… Just whose self are we seeing … ?
This is from the essay ‘Containing Fire: Performance in Paris Is Burning‘ by Caryl Flinn found in Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski (1998):
… documentary films, in many ways more so than other cinematic forms, reveal the constructed — indeed, performative — nature of the world around us.
… While Paris appears to have no actual reenactments (the balls were recorded by Livingston as they occurred in New York City), the drag queens in the balls “reenact” social, sexual, racial, and economic identities (e.g. military officers, members of the leisure class) they have encountered countless times before in the media.
… The film shows how lifestyle, identity, indeed, “realness,” are all based on the repetition of images, acts, and performances already in circulation. It tacitly assumes that performance is “real,” that there is no such thing as a reality beyond performance. As Lisa Henderson writes, “The performances expose the constructedness of image and identity in the world at large. As the balls and film make strikingly clear, everyone is in drag.”
[line break added] Perhaps nowhere is the point better made than in the glimpses we get of passersby in the street, which Livingston cleverly juxtaposes with scenes of the voguers. Due to the many identities we have seen acted out in the balls, these people, the purported norm against which the ballgoers are compared, look every bit as “made-up” as their flamboyant counterparts (where is “executive realness” best performed?).
… Livingston’s film very much supports Butler’s already classic contention that gay is to straight not as copy to original, but as copy to copy. It too exposes the myth of a “proper” or “natural” (hetero-) sexual identity — even though this myth boasts considerable power (a point painfully made for some participants of Paris‘s world). As Dorian Carey, one of the older drag queens puts it: “Realness is to be able to blend. If you can pass the untrained or even the trained eye and not give away the fact you’re gay, that’s when it’s real.
… The idea of realness is to look as much as possible as your straight counterpart.” And then, teasing out some of the disturbing implications of the equation of realness and heterosexuality, Carey notes: “It’s really a case of going back into the closet … you erase all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways to make the illusion perfect.”
… It is worth noting the irony in praising Paris Is Burning for letting the walkers “express themselves,” since the film tries to destabilize the notion of an authentic self that might be expressed in the first place. Just whose self are we seeing, for instance, when Pepper LaBeija walks the runway or, for that matter, when she addresses the camera in her house?
… in fact, Paris keeps the ball’s performances and “actual life” quite separate. Despite the considerable time spent there, the film ends up turning the balls into special, rarefied events. As Pepper LaBeija puts it, “[The ball circuit] is like crossing into a looking glass, a wonderland. You feel a hundred percent right about being gay, and that’s not what it’s like in the world.” Presenting the ball as a refuge, a place quivering with utopian energy and desires, Paris carefully contrasts the world outside as a place of danger and dashed dreams.
[line break added] The runway category of “femme realness queen” acknowledges this, defined as it is as someone who can return home in her ballclothes unharmed. The street is where the bangees can get you, it is where you can be bashed, or as Venus XTravaganza’s case makes brutally clear, killed. Significantly, though, the film shows that the threat of that outside world only affects some, and in this regard it is worth recalling the intercut footage of the white passersby.
[line break added] Uninvolved in anything but their own banal movement, they seem to dramatize — in a conspicuously undramatic way — the effortlessness with which their own identities, though indeed “constructed” and made up, move about the urban landscape. Their “easy casualness,” as Phelan observes, “is the inimitable kernel of the Real that eludes the walkers.”
… Rather than situating performance, identity, and social existence on a continuum, then, which is where the film’s subject matter logically leads, Paris ends up generating distinctions among them. This is not to say that it fails to interrogate the put-on “realness” of reality, but there remains a sense in which the outside “real” remains less marked (indeed, according to the text’s own devices, almost unmarked) than the feigned “realness” of the balls.
My previous post from this book is here.