Paris is Burning (1990) in Ru Paul’s Drag Race


Re-reading Judith Butler’s essay Gender is Burning (from their book Bodies That Matter, 1993), which interrogates how sex, race and class are performed, assimilated and undermined in Jenny Livingston’s film Paris is Burning (1990), I am made to think about the film’s relationship to the TV show Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Of course, Paris is very present in Ru Paul, with references peppering every episode, both directly and indirectly. Hosts and contestants frequently quote from the film, and such moments continually produce the understanding that the film underscores the shows very possibility. Paris acts as a manual as Ru Paul follows not just structural cues including “categories” of dress and attention to certain (perhaps skewered forms) of pageantry, but also through the inclusion of a real multitude of class, race and (recently) trans narratives encapsulated by the various contestants. Butler argues in her essay that though drag as a performance of gender is the primary mode in which the people in Paris initially appear to perform, class and race are equally inscribed upon the body alongside attempts to hide or shed these identifying markers at the balls. In Ru Paul, conversations around these identities are made present in the most interesting part of the show – moments where the queens talk to each other about there lives whilst getting ready. Here, contestants are frequently shown in half-drag at the mirror station, and often talk to each other through the mirror, confessing or demystifying their experiences, looking at each other face to face despite both facing the same way. These narratives usually consist of childhood traumas, difficulties and abuses from being gay, losing parents and struggles with money. These moments are the most ripe for unpacking in Ru Paul because the act of undressing one’s narrative through therapeutically recalling difficult past times is mirrored in the half-drag displayed by the corporeal, a moment that hangs between the feminine “performed character” of the drag persona and the more masculine corporeal underneath. It is this fusion that we see that is also almost always part of a locus of the tale being told, especially as the tightly knitted relationship between (this kind of) drag and homosexuality is a given in the show’s and audiences’ understanding of the culture. Thus the half drag becomes a very present visual cue of liminality that allows for the opening of certain issues people have faced in response to their homosexuality as well as a deconstruction of how they might perform their sex, race and class. Such mirror-confessions differ from Paris in that they are communicated to the other contestants who are (often?) read as the subjects’ peers. In Paris, subjects discuss their lives predominantly toward the camera or, more accurately, the body behind the camera, out of the spectators view. Still, this set-up means that the camera object is very much present in the set up of the recording and thus, by its very nature, produces a visual illusion of a mechanical and disembodied gaze that watches the subjects, a gaze that is structurally brought into the fold of hegemony. Though cameras are clearly present in the Ru Paul mirror-scenes, we can argue that the direction of speech and visual framing and blocking allows for a different semiotic relationship between the subject and the depiction of said subject. As well as this, the eliminated queen always writes her goodbye message upon the mirror which the lip-sync winner sprays down and wipes away, ready for the next time confessions and reflections happen but with one less body in the shiny panel. They leave their mark in red lipstick, a mark that temporarily obscures the view one would have of oneself, but it easily made to vanish.

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