Judith Butler’s article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” offers an interesting lens through which to examine Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning. According to Butler, “drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation” (313). In other words, drag demonstrates that gender is not natural or fixed, but rather a performance. Butler takes this idea a step further, and argues that if this is true, then “there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (313). There is not a natural or authentic or true gender, but rather gender itself is only a copy of a copy. Gender presentations only have meaning through this repetition. For example, our understanding of masculinity is only intelligible because it has been repeated over and over again. There is no original or natural masculinity to present.
Butler’s analysis of gender and drag, when used to look at Paris is Burning, shows the ways in which established gender norms can be subverted and undermined. Drag demonstrates the way in which gender can be played with and manipulated, as well as the ways in which gender can be changed. Gender, like drag, is a performance. In the same way that the members of each house perform, we each perform our own genders everyday.
That is not to say, however, that Paris is Burning is problem free. As bell hooks, argues Livingston’s documentary portrays Black ballroom culture as obsessed with an “idealized fetishized vision of femininity that is white” (148). She finds this portrayal as problematic because it presents white capitalist patriarchy as the only meaningful way of life. Hooks also takes issue with the way that Livingston presents the documentary. She does not challenge or grapple with the fact that she is a white woman making a documentary about Black ballroom culture, and fails to address her white hegemonic position.