on 20 May 2018.
Warren, Mary – Anne. “Is Androgyny the Answer to Sexual Stereotyping?” The faculty of Social and Cultural Sciences of the European University Viadrina. http://www.kuwi.europa-uni.de/de/lehrstuhl/lw/depolitbez/Lehrveranstaltungen/seminarmaterial_2010/WARREN.pdf. Accessed on 20 May 2018