After reading Judith Butler’s analysis of Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning, watching the film itself, and also reading bell hooks’ interpretation, I am struggling to make sense of it all. In a prior class I watched this film as an example of the ways in which gender was performed and therefore could be changed. It also illustrated how repetition provides meaning. In her article “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” Butler argues drag can be understood as subversive in the sense that it “disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality,” or shows that heterosexuality is not the original and other presentations are the copy (85). She also argues though that the repetition in this film rather than being subversive merely reiterates norms (84). I think such is the case for Venus Xtravaganza.
Venus wants to become a real woman. She wants a husband to care for her, a house, and a washing machine. She wants to be the stereotypical white housewife. In this sense, she reiterates norms for femininity. hooks’ analysis here is spot on. While she does not reference Venus specifically, I think Venus is an excellent example of her critique that in Livingston’s portrayal of ball room culture “the idea of womanness and femininity is totally personified by whiteness” (147). The ways in which Venus wants to be a real woman are traditional, hegemonic understandings of white femininity.
Butler also argues that even though Venus appears to be subversive in that she presents herself as a female and denaturalizes gender and sexuality, she does not however actually challenge the heteronormative framework. She argues that despite her ability to pass and pass well, “the hegemony of normative femininity and whiteness wields the final power to re naturalize [her] body and cross out that prior crossing” (91). As I understand it, Butler is arguing that regardless of her ability to cross over and appear to subvert normative structures, she is never able to fully overcome them. It remains a fantasy. That fantasy, nonetheless, is based on white understandings of femininity. Although Butler points out that not all categories are based on white understandings, I think hooks’ point cannot be denied. Venus is not the only one who idolizes white femininity. Octavia’s walls are covered in pictures of white models. I think Butler should have engaged more with hooks’ argument.