Paris is Burning as a historical document through the eyes of Judith Butler and Erving Goffman

by Junyoung Choi, Gabriela Horwath, Tomas Pacheco, Alan Countess, and Wyn Veiga

Introduction (Junyoung)

Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning explores the nooks and crannies of Harlem, painting vividly the ball culture’s cultural importance in celebrating the drag style and hitherto marginalized gender norms through the transgender families and their flamboyant fashion shows. 

Observing the endeavors of New York’s ball culture through the lens Livingston has picked out, both writers Judith Butler and Erving Goffman would likely concur that personal and group identities are reinforced socially through dramatic performances, but would fall short of agreeing on whether there truly is an internal core being expressed. However, if the two theorists sat down and spoke to reach a conclusion, they would most likely agree that the many different categories in the balls helped most people participate in the performative act and present their parts while making explicit the rather flexible nature of gender. Finally, both scholars would also be astonished and disturbed by the growing impact of one’s exposure to the media’s mundane normalized social expectations.

Most importantly, the two theorists could analyze Livingston’s salient capturing of the elaborate New York ball culture through the frameworks of its performative aspect, those members’ flexibility with sexual or corporeal boundaries, and the people’s projections of their remote aspirations. Butler would assert that the performative nature of such balls were pivotal in demonstrating the fluid nature of gender, coping with socially preconstructed biases, and congregating a consistent community, albeit in ways that insulted women. Unlike Butler, Goffman would probably find the social niche of Houses and close ties to your ‘families’ more applicable to his framework, as there is almost always an exchange of saving-face happening as a form of currency. 

Performance (Junyoung & Wyn)

As evident from the opening scene following the Paris is Burning title, elaborate balls were held to put on a show among those who were shunned by the majority of society and celebrate their diversities as well as similarities. These balls would often have many different categories that allowed anyone who wanted to participate in walking the runway. For instance, some categories included “nice body, very fashionable, very pretty, very real-looking,” college student, or town vs. country outfit (LaBeija, ~00:12:20). 

Goffman claims that an individual displays a “face,” or series of masks to others during a social interaction, picking from a range of diverse parts according to the situation. Furthermore, he believes that amid the many patterns of behaviors––or “lines” one can act out, there is no such thing as a “true self” and thus that a fixed character or identity is absent within. To Goffman, attending a ball would merely be a temporary acceptance of the “lines” of everyone present: “A state where everyone temporarily accepts everyone else’s line is established. This kind of mutual acceptance seems to be a basic structural feature of interaction” (Goffman, 11). Balls to Goffman could have been seen as more of a social platform where the performances are just another mask, albeit one wherein all family or invited members can participate and compete. 

In contrast to Goffman’s theoretical lack of ‘self,’ to Butler these “acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance… on the surface of the body” and “are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means” (Butler i, 173). After acknowledging that drag and cross-dressing is considered degrading to women, Butler delves deeper into the act of “imitating” the “standardized” behavior and appearance of women: “The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed… the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance. As much as drag creates a unified picture of ‘woman’ (what its critics often oppose), it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence” (Butler i, 175). In other words, Butler posits that by mirroring specific features of a gender, drag in essence illustrates the innately imitative and fluid nature of gender.

Blurring of Sexual/Corporeal Boundaries (Junyoung)

During her interview, Junior Labeija exclaims, “Come on now, it is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time. There’s no getting around that! You see it on channel seven, between ‘All My Children’ and ‘Jeopardy,’ ‘Another World,’ ‘Dallas,’ and the whole bit. An evening bag is a must! You have to carry something! No lady is sure at night.” This powerful quote reveals that a gender norm is indeed prevalently seen and spread throughout all forms of media, and that anyone who watches TV can grow up as a child being exposed to certain values and standards. 

Alike, Butler posits that our concepts of masculinity and femininity are constructed rather than being inherent. She furthers that one’s understanding of biological differences between men and women are collectively forged and inculcated within, explaining that the stark contrast in the bodies facilitate the birth and spread of stereotypes or social expectations for both sexes (Butler i, 164-165). In fact, Butler goes so far as to say that “various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all” and that “the body is not a ‘being,’ but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated… within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler i, 177-178). 

Moreover, she brings the reader’s attention in her other text to how an actor’s conscious theatrical rendition diverges from the day-to-day performance of gender norms to which one subliminally grows normalized and indifferent. Butler explains that by turning apathetic to or defying and parodying pre-established social norms, canonical expectations for a binary sex structure are further exposed to the public. Similarly, the balls served an integral role in providing a safe space for the previously marginalized to slowly gain public confidence and mimic gender stereotypes in performances that “render[ed] social laws explicit” (Butler ii, 526).  As such, Butler defines gender as “what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure” and affirms that the performative acts, which are “socially shared and historically constituted,” constitute gender (Butler ii, 530). 

This notion of gender fluidity is even better evinced in LaBeija’s description of herself as the mother of her family and of the roles that mothers of families take on. She says that the different houses each have a leader-figure whose last name or nickname the family is named after––House Xtravaganza, House Saint Laurent, House Ninja––much like the patriarchal role of the Don in traditional mafia families. Goffman would likely consider this very maternal yet patriarchal role of house mothers both a “defensive orientation toward saving [her] own face” as well as a “protective orientation toward saving the others’ face” (Goffman, 14). He may also analyze the function of these tight-knit Houses and communities of them as being an easy platform for the exchange of face-saving as a form of currency, and of course one for the performance as well (Goffman 41-42). 

However, not every ball is always a friendly gathering; there is always something to compete for, and “throwing shade” became an aspect of ball culture: “Shade comes from reading… because you’ve found a flaw and exaggerated it, then you’ve got a good read going. Shade is I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly… and that’s shade” (Corey, ~00:34:30). Very similarly to the way ‘rap disses’ function on a surface level, “In aggressive interchanges the winner not only succeeds in introducing information favorable to himself and unfavorable to others, but also demonstrates that the interactant can handle himself better than his adversaries” (Goffman, 25). According to Goffman, a successful use of hostile face-work, or throwing shade in the case of balls, is clearly a way to establish dominance in aggressive social interactions.

Projection of Aspirations (Junyoung & Tomás)

Balls have undergone quite a bit of change over the years, but one objective seemed to stick on: to mimic and approach the dream-like lifestyles of the upper echelon members of society who were draped in famous brand names like Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and Dior. Pepper LaBeija says when she first started to attend balls, it was only about drag––feathers and tailpieces and all––but once the 70s came around, then the people wanted to imitate the appearances of gorgeous movie stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor; Even in the 80s, what changed was who they were imitating: now models like Christie Brinkley and Maud Adams were in. 

In examining one function of the balls, Dorian Corey wistfully utters, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do, are usually straight… In a ballroom, you can be anything you want.” (Corey, ~00:14:35) By imitating the appearances of important and wealthy members of society, the members of these balls proved to themselves and whomever from the heterosexually oriented world that they too, if given the right opportunity, can make it––and seem great doing it. 

As much as “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” to Butler, a longing to become “white” too seems enkindled by a want for social sanction (Butler ii, 520): “I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl” (Xtravaganza, ~00:24:50). Further into the film, LaBeija narrates: “This is white America. Any other nationality that is not of the white set knows this and accepts this till the day they die. That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority––to live and look as well as a white person” (LaBeija, ~00:41:40). 

The indisputable advantage of being white in America is underscored all throughout both quotes. Butler would claim that the explicit emulations of the “rich white image” actually places under the spotlight the dissonance between the imitators race and the stereotypes being played off. Then, Goffman would not only address this penchant to mimic a wealthy, often white celebrity as a form of shifting face and adapting to a far safer ‘line’ but also present it as evidence that there is no true self––only the changing of faces to mimic a more beneficial one. 

And it is perhaps here that some of the cultural legacy of both Paris is Burning (or at least the events and people it highlights) can be better understood. Today, while popular outlets for drag still exist, less prominent is discourse surrounding the ways in which this subculture has bled into other facets of society concerning both performance and projection of aspirations. Doubtlessly, the figure of celebrity in our modern day is also strongly linked to the performance of social laws: this is most obvious in public concern of their moralities and beliefs. More aesthetically though, such figures are also called upon to standardize gendered characteristics of the time. Absent from this parallel, however, is the subversiveness, the resistance stemming from the fact that these almost idealized recreations of celebrity, the moment of “all eyes on me”, is produced by a socially marginalized group, one which is otherwise denied both the freedom and the visibility wholeheartedly embodied by the documentary’s interviewees. Through this analysis we may hopefully come to better outline the cultural impact of the balls, and the people who made them happen.

Point of View (Wyn)

Another important aspect with regards to better understanding the complexity and long lasting impact of the film comes through the frame of perspective and point-of-view. At one moment in the film, one of the Extravaganzas mentions how insults, also referred to as “shade” is not the same from a straight person to a gay person. It changes the context and power relation. Such a moment in the film constantly presents itself in that the documentary comes from the perspective of those close to the ball scene in New York, providing an accurate description of what can be expected and how it revolves around the film’s message on education. 

To continue, there also seems to be a personalized storytelling aspect to the film that causes Paris is Burning to be much more fully comprehensible and representative. As the ball scene is introduced more and more, viewers immediately see how diverse both the individuals and their personas are that make the collective community. It cannot be generalized to a single world like “drag race,” but is instead an entire fundamental movement on sexuality and self-acceptance. By depicting the individual aspirations, goals, and lives of characters and figures that are prominent, the film-makers are making sure to do this aspect of the film justice by reflecting on the complexities of ballroom groups.

Finally, it appears that the element of self-representation and voice is crucial to the film’s overall message. Whether it be the referral of ball-dancing as an art form or how costumes can create an outlet for empowerment and individual expression, viewers learn just how important these underground scenes are for individuals judged on their sexualities to fantasize. The film does an excellent job of making this aspect of voice evident throughout the narrative. This is the final important part when it comes to voice as the documentary makes sure to match the driving impact on cultural consciousness. In order for it to create the biggest impact on said consciousness and what makes the outside world interpret the phenomena of the ball scene, it makes sure to properly portray the community’s members, stories, and messages as separate timelines that connect to an overlying arch. The documentary uses many black screens with just the speaker’s name to emphasize this point and the individual at hand. And it is because of this that viewers can take away complexity of the subject and become more culturally conscious about the struggles of sexual minorities in New York at the time. Documentaries strive to educate others, and Paris is Burning achieves this through deliberate choices in point-of-view to make sure the film creates a cultural consciousness on the matter. 

Conclusion (Alan & Gabriela)

Paris Is Burning serves as a historic document for the drag community in New York City. Through interviews with drag queens and those who attended balls, the documentary provides insight into the motivation behind the movement and tells the story of what it was like. Because this community was not accepted, it is not easily understood from an outside perspective. Many of us would have no way of knowing what the balls were like or what they meant to the people who ran them, walked in them, and attended them. The personal accounts of the participants give the insider view and personal stories of those who dressed in drag. We are given the opportunity to understand some of what these men went through as their families treated them as outcasts and society judged them for their behavior. Because of the nature of this community being so performance and appearance-based, it is best depicted through film. Luckily, we are able to see actual footage from the balls to get a non-biased view of what they were like. This allows us to form our own ideas and understanding, independent from the biases of the time.

By representing the minority group of African American males who are a part of the LGBTQ community, the documentary is able to make sure that their story is told and not forgotten. The audience is able to get a better understanding of what it was like to be in that situation by the first hand account stories. These personal experiences made each person’s story even more touching and interesting to the audience. By making this documentary, these drag queens were able to share how being drag queens allowed them to be whoever they wanted to be. The sad aspect of this story is included after the audience gets to know characters from them being on the camera a couple times. This creates more of a personal attachment to the character from the audience’s perspective, making the poignant parts of the story have a larger effect on the audience. In this way, this documentary was able to make sure that the audience was able to get to know the good and the sad parts about being a drag queen in a society that is not accepting. 


Jennie Livingston –– Paris is Burning [1991]: (Last Name of Speaker, ~Hr:XX:xx) 

Judith Butler –– i) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity [p.163-180] 

ii) Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory [p.519-531]

Erving Goffman –– On Face Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction [p.5-45]


One thought on “Paris is Burning as a historical document through the eyes of Judith Butler and Erving Goffman

  1. Ian Bryce Jones May 28, 2020 / 11:23 am

    Joonyoung/Gabriela/Tomas/Alan/Wyn –

    You’ve offered a very long, very thorough accounting of intricate aspects of what I believe to be among the most socially impactful documentaries of the past 30 years. Paris Is Burning had an impact on popular culture that was both immediate (Madonna’s appropriation of the voguing dance style) and long-lasting (the popularization of once-niche terms like “throwing shade” within the general population over time).

    But beyond these popular impacts, it also had impacts on academic thought. Butler’s work makes a terrific pairing with the film, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many of the points Butler makes in works such as Gender Trouble are reliant on documentation of drag as a cultural form such as Paris Is Burning. Paris is Burning is not just an “illustration” of Butler’s ideas; it is a manifestation of many of the same ideas in another form, with its source of authority flowing not from Butler’s academic standing, but instead from the first-person voices of the men and trans women whose share their stories onscreen.

    As I said, this blog post is very thorough. But I do have a question for all of you: What is your direct impression of this film, and of these people, 30 years on? What does it mean to watch these people’s performances, and hear their worldviews, in 2020? Is their characterization of their world recognizable? Do the claims they marshal, the complaints they make, still hold true? How do the intervening three decades shape our understandings of these people, their performances, and this social-political milieu?


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