Paris is Burning and Brechtian Theory

An executive. A Yale student. A babysitter. A construction worker. A street gang member. A fashion model. As though some kind of imagined and uncanny ‘olympics of gender’ had been taken up by the queer subculture of Harlem in the 1980s, metaphorical boxing matches were performed through dance and catwalk competitions at drag balls, eccentrically and unapologetically juxtaposing the social figures previously enumerated, which all together formed a living collage of figures appropriated from the media, from heteronormative society as well as marginal cultures. Not without wit yet in all seriousness, twisting and bending the burdensome boundaries of gender through performance was in many ways a mode of survival for economically disenfranchised, queer African Americans and Latino/as in a decade of the AIDS moral panics (Watney 74). This reality was introduced for the first time to mainstream audiences in Jenny Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, although the ball subculture had existed for several decades before the film was made (Bailey 260). Paris is Burning is about drag, it’s about balls, it’s about performance. Paris is Burning is also about the performances of the everyday, the everyday felt embodiment of gender and its failures and how these failures serve to illustrate the oppressiveness of the binary itself, and the pain it inflicts to it subjects, whose oppression is not just gendered, but a complex nexus of race, class and sexuality. Paris is Burning is then also about being gay, while also being Black or Latino/a as well as poor; it is ultimately a film about intersections and ambivalence.

Brecht’s alienation effect: holding up a mirror to society’s face

Willi Ninja, a man. He is holding an imaginary women’s powder case in one hand and opens it with the other. He begins to mime the applying of powder, and with each new gesture, makes sure to look at himself in the mirror. Willi Ninja finally turns back the mirror from himself to the audience. The body demonstrates, the gestures become a gest. As Willi Ninja artfully exemplifies in Paris is Burning, the series of interrupted gestures of the vogue dancer, multiplying themselves with frequent interruptions, as Walter Benjamin would note (151), reflect back to hegemonic society its most normative roles. It is here that Bertolt Brecht’s theory of the epic theatre becomes a relevant critical toolbox for looking at performance, as Elin Diamond articulated in her activation of Brechtian theory and feminist theory in the theatre (Diamond 82). Sometime between 1933 and 1947 Bertolt Brecht wrote: “the artist observes himself […] he also observes his own arms and legs, adducing them, testing them and perhaps finally approving them […] The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work […] Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic” (Brecht 92). In this way, it becomes possible to articulate the difference between a simple gesture and a social gest, the difference between a woman applying powder on her nose, and Willi Ninja applying imaginary powder on his nose. Elin Diamond makes clear that a gesture becomes a “social gest” when “the social attitudes encoded in the playtext become visible to the spectator. A gest becomes social when it “allows conclusions to be drawn about social circumstances” (Diamond 89). But what playtext could we be talking about in the case of Willi Ninja, a drag performer and voguer, as drag balls are not theatrical plays as such?

By beginning to adopt the language and framework of Brechtian theory in analyzing Paris is Burning and the possible ideological and theoretical work of drag, we begin to see gender itself as a script, a playtext, an ideology naturalized through its repetition (Diamond 84). Gender thus becomes, as Judith Butler argues,  “a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic contingent construction of meaning” (“Gender Trouble” 190). Elin Diamond has proposed an intertextual reading of feminist theory and Brechtian theory and for this essay, I would like to make use of the possibilities of this intertextuality in looking at how Brechtian concepts can be applied to the drag balls of Paris is Burning. There are many examples of drag performance that I could have chosen from, yet the intersection of gender, class and race in this film and its social significance is particularly relevant from a Brechtian perspective.

The Brechtian concept of alienation is the way in which a word, a gesture or even an idea is presented to the viewer so as to make it recognizable, yet strange and unfamiliar (Dimaond 84). The alienation effect allows seeing a performative action from a critical distance, in ways in which we had never considered it before (Diamond 84).  It is a way of quoting gestures from the character played for a didactic purpose; it is discrediting illusion and preferring to expose the mechanisms behind the action portrayed and the medium used, in this case the body (Brecht in Williet 94; Benjamin 151). When applied to gender, this notion becomes a productive way in which we can defamiliarize gender, dissect its purported naturalness, displace the inescapability of the status quo regulating what women’s and men’s bodies and attitudes should be like (Diamond 85). When the “expectation of resemblance” implicit in gender is foregrounded (Diamond 84), the alienation reveals to the spectators the ideology that upholds the notion of gender; to understand gender as ideology means to conceptualize it as “a system of beliefs and behaviours mapped across the bodies of females and males” (Diamond 85).

Realness: mimesis and its failures

Realness; a subcultural colloquialism of ball culture, a word charged with the notion of the real, with the palpable quality of ‘authenticity’. In the Harlem ballroom culture of Paris is Burning, realness could be thought of in similar terms as what Erich Auerbach has termed “mimesis” (Auerbach). Auberbach utilizes the word to designate the relationship between reality and its portrayal (Bremmer 6). And yet, “Auerbach's critics had not failed to notice that he nowhere clearly defines “reality.” For the Greeks, mimesis is not only imitation, as one might be initially inclined to think. In various cases it can indeed be an attempt at realism in its most trivial form, pure copying; but it is also often more than that. In fact, in many passages mimesis is best translated as "representation"” (Bremmer 6). Realness then contains the notion of copying, but also the notion of representation. In ballroom culture, realness concretely means “looking as much as your straight counterpart… Erasing all the giveaways, make your illusion perfect” (Paris is Burning). While the word “illusion” is something Brecht invokes only to revoke it (Brecht in Williet 92; Benjamin 152), the notion of ballroom realness gains all its significance for Brechtian theory when one looks at the way in which this notion acts on performer’s bodies. In Paris is Burning, approximations of the real, striving for realness, reveals itself with all its contradictions in the moments at which this endeavour fails. What happens when one does not “pass,” as trans culture parlance would have it, as the gender one was not biologically born with, but that one self-identifies as? It is in realness’ failure, when the spectator sees a man demonstrating a woman, that an alienation effect is achieved in a decidedly Brechtian fashion.  An alienation effect “challenges the mimetic property of acting that semioticians call iconicity, the fact that the performer’s body conventionally resembles the object (or character) to which it refers” (Diamond 84). The possibility of detaching gender from biological sex in drag performance is therefore a powerful alienation effect that exposes the body as “not a “being,” but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality” (“Gender Trouble”189).

Brecht’s “not, but” and historicized performance

Elin Diamond describes Brecht’s theory of the “not, but” as a component of alienated performance in which the actor, while he is performing a gesture or action, must also contain, imply and conserve “the action it represses” in order to allow the audience to “look beyond the representation — beyond what is authoritatively put in view — to the possibilities of as yet unarticulated actions or judgements” (Diamond 86). It is here that the spectator is invited to participate, to extend through reflection the significance of the play to the outside world once the performance has come to an end (Diamond 86). Drag, by employing Brecht’s theory of the “not, but” in the sense that what spectators see is not a woman, but a man quoting a woman, could be said to be subversive, as it “allows us to imagine the deconstruction of gender — and all other representations” (Diamond 86). Drag lays the burning questions of gender on the stage, it illustrates clearly its imperfect seams and stitches as experienced by real bodies, it highlights the ridicule of gender norms for the rest society to understand it clearly; it also begs for a leap of imagination to be taken: what if we destroyed bipolar oppositions of gender identity altogether? Yet a closer look at what kind of representations of gender, as well as race and class, are mobilized in the drag of Paris is Burning complicates the notion of subversion.

Much has been written on whether Paris is Burning and the kind of gender performance presented in it is subversive; whether it denaturalizes and displaces, or rather reifies and reinscribes gender binaries (“Gender is Burning”; hooks 61). Judith Butler asked: “Does the denaturalization of the norm succeed in subverting the norm, or is this a denaturalization in the service of a perpetual reidealization, one that can only oppress, even as, or precisely when, it is embodied effectively?” (“Gender is Burning” 129). Here Butler is asking us to consider what happens when the realness previously discussed becomes impossible to “read” (“Gender is Burning” 129), or in Brechtian language, when the alienation effect is not longer present.  Brecht insists that “The actor must show his subject, and he must show himself. Of course, he shows his subject by showing himself, and he shows himself by showing his subject. Although the two coincide, they must not coincide in such a way that the difference between the two tasks disappears” (qtd in Benjamin 153). What happens then when the two do coincide, as in the case of Octavia Saint-Laurent or Venus Extravaganzza in Paris is Burning, where the traces of man have completely been effaced and performance becomes impossible to read as artifice and “the body performing and the ideal performed appear indistinguishable”? (Butler 129). What becomes evident in trying to answer this question is the imbrication of notions of gender with race and class, and how these function in the film itself as alienation effects. Given that in Paris is Burning, economically disenfranchised as well as racially and sexually marginalized minorities are quoting mostly from white, economically privileged and heteronormative social figures, I argue that the performance becomes historicized. Diamond describes that “in historicized performance, gaps are not filled in, seams and contradictions show in all their roughness, and therein lies one aspect of spectatorial pleasure — when our differences from the past within the present are palpable, graspable, applicable” (87). The spectators of Livingston’s film retain a certain amount of distance, but are nevertheless forced to engage with their own present and problematize their own embodied experiences, while also assessing how perhaps the situation of transgendered people and of drag performance might be different today then it was when the film was made in 1990. Importantly, “Brechtian historicization challenges the presumed ideological neutrality of any historical reflection […] Historicization in fact puts on the table the issue of spectatorship and the performer’s body […] [The performer] must demonstrate the character as a function of particular sociohistorical relations, a conduit of particular choices” (Diamond 87), or lack thereof, in the case of the structural injustices that foster a particular social situation of disenfranchisement of many people in Paris is Burning. Ultimately then, Paris is Burning retains an ambivalence of embodying, as described by Judith Butler:

Paris is Burning documents neither an efficacious insurrection nor a painful resubordination, but an unstable coexistence of both. The film attests to the painful pleasures of eroticizing and miming the very norms that wield power by foreclosing the very reverse-occupation that the children [of the ball Houses] nevertheless perform. This is not an appropriation of dominant culture in order to remain subordinated by its terms, but an appropriation that seeks to make over the terms of domination, a making over which is itself a kind of agency, a power in and as discourse, in and as performance, which repeats in order to remake — and sometimes succeeds. (“Gender is Burning” 137)

Interruption & discovering the conditions of life

Brecht outlined that epic theatre is not meant to develop actions, but rather to represent conditions (Benjamin 150); thus “the art of epic theatre consists in producing astonishment rather than empathy. To put it succinctly: instead of identifying with the characters, the audience should be educated to be astonished at the circumstances under which they function” (Benjamin 150). In the case of Harlem ball-goers, the appropriation of hegemonic white cultural figures in performances functions as an interruption: there is something deeply moving about the material conditions of existence of the queer African Americans and Latino/as, and the way that the space of the balls functions as a playground for fantasy, a fantasy that becomes a mode of survival (Paris is Burning). The alienation effect at play sends back at normative society the models which it produces, and displays them as ridiculously easy to portray through bodily surfaces and gestures, yet tragically difficult for the disenfranchised to attain because of structural barriers of race, class, gender and sexual discrimination (Paris is Burning). Willi Ninja’s mirror that he uses to check his make-up becomes a mirror that he points back at white, heteronormative society and its repeated mascarade of gender. Ironically, out of all the people portrayed in Jennie Livingston’s film, he is among the few who are able to access fame — alongside Madonna —while others like Venus Xtravaganza die tragically (“Gender is Burning”130).

Through the medium of film the alienation effect of interruption becomes even more evident, as footage of drag performances competing in the category of “opulence” are intercut with the “real” opulence of rich, white, straight America, whose gestures are being quoted and made to appear ridiculous and perhaps more strange than the ball performances. The quoting of gestures at the balls unravels the ways in which the body and the artifices of gender are in fact performed over and over, sustained by what Judtih Butler calls “the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence” (“Gender Trouble” 187). She highlights that by “imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency” (187). Importantly, the notion of gender parody does not presume that there is an original gender that is imitated, but rather “the parody is of the very notion of an original” (188).


By choosing to read Brechtian theory intertextually with gender theory as Elin Diamond and this essay has sought to do, it allows to engage with the ways in which Brecht’s body of work has aged. It also engages with the ways in which Brechtian theory continues to be mobilized in new ways, given its focus on historicization and its relevance outside of dramatic texts themselves and for the performances of everyday life. By opening the questions of ideology and discourse in relationship to performance, Brechtian theory presents itself as a toolbox for social analysis in which the past and the present, the performer and the spectator are exposed and engaged in the performative demonstration of their own intricacies, contradictions and embodiments. Paris is Burning can be read and interpreted in a number of ways, as it was been done. Applying a Brechtian framework allows to grasp the relevance of both the film itself, over two decades later, and of alienation effects as well, many more decades later.2 December 2013

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953. Print.

Bailey, Marlon M. "Performance as Intravention: Ballroom Culture and the Politics of HIV/AIDS in Detroit." Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 11.3 (2009): 253-74. Print.

Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1986. Print

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992. Print.

Bremmer, Jan M. "Erich Auerbach and His Mimesis." Poetics Today 20.1 (Spring 1999): 3-10. Web.

Butler, Judith. "Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "sex" New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-40. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Diamond, Elin. "Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards a Gestic Feminist Criticism." TDR 32.1 (Spring 1988): 82-94. Print.

hooks, bell “Is Paris Burning?” Z, Sisters of the Yam column (June 1991) n.p.

Watney, Simon. “The Spectacle of AIDS.” October 43 (Winter 1987): 71-86. Print.