Reading Guide To: Butler, J (1993) 'Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion', in Thornham, S (Ed) (1999) Feminist Film Theory, a Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Butler begins by considering Althusser on the mechanism of hailing or interpellation. Althusser has not considered the extent to which hailing is supported by the force of law and the potential power of punishment for disobedience. As a result, he does not consider that people who are hailed might be able to refuse the conformity that is required, through parody, through 'repetition of the law into hyperbole, a rearticulation of the law against the authority of the one who delivers it' (337). A number of feminists have realised these possibilities, however, including those who have reworked terms like 'queer' 'from abjection to politicised affiliation' (337). Instead of subjects being interpellated as stable identities, they find themselves as a 'crossroads of cultural and political discursive forces', occupying a necessary ambivalence (338).

Films such as Paris Is Burning indicate some of the ambivalences, for example in telling the story of a 'Latina/pre-operative transsexual, cross-dresser, prostitute, and member of the "House of Xtravaganza"' (338). This film indicates that it is possible to parody dominant norms, but maybe not to displace them -- there may be no more than a certain ambivalence attached to drag [this is to correct an earlier emphasis on the necessarily subversive nature of drag]. What drag does show, however, is that heterosexuality itself is always a performance, an attempt to 'imitate its own idealisations', leaving it perpetually anxious and threatened by alternative possibilities.

However, heterosexuality can recognise this lack of naturalness, but still hold on to power, as in various kinds of domesticated drag -- Hoffman in Tootsie or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot -- where any excess of drag is contained, and drag becomes mere entertainment. Such films may even provide some form of 'ritualistic release for a heterosexual economy that must constantly police its own boundaries' (339).

Bell hooks, in her analysis of Paris Is Burning, argues that some films involving gay male drag can even be misogynist, ridiculing and degrading women. However normal heterosexual identifications can be no better, involving  'the forcible approximation of the normal one never chooses, and norm that chooses us, but which we occupy' (Butler: 339). Moreover, such accusations of misogyny can appear to be homophobic, and to agree with the standard heterosexual views that homosexuality, including lesbianism, 'is always and only a mask and forever false' (340). Such homophobia sees love and desire as frustrated and embittered, and thus recoiling from heterosexuality, ignoring the possibility that 'queer practices' might be genuine forms of pleasure desire and love, not just derived from some inversion and incorporation.

In the case of both drag and lesbianism, it might be argued that gender itself is being destabilised and denaturalised, or that even if there is an element of inversion of heterosexuality, there are still specific an additional pleasures and desires. Paris Is Burning both appropriates and subverts conventional norms of oppression, not sequentially, but simultaneously.

The film is about drag balls in Harlem, attended by either African-American or Latino men. There are contests, some of which follow conventional categories -- the executive or the Ivy League student -- while others refer to categories such as high drag, or Butch Queen, and still others are 'taken from straight black masculine street culture' (341). The idea seems to be to compel belief, 'produce the naturalised effect', aimed at some impersonation and idealisation. For viewers, it is an obviously artificial performance, but one which nevertheless achieves realness.

Does this subvert norms, or hold out some perpetual ideal which can only oppress? The contradictions are seen in the person of Venus Xtravaganza, who is able to pass as a light-skinned woman, but who is eventually murdered by a client. Venus is attempting to choose another gender in order to escape from race and class, and thus from 'poverty homophobia and racist delegitimation' (342).

The contest itself exposes the norms of realness, as a kind of example of the dominance of the Lacanian Symbolic. However it is clear that sexual difference is not prior to, but intermeshed with race and class -- for example there are 'racially informed conceptions of "sex"' (343). By examining the drag ball we see the constitution of subjects, but as part of a project of their mastery, the repeated performance, which both 'legitimates and delegitimates the realness norms by which it is produced' (343). It is a matter of fantasy, but one that can never be achieved without disidentification, and thus can never be absorbed into the Symbolic. Venus ends with being murdered, as a reminder of the limits of fantasy. However, she misread the 'social map of power', in assuming that passing as a black woman would lead to privileges, such as being able to find a man who would protect her. This must have been based on a denial of the reality, an idealisation.

Black males who are queer display a different option, taking over the straight distinction between faggots and women to produce a new identity, 'the feminisation of the black faggot, which is the black feminisation of the faggot' (344). This involves an exploitation of the ways in which black women are perceived by a 'white homophobic hegemony', by playing it to excess, both confusing and seducing the audience. It is a fantasy that sees women as marketable goods, but also as privileged consumers. It probably does not arise from black male misogyny, but relies instead on the process of feminisation of poor black and gay men which is already taking place. This process results from an articulation, in the gramscian sense, and alternative articulations are threatened but not totally dominated.

Thus Venus wants to conform to the norms of heterosexuality, and is a victim finally of hegemony, but she is at least celebrated by the film. What part does the film play itself up in the 'trajectory of desire'? (345). Hooks suggests that the film-maker -- (Jennie Livingstone) 'a white Jewish lesbian from Yale' -- is able to disguise her standpoint in the usual way, by claiming to offer an ethnographic film: this is not progressive or counter hegemonic for hooks, but partakes of voyeurism and colonialism. However, there is one scene where the camera does intrude into the film, but this suggests 'the desire that motivates the camera, in which a white lesbian phallically organised by the use of the camera... eroticises a black male-to-female transsexual' (346). The scene is ambiguous, since it might indicate a white person exoticising a black transsexual, or a more unusual form of lesbian desire (where a black male is encouraged to perform as a woman). The scene seems to offer the (phallic) power to confer sexual identity, but is some attempt to domesticate black people detectable here? For hooks, the issue turns on whether there is any intention to change, or just to record, and on the clash between the ethnographic aspects of the film and this sort of fantasy. It is easy to accept that the ethnographic look will always be a white gaze in reality, but what of lesbian desire?

Butler thinks that the camera simply assumes the place of the phallus 'as that which controls the field of signification' (347). However, hooks suggests that the contrast between the show, and the lives of the participants is also important. The drag show could be seen as overcoming the suffering of life outside, and hooks suggests that the film places the drag ball at the centre of people's lives. Butler thinks the film shows that the drag ball itself can be a form of community to sustain people in the life outside as well. This is a form of reappropriation of concepts normally found in straight society, such as kinship [a constant metaphor to describe the relationships between the participants in the drag show].

The film therefore shows an 'unstable co-existence' of both 'an efficacious insurrection [and] a painful re subordination' (348). However, the fact that dominant culture is appropriated and used in performance is a kind of agency. But viewers, however, are implicated in this act: there is the danger of the performance becoming an 'exotic fetish, one from which the audience absents itself' (348), but also the potential of establishing ambivalence about how to embody gender, and this might open up a 'distance... between that hegemonic call to normativizing gender and its critical appropriation' (348).