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.


The insider

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:

“My analysis … focuses on the language itself, turning from the visible to the verbal, from homosexual narratives to homosexual dictions, rhythms, rhetorics. The sexual character of language is rarely direct, and post-Stonewall criticism has occasionally stigmatized such writing as ‘closeted.’ But just as invisibility does not impede all forms of speech, so the refusal to identify one’s personal interests can facilitate other kinds of gay statements.” (19)

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,

“Signifyin(g) turns upon indirection” (77).

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

“often minorities speak most volubly between the lines, ironically reshaping dialogues the oppressor thinks he controls or even finding new topics and modes of speaking to which the oppressor himself lacks access” (19).

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:

“So this is New York City and this is what the gay life is all about…Right?”

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:

  • LOGO, a cable-television channel owned by Viacom’s Music and Logo Group division with programming/niche marketing geared toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers,
  • VH1 cable television (where RuPaul had a relatively unsuccessful talk show in the mid-’90s), and
  • online streaming video (LOGOonline.com and YouTube, adding further fan “feedback loop” perhaps best exemplified by the extended reviews of Drag Race episodes provided by drag queens Isis Mirage and Coco Ferocha on the YouTube channel THROWINSHADE: http://www.youtube.com/user/THROWINSHADE ).

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.

Isis Mirage and Coco Ferocha post Drag Race episode reviews on YouTube. “Absolut Drag Ball”: Rebecca Glasscock
“Absolut Drag Ball”: Nina Flowers “Absolut Drag Ball”: Bebe Zahara Benet

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:

“The bemused unease that I felt in that repeated brand placement seemed to invade the attitude that many of these contestant took to their trade. … (There’s a suspicious tendency here to role-play the very real world concerns of drag culture: Drag on a Dime presents constructing a costume on the cheap as if it’s something rare; whereas a post-Drag Race trip last night to the drag show at Barracuda confirms quite the contrary, as resident diva Peppermint regaled the audience with her experiences fighting the Con Edison bill collection team.) The first season dropped this kind of hokey fun that certain drag performers maintain, suggesting that the critical elements that camp once offered are (like poor Porkchop) a thing of the past. Instead, lavish couture gowns and MAC cosmetics maintain the interior illusion … The quite-commercial endeavors of these queens became a startlingly distorted mirror to the prime time efforts of the reality shows from which their drag race was carbon copied. And this narrative seemed not different enough.” (Fanzine)

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:

“While RuPaul embraces both the confessional autobiographical mode and the pop-culture marketplace that make his “rags to riches story” possible, he simultaneously draws on his working-class African American background to question “the consumer logic of late capitalism” that legitimates (depoliticized) queerness through its consumption ‘as an aestheticized lifestyle’ (Eng 43). In other words, although RuPaul glories in the power of performance to break down barriers and create community, the classed and racialized images of prostitution and slavery that recur throughout Lettin highlight his fear of exclusion from the very community that his commodified performances help to create. The specter of reader-as-consumer haunts the autobiography, and RuPaul’s conflicting views of the reader as community member or voracious consumer are never resolved. … Indeed, it is precisely through these unresolved tensions that RuPaul indirectly questions the rags-to-riches narrative that he employs and the assimilationist politics that go hand-in-hand with such a narrative of success.” (670–71)

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)[2] [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:

“A person is loud-talking when he says something of someone just loud enough for that person to hear, but indirectly, so he cannot properly respond (Mitchell-Kernan). Another technique of signifying through indirection is making reference to a person or group not present, in order to start trouble between someone present and the ones who are not.” (Abrahams, qtd. in Gates 77).

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:

“thus criticism speaks the futile bliss of the tutor text, its past or future bliss: you are about to read, I have read” (21–22).

But he later notes another kind of tutoring: he reads Proust in a text cited by Stendhal, and reads a passage in Flaubert

“according to Proust. I savor the sway of formulas, the reversal of origins, the ease which brings the anterior text out of the subsequent one. I recognize that Proust’s work, for myself at least, is the reference work, the general mathesis, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony” (35–36).

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

“a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality which will always and only fail” (21).

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.

RuPaul’s sci-fi drag control panel for the preview of Season 4. Drag control panel.
“For The Children.” A memorable term from the MC of Paris Is Burning (note the slight shift: OPULENCE to OPULENT); a frequently used term from Drag Race, “sickening.”

A term used by contestants in Drag Race to describe bad drag: “Booger.”

Sci-fi drag hyperbole.

“The House Down” functions as a grafted figure of speech (perhaps comparable to “over” [“ovah”] in Paris Is Burning).

Another drag term with multiple spellings: Work, Werk, Werq.

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:

  • “Fierce,”
  • “Severe,”
  • “For the Children,”
  • “Drag Coefficient,”
  • “Opulent,”
  • “Sickening,”
  •  “Booger [Off],”
  • “Devastating,”
  • “The House Down,”
  • “Werk.”

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.

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