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  • Elizabeth Phillips

"Paris Is Burning"

Our first documentary of the semester, Paris is Burning (1990), is an extraordinary break-out film that primarily centers on Black and Latino drag queens in New York City and their much-celebrated ballroom parties. While Livingston’s highly-acclaimed piece was not the first produced in the LGBT film genre, it was considered the first to highlight the LGBTQ+ community in a very real, authentic fashion. Through the voices of the queens themselves, this production provides an inside glimpse into the performers’ lives while also shedding light on important subculture issues, such as gender/race discrimination and class privilege.

While this movie received numerous awards for Best Documentary, some individuals criticize the film’s content and depiction of those that told their story. Many believe that men participating in drag are appropriating women. In the article “Gender is Burning,” Butler reiterates a common misconception that “drag is offensive to women and that it is an imitation based in ridicule and degradation” (340). However, this broad-sweeping statement does not take in consideration two main factors that refute this declaration. First, while it is a common stereotype, not all drag queens are transgender or trying to become women. Pepper Labeija, a legendary queen, shares that most have no aspirations to become women, get a sex change, or remove their opportunity to one day be a man. Many firmly believe that becoming a “real” woman would make them more susceptible to violence. To put it plainly, Pepper states, “Women get beat too.” While reconstructive surgery does address the issue of “womanhood,” it does not but speak to color. The 1980s especially proved a volatile time for women of color and, in some cases, a woman’s skin color served more of a death sentence than a man’s female persona. The queens in this dynamic work are not blind to the reality of being a woman. They understand that such a drastic change could potentially shorten their lives or open themselves up to an inescapable reality.

Second, each queen in this feature idolizes a particular female celebrity. They do not judge or degrade that woman. They want to be like her and embody her femininity. They discuss wanting to hone her confidence and beauty in a way that resembles little girls speaking about beloved princesses. This response is the farthest thing from appropriation; it more resembles idolization. Furthermore, stating that drag queens are appropriating women would, in turn, mean that any time a woman dresses in a masculine manner, they too would be appropriating men and stealing their “culture.” Butler fails to recognize that gender is a societal concept; therefore, anyone can dress, act or identify in a manner of expression that best connects with who they are or who they desire to become. These choices are not intended to appropriate or degrade the other gender. They are simply forms of self-expression and admiration.

Butler furthers her claim by stating that “there is both a sense of defeat and a sense of insurrection to be had from the drag pageantry in Paris is Burning, that the drag we see, the drag which is after all framed for us, filmed for us, is one which both appropriates and subverts racist, misogynist, and homophobic norms of oppression” (337). More specifically, Butler believes that those showcased in the Drag Balls accept the damaging insinuations and the degrading lack of basic human rights. They embrace them and make these “norms of oppression” their own (337). They may never be a chief executive officer of a major corporation, but they can enact one at the ball. Due to their sexual preference, they may never serve as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, but these “queers'' can march around the stage in uniform pretending to fight for our nation. The term “queer” is often used as a negative and derogartory connotation directed towards a misunderstood people group. Again, what Butler fails to recognize is that, within the drag culture, this word has been redefined as a word that celebrates not fitting into societal norms. “Queer” is a term of endearment when used by peers.

Livingston’s film also brings up segregation within this community. This issue is clearly demonstrated through “passing” (Butler 342). Passing means that the more one can look and act straight, the further one can go in the world as society will be less threatened and/or confused (Butler 342). Through his growth and success over the filmed years, Willi Ninja demonstrates this for the audience. He becomes famous or “a legend”- as they call it in the drag community. Willi is completely “passing.” While in the ball culture, he is accepted as queer. Yet, due to the fact that he can effortlessly pass as a straight male, Willi is less of a target for violence. However, the same can not be said for Venus Xtravaganza. At first glance, she easily passes as a woman. However, her hidden appendages expose to a client making her “clearly vulnerable to homophobic violence” (Butler 342). Many men can become aggressive when deceived to believe someone is a woman when she, in fact, has a “little secret” between her legs. Tragically, this led to Venus’ violent death at the hands of one of her clients. “Gender is Burning” sums up the passing phenomenon, describing it as, “[t]here is passing and then there is passing, and it is––as we used to say–– ‘no accident’ that Willi Ninja ascends and Venus Xtravaganza dies” (342). Unfortunately, Butler, and other like-minded individuals, miss the very real tragedy behind this statement.

This film fully submerges the viewer into the drag community of the 1980s and opens the door for many important, necessary conversations. Its raw footage and “peeping” camera angles allow one to feel like he or she is discovering an unknown world. This film paved the way for New Queer Cinema movies, thus resulting in the more accepting society we are presented with today. Now, powerful women, like Hunter Shaffer, and confident queens, like Ru Paul and Trixie, can succeed on levels that most straight people aspire to achieve. The world is constantly changing and bettering itself. One day, queer children will look at the films of today as the path towards their liberation - just as children of the early 2000s did with Paris is Burning (1990).

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Gender Is Burning.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, by Sue Thornham, W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2017, pp. 336–349.

Livingston, Jennie, director. Paris Is Burning. Watch Documentaries. Off White Productions, Inc., 1990, https//

This is an Essay Written By Elizabeth Phillips in the Fall of 2020

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