Paris Is Burning director Jennie Livingston, promoting her documentary on The Joan Rivers Show.
“Reading is the real art form of insult.”—Dorian Corey
Venus Xtravaganza “reading.”
Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) demonstrates the related art of being a “Snap!” Diva.
The final inter-title to Paris Is Burning: PIG LATIN. [Japanese subtitled version]
The original L.A. Eyeworks campaign featuring RuPaul.
Absolut Product Placement (with one of the members of the hunky “Pit Crew” on RuPaul’s Drag Race).
Drag Race contestants Manila Luzon (Season 3) and Sahara Davenport (Season 2) are a prominent “kai kai” drag queen couple.
A RuPaul meme in real life (remixing a Ron Paul bumper sticker).
Miss J.’s official It Gets Better video with fierce diva snaps!
“Drag Professor” Jujubee on the spin-off female makeover show RuPaul’s Drag U.
New media meme and commercial.
This distinction between “insider” and “outsider” is also a central problem for Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning. Bell hooks has criticized Livingston for not being reflexive enough about what it meant for her as an outsider (a white lesbian) to ask black and Latino drag queens and transsexuals to explain themselves and their terminology to outsiders (mainstream audiences). Hooks accuses Livingston of turning a “ritual” with meanings discernible to insiders into a “spectacle” for outsiders (150–51). In The Queening of America: Gay Culture in Straight Society, David Van Leer problematizes this in/out distinction and argues for a shift of emphasis from gay narrative visibility to gay speech:
The value of such indirect language can be heard in Paris Is Burning when Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza explain “Reading” and “Shade.” Corey explains that if you are both black queens, you can’t call each other “black queen” as a slur. Instead, reading involves finding a flaw (“your ridiculous shape, your tacky clothes, your saggy face”) or getting in a good crack at someone (Venus: “Touch this skin, honey, touch all of this skin. You just can’t take it, you’re just an overgrown orangutan”). Shade is even subtler, whereby, “I don’t have to tell you you’re ugly, because you know you’re ugly” (Willi Ninja also explains that Voguing is a “safe way of throwing shade”). But what is important here is that this is an “art” which is communal, and while its apparent goal or motive is insult and competition, the pleasure is in the game itself (despite heated moments where the MC or judge is accused of being “shady”/”throwing shade,” one of the remarkable aspects of the drag balls depicted in Paris Is Burning is the rotation and permeability of the roles of contestant, audience member, and judge).
Reading and Shade are in fact closely linked to the African-American rhetorical strategy of “Signifyin(g)” analyzed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey (drawing on earlier work by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and others), where he argues,
These verbal strategies are used by adults within African-American communities and taught to children so they can learn how to “hold a conversation” and understand the subtleties of indirection as a rhetorical technique. While I have benefited from such a clarification of terminological definition and use, hooks criticizes this aspect of Paris Is Burning: the way it explains black, gay, subcultural terms to “outsiders,” in the manner of a conventional ethnography (with inter-titles: READING, SHADE, MOPPING, etc.). But it is important to note that the participants often relate ironically to the “talking heads” format itself. Pepper LaBeija begins the film with “So you want me to say who I am and all that?” and Freddie Pendavis jokes about how a “faggot can pull a stunt and you won’t find out until years later” and how he’s “a very quiet person,” adding “if you believe that, you know I own that island over there?” Like Gates’s reading of “trickster” figures in the African-American oral and literary tradition, the joke is on the director and viewer who are “outsiders” and lack access to the subtleties of such rhetoric (and may not catch up with the stunt until years later). Van Leer explains that
Van Leer in fact objects to Corey’s explanation of “Realness” as “passing” since this translates a gay “inside” practice into the dominant language of heterosexism and racism, and the essentialist metaphors of visibility (194).
The epistemological or ethnographic framework is constantly undermined in the game that the participants play with the documentary format itself. The last line of the film is actually a question:
Livingston herself as a queer filmmaker acknowledges a potential critique of her own film by including as the final intertitle “PIG LATIN,” demonstrating a simultaneously exclusive and inclusive mode of speech. Like an ethnographic documentary, RuPaul’s Drag Race occasionally explains insider terms to outsiders (such as “kai kai”: when two drag queens date each other). But it also attempts to illuminate the dynamics of drag community: a complex mixture of competition and collectivity (although competition shows always stress rivalry rather than collectivity). Recalling the drag houses of Paris Is Burning, RuPaul acts as “mother” and is sometimes called “mama” by the contestants (whom she refers to as “my girls”). Butler has noted how the drag houses in Paris Is Burning point to a resignification of the terms of kinship: mother, father, and children (241). Paris Is Burning allows Butler to refine her theory of resignification, iterability, and citationality with regard to gender and kinship in ways that cannot be reduced to voluntarism (including the “voluntarist” view of gender as willed performance that she wanted to distance herself from in Bodies That Matter). But I would like to ask what happens to these notions of kinship and community when we leave the ballroom setting and, as consumers, watch RuPaul’s Drag Race through new media:
Queens of all media
How is queer culture passed on in the age of new media? In many ways RuPaul’s Drag Race contains the kind of intergenerational tutoring, communication, competition, and transformation of drag occurring between “mothers” and “children” in the drag world depicted within Paris Is Burning—and occurring between that documentary film and its diverse audiences. RuPaul’s Drag Race teaches its contestants and cable television/LOGO online audiences how to “read” the participants and the discourse of drag culture in relation to the established codes of reality television (where we move from drag houses to “Team Raja” or “Entouraja” and various plays on the word “fan”: Fanilas, Fandoras, etc.). It also adds a level of corporate sponsorship and product-placement mostly absent from Livingston’s documentary yet essential to shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway. (Paris Is Burning was distributed by Miramax, but, as the credits indicate, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and executive produced by Nigel Finch for BBC Television and Davis Lacy for WNYC Television). Beyond the “pink dollar” companies of L.A. Eyeworks, Interior Illusions, wig and gown makers, gay travel agencies, and cosmetics (MAC, Krylon, NYX), the omnipresent sponsor of RuPaul’s Drag Race is Absolut Vodka (and the prize includes headlining the Absolut Vodka Gay Pride tour, a perfect symbol of the commodification of gay culture). The distorted connection to drag ball culture is apparent in RPDR S1:E6, “Absolut Drag Ball.”
In this light, let us remember that the title of the documentary Paris Is Burning in fact refers to a drag ball thrown by Paris Dupree, MC and house mother, and the houses represent appropriations of trademarked couture house names (for example: Saint Laurent) for the purposes of gay kinship and competition that is actually community-building. Absolut is not a house; it is a brand. In the “Absolut Drag Ball” episode, the mini-challenge is to vogue “in the tradition of Paris Is Burning” (a challenge won by Nina Flowers, a Puerto Rican queen who has stressed drag “sisterhood” in her career). The main challenge is to come up with three looks: Swimsuit (parodying Miss America), Executive Realness (a yuppie-aspirational category from Paris Is Burning), and Evening Wear, where the look must be inspired by a fruit-infused flavor of Absolut Vodka.
In his review of the series, Bradford Nordeen is critical of this relentless product placement, and the way the queens are invited to sell themselves as a product. Nordeen calls Absolut Vodka “the numbingly name-dropped sponsor” and notes:
While I have been stressing parody, resignification, and subversion, Nordeen offers an important reminder about the capitalist political economy of reality television and, like hooks on Paris Is Burning, questions whether the show is as “progressive” as it seems (in a more recent article on the problem of race in the series, Nordeen explicitly links RPDR to Paris Is Burning and asks, “Is the overt performativity of racial stereotypes by these queens liberating or merely self-perpetuating?”). In terms of commodification, RuPaul’s show is also clearly an infomercial for RuPaul’s songs (available on iTunes!) and the RuPaul brand itself. Elizabeth Schewe has argued that RuPaul’s autobiography Lettin It All Hang Out expresses RuPaul’s ambivalence about himself as a product:
Schewe’s concept of ambivalence and her use of José Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification” in performance helps clarify for me why I don’t fully agree with Nordeen that RPDR is a “carbon copy” of any of the intertexts I have discussed. Instead, I would suggest that distortion and migration of communal and discursive practices and meanings are inherent in the process of impersonation, citation, and metaization that I have been tracing here, and perhaps say more about the medium than the message. While RPDR resembles Paris Is Burning and continually cites it intertextually, it also indicates that queer culture is now frequently passed on between generations in a fashion more akin to “memes.”
In contemporary new media culture, savvy television fans catalog the dissemination of tropes through wiki websites like TV Tropes (tvtropes.org) [open endnotes in new window] and we can follow the quick explosion, mutation, and exhaustion of internet memes and the moment they “go meta” on our Facebook feeds. To my knowledge, no one has called attention to the possibility that memes might be “queer” in that they replace a theory of culture passed down like genetic material through heteroreproductive institutions with a theory of culture that is “worth passing on” across generations. This “queer” passing on of culture happens in non-heteronormative ways that in fact bypass family. (This is both the fear of conservatives wishing to police the Internet, and the promise of projects like It Gets Better where Dan Savage encourages gay adults to bypass parents and educators to speak directly to at-risk queer youth via YouTube.) Homophobes have long used the smokescreen of equating homosexuals with pedophiles in order to prevent any kind of continuity between queer generations (and make sure that each suicidal gay youth feels like she or he is the only one, a point powerfully made in Eve Sedgwick’s Tendencies (3)). On the one hand, RuPaul’s television show may exemplify pink-dollar profiteering and what Lauren Berlant calls the “cruel optimism” of meritocracy and “rags to riches” fantasies (hearkening back to the dreams of the young transsexuals Octavia and Venus in Paris Is Burning). But on the other, it also cultivates a media-savvy and meta-savvy queer audience who might recognize these fantasies as utterly conventional and at odds with the show’s counternarrative about queer kinship and intergenerational coaching. (And this coaching is not just from mother to child: recall the “Golden Gals” episode of season two where the queens are given drag “mothers” who are older Stonewall-era gay men, distorting the meaning of “drag mother” from the drag ball circuit, but also countering gay amnesia and generational isolation in a way congruent with the drag balls themselves.)
The RuPaul’s Drag Race recap and reunion specials retrace how the queens’ terminology is coined, appropriated, and disseminated (“true T,” “no T, no shade,” “sickening,” “fishy,” “booger,” “Heathers,” etc.)—performing a kind of linguistic anthropology akin to Judy Grahn’s Another Mother Tongue or William L. Leap’s Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English. The metalevels added by the recap/reunion specials and Untucked teach the audiences the art of indirection just as Paris Is Burning teaches “Reading,” and “Shade.” Indeed, Roger D. Abrahams’s explication of black women’s use of indirection aptly describes the contestant Jujubee, winner of the “Reading” mini-challenge in season two of RPDR, and her role in the workroom and in the Interior Illusions Lounge:
However, when the judges say that something “reads” a certain way (typically, “doesn’t read as feminine”) they are using the term in a more typically televisual sense (“reads on camera” as X).
While websites like Urban Dictionary offer the lure of tracing the etymology of subcultural, ethnic, and queer terms, the search for origins may be irrelevant. I would like to offer two subversions of the notion of originality. In Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, a short book of literary theory published in 1973, he suggests that literary criticism primarily concerns itself with the what he calls the tutor text, and always deals with texts of pleasure such as Flaubert, Proust, and Stendhal, never texts of bliss:
But he later notes another kind of tutoring: he reads Proust in a text cited by Stendhal, and reads a passage in Flaubert
Barthes suggests that this is what defines the “inter-text.” I have argued that this is true for the three major intertexts of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but especially Paris Is Burning. We read one text according to another, sometimes even against proper chronology.
Another subversion of origins can be found in Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” She offers “something like a confession” that when she was young she suffered from the allegation that being lesbian is always
Yet she remembers “quite distinctly when I first read in Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America that drag is not an imitation or a copy of some prior and true gender; according to Newton, drag enacts the very structure of impersonation by which any gender is assumed.” (21). Thus, “the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies” as well (21). Such a non-essentialist model suggests that gender is a kind of technology. While Butler stresses the mundane aspects of this technology, I believe that RuPaul recaptures some of the early thrill of Gender Trouble in the spectacular teaser for season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired on The Insider.
It starts with RuPaul in male “executive realness” drag walking down a corporate office/laboratory hallway with a Muzak version of “Jealous of My Boogie” playing (perhaps acknowledging the effect of banalization through corporate sponsorship criticized by Nordeen). But as RuPaul enters the passcode to enter a “lab” he is transformed into a Gareth Pugh-inspired Sci-fi “Glamazon” at a control panel labeled with intertextual references to previous seasons and to Paris Is Burning:
RuPaul’s “Drag Droids” are constructed/deconstructed while RuPaul screams “They’re alive” (this is the kind of B-movie allusion she frequently makes to Mommie Dearest, Snakes on a Plane, etc.). They are instructed to “go forth and be sickening,” suggesting that RuPaul is both creator, mother, boss, producer, and is herself a technological product (since she resembles them and is also zapped with electricity from the “fierceness overload”). What we witness here is the technology of gender, the technology of commodification, and the technology of fandom as we take pleasure in the intertextual references of this “new media” device and the further metaization of RuPaul’s Drag Race.