A tension exists in this film between the pleasure of the spectacle of the balls, of viewing on screen and off, and the thematic content of the reality of poverty and oppression. The mimesis of drag offers us a knowing pleasure, for we have the privilege of knowing that what we are seeing is the performance of ‘being a woman’: we are in on the joke, but who therefore is the joke on? The trouble with this film is it puts into focus, perhaps intentionally by Livingston, the inescapability of capitalism’s saturation into culture - even the underground subculture of drag ballrooms. It is here that queer becomes a product of postmodernism. It is with this in mind that I will interrogate the film's meanings.
Drag, as an activity and performance, is rich in postmodern connotations, a performance that encompasses the nostalgia of the past, the faded glamour of old film stars with something new, television stars and supermodels, all with an added camp edge. The masquerade is not only the poor emulating the rich and glamorous but enacts a visual blurring of clear gender roles and defined categorical sexualities. This forms a new modern or postmodern being. What blurs these roles even greater is not that these performers are not really women, (that we know) but that some of the performers in Paris is Burning are not in fact really men; Venus Extravaganza for example, has never been ‘really real’ (as Plato might say about mimesis) as a man. In her subjective reality she is or should be ‘really’ a woman and not a man. A sex change operation is stated to be her goal in the film, as being a “real woman” is her true identity. Therefore, can Venus still be compartmentalised into the understood category of gay man? This breaking of sexual and gendered binaries is what makes the performance of drag here so interesting, as it draws attention to the possibilities for all our sexual identities, that they may not in fact be fixed, that if all gender is constructed as a form of masquerade, aren’t we are all to some extent in drag? In his book on Exploring Masculinities, Steve Cohan emphasises that, like putting on the trappings of femininity (i.e. with lipstick or a dress), what we think of as “masculinity” is not natural but another construction; “Masculinity is an effect of culture-a construction, a performance, a masquerade- rather than a universal and unchanging essence”. What Paris is Burning does so well is to highlight the construction of gender norms, which are oppressive and limiting.
But herein lies the problem, in flagging up these oppressive gender norms, proving by way of drag, that yes, a gay man can pass easily as an elegant bourgeois lady or equally pull off the appearance of an ultra straight military man, our attention is drawn to whether these images are actually being subverted or if in fact they are being coveted? Dorian Corey, one of the oldest queens who acts as a philosophical sage, providing narration for much of the film explains; “If you can pass the untrained eye or even the trained eye and not give away that you're gay- that is realness”. The term “realness” is peppered throughout the film, it becomes clear ‘to be real’ is the holy grail of drag, but the only reality that is shown to be sought after is the white middle class reality of “white picket fences, fisherprice toys and pools in the backyard” dreamt of by Octavia. Mark Fisher uses the term “capitalist realism” in favour of postmodernism, it is also the title of his book, in which he details how culturally the end of the world has already happened, that to borrow Friedrich Jameson's phrase ‘its easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’. Fisher states; “Now, the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment” (Fisher 2009: 8, 9). This point, indeed worthy of comment here, expresses why a form of over-identification is evident in the drag balls. Instead of what Pamela Robertson believes here that: “Realness”…is a subversive category meant to dissolve difference and any notion of authenticity”. I would ague rather, that capitalism’s powerfully seductive hold is so culturally entrenched that this appropriation of imagery ends up merely acting out a faithful imitation of ‘capitalist realism’ in the form of becoming commodity objects signifying wealth and misogyny rather than subverting and nullifying the very oppressive patriarchal hetronormative behaviours they purport to “dissolve”. This idea is compounded by the film's section with the header; ‘Military Realness’. Men in varied military or naval uniforms march down the ballrooms, we hear the thoughts of one of these men, he states: “Black people have been a repressed minority in the United States for four hundred years…it’s the greatest example of behaviour modification there is”. So to hear this opinion whilst simultaneously watching perfect militaristic mimicry, the ballrooms usually joyously camp spectacle is replaced by an ill feeling that what we are witnessing is a form of performative passing . As Dorian Corey points out “It’s really a case of going back into the closet”.
Despite this uncomfortable instance of patriarchal conformity, the varied examples of positive subversion contained in the balls cannot be negated. The film uncovers the ‘houses’ that developed through attendance and participation in the balls. As Dorian Corey rightly points out these collectives, function as family units. The houses are where young marginalised gay men, often who’ve been kicked out of their family homes, are accepted and supported into a new family-like-sphere- that contain none of the hierarchal structures that often force women and children into a subservient role. Most of the people interviewed reveal they were forced to hide their homosexuality from family members out of fear of rejection. The ironies in the decision to call these collectives “houses” contain dual meanings. One is a reference to high-fashion designer houses, for example ‘The house of Dior’ or “The house of Yves Saint Laurent” the latter being also the name of the drag house Octavia is part of, explicating the link between high and low culture. The second and strongest meaning of ‘house’ reflects there opposition to traditional ideas of what makes a home- i.e. a man, wife and child. This is countered in favour of ‘the home’ simply being a place of collective understanding and love, (not bonds of laws of marriage) a notion both antiestablishment and revolutionary. Most of the scenes of great pleasure and humour in Paris is Burning are in the group scenes at the ball or on the streets of New York, where the possibility of an alternative group identity is foregrounded. These scenes set up the underground gay community as utopian, where everyone is welcome, gay teenage boys and old queens alike. Where they are free to dance in the street and exhibit new breasts etc free of judgement, where the outside world of prejudice cannot touch their lives.
Where the cracks begin to show are in the scenes of the queens alone in their apartments, in which they express their dreams and hopes for the future. These interviews are inter-cut with segments showing the white bourgeois shopping in the city, television stars and the rich in magazines. The editing highlights the discrepancies between the queens’ realities, shot with the camera in a fixed position while they sit and talk in small, dark, bare apartments (in Octavia’s case plastered with posters of supermodels), in contrast with the bright colours and fast editing that express how out of reach their dreams of wealth really are. This seems a rather cruel joke to play, to place visually the fantasy and the reality side by side. We know that even if they are able “to make your illusion perfect” as Dorian Corey says, it will never be ‘really real’. Judith Butler when talking about ‘being’ a lesbian as if it were a role or type ,with definable characteristics, expresses the futility of trying to conform to paradigmatic sexuality: “Compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic, the norm that determines the real implies that “being” lesbian is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalised heterosexuality which will always and only fail”.
Drag seems to posit the idea that through the manipulation of appearances one can attain one's desired reality. This is not such impossibility: the capitalist dream of fame and fortune is filtered down through television and media, it does not matter if it’s an illusion to make us buy into a product or lifestyle- if we can see it, therefore it is real, visible and thus attainable, or at least imitateable. Another category in the ballroom is “Executive Realness” or more accurately: “capitalist realist”, Dorian Corey narrates this section as beautiful, slim young men in immaculately tailored suits and briefcases walk the ballroom:
in real life you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity, now the fact you are not an executive is merely because the social standing in life…black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do, are usually straight…in a ballroom you can be anything you want, you're not really an executive, but your looking like an executive and therefore you're showing the straight world that I can be an executive, if I had the opportunity I could be one, because I can look like one, and that is a fulfilment
This unfortunately is a crucial part of the performance of drag “realness”: that it wants to transgress the masquerade and become that which it imitates, rather than interrogate that which it impersonates. Early on in the film a group of young men are sat together in a park, the camera pans across them as they each give accounts to what participation in balls mean for the gay community. One man says “Balls are as close to reality as we are going to get…to all of that fame and fortune and stardom” I don’t believe the phrasing here is a mistake: as close to reality we are going to get suggests that the fantasy world of television, and media is somehow more ‘real’ than their own lives, that this ideal hyper-reality is more valid as it is more visible. But this is a total disavowal of the lives of the poor and the homosexual, visibility being a key part in the assertion of a queer aesthetic and presence marked out from that of the dominant mainstream. Drag then, in its desire for realness and the appropriation of dominant mass culture over subversive satirical play, becomes superficial and devoid of the capability to challenge heterosexual and capitalist hegemony. The ballroom therefore can be seen to conform to Susan Sontag’s statement from Notes on Camp that camp is a “victory of style over content, aesthetics over morality, irony over tragedy”.
The postmodern culture of endless permutations of commodity objects suggests anything is possible; one can simply buy or become the object of ones desire. The queens in Paris is Burning are dirt poor, often having to hustle (prostitute themselves) to survive. The lie that if you work hard and can pay for it, “the world's your oyster” is a myth. As Dorian Corey points out about executive realness- there are opportunities that are just not available to black working-class gay men. Daniel Contreras states; “What is at stake in Paris is Burning is the question of the value of sheer fantasy and of wish fulfilment on the part of queers of colour. Here Venus says she wants to be a ‘rich spoiled white girl’, her wish is compounded not only by her economic and racial subjugation, but also by her gender: she knows she needs her sex change to be a ‘total woman’’. In Venus’ list of bourgeois status symbols she would like in order to be really happy, the last on the list, and the presumably hardest to come by, is the sex change: the rest can be bought and possessed with fewer consequences. Placing the obtaining of objects alongside the process of owning one's true identity to provide fulfilment leads to what Fredric Jameson describes as “false happiness”: the objects Venus desires “are now themselves secretly a misery, an unhappiness that doesn’t know its name, that has no way of telling itself apart from genuine satisfaction and fulfilment since it has presumably never encountered this last”. It is impossible to keep up with the demands of capitalism, which is what keeps it going: the illusionary need for more dreams to fuel it.
Capitalism rides of the back of promoting the unobtainable. The case of Octavia stresses this point, her high cheek boned, long legged thin hipped physiognomy is the paradigmatic look of the ideal androgynous fashion model, she typifies this look more than the unsustainable thinness of models born female; she therefore possesses something these young models will often lose as their bodies mature with developed hips etc. It is therefore paradoxical that the life of supermodel, remains out of her reach - as she is fashionable androgyny par excellence! But as a transsexual she is not a sell-able object of aspiration to help sell designer clothing, as the beauty of transsexuals in our repressive society cannot be presented as something to celebrate. Yet we now have almost come full circle in the last thirty years or so since Paris is Burning was made. Queer culture has been expropriated from the underground, from the margins as a fashionable presence in the mainstream culture. But this is just how capitalism operates, says Fisher: “The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new”. Madonna’s video and song Vogue was possibility the first example of the image of the Balls being approated by the mainstream. Currently the television programme America’s Next Top Model features Benny Ninja from the drag House of Ninja, who teaches the usually inept young female models how to walk the runways, and be “Fierce”- a phrase inescapable in this programme, shouted at the wannabe models when they are performing well, it is highly reminiscent if not identical to the praise shouted in the drag ballrooms. The homosexual male judges on this programme call each other “she” and engage in camp performances in their personae as gay judges on the show. Fisher comments, “What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead, their precorporation: the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes of the capitalist culture”. What was once seen as subversive behaviour is now a gimmick on a television show that relies on reinforcing the old gender roles within the miasmic allure of capitalist dominance.