Paris is Burning is a documentary about drag queens living in New York in the mid-1980’s. Directed and produced by Jennie Livingston, it seeks out the drag balls of New York frequented by Latino and African American queer, gay and transgender men. PIB depicts the queens within their self-structured families, with their “mothers”, all vying to be the “realest” of them all as they walk in the balls, to bring honour to their house and achieve “legendary” status. The film alternates between flamboyant shots of queens strutting and dancing in the ballroom, juxtaposed with interviews where queens solemnly talk about their experiences, hopes, and aspirations. It is a revolutionary film (despite some of the critical responses it has had): you can read a full synopsis of the film here, and you can view the documentary in its entirety on Netflix here,
What struck me, and what I would argue is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues that drag culture constitutes, is the depiction and idealization of the “real woman”. The drag queens in this film are all obsessed with the notion of being the “realest”, with embodying the most fundamental essence of what it means to be a woman, in their clothes and makeup, in the nuances of their actions, in their speech and behaviors, and seemingly even in the way they speak about what they aspire to be. There is the idealization of a “real” woman: a woman who is entirely submissive and yet loved and respected by her husband, who doesn’t have to work but has all the money in the world, the woman for whom none of the problems of the world seems to exist. The real woman is the white, rich, perfect, submissive woman, and I would argue that this idealization of a “real” woman is extremely retrogressive in the way it understands and then performs, the feminine.
There seems to be an inherent notion that the queer community, including drag queens, is intrinsically aligned with the feminist movement, and I would argue that this is not true, at least not intrinsically in the way some critics believe it to be. While it is absolutely possible that drag has changed since the 1980’s, I would hold that the depiction of the real woman in Paris is Burning is an antiquated one, one which degrades women to both caricatures and mere shadows of people. It is subversive and retrogressive, at least in the depictions of it that are shown, and the ideas that are so intrinsic to the drag queens understanding of what it is to be female are toxic, both for the feminist and for the drag queens themselves. To be stuck in the idea that to be feminine is to be spoiled, and rich, and submissive, and meek in the face of men reduces the queens to being defined only in opposition to their heterosexual male counterparts, and strips them in certain ways of the power they attempt to reclaim as they flip masculine gender norms on its head. There is the inherent sense, at least in my understanding of the film, that to be feminine is to relinquish the male power and take a place of female submissiveness, rather than a transition from masculine power to a different, but nonetheless powerful, female power. The realness the queens so desperately seek seems to be, at some points, a painfully stereotypical depiction of a masculine construction of the female gender.
I would in no way suggest that Paris is Burning is not a revolutionary and extremely important film: despite certain criticisms that academics such as bell hooks have made against the film (you can read up on hooks’ take on Paris is Burning here), and the antiquated notions of femininity the film seems to perpetuate at certain points, through certain queens, it is nonetheless a film that everyone should be aware of, and invest time in seeing. It is both heartwrenching and informative, and will leave you questioning the preconceived notions you have about drag and it’s origins.