Reality Realness: Paris is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race

by Lauren Levitt*

Jennie Livingston’s 1991 film Paris Is Burning documents the ball scene in Harlem, New York. The balls are competitions in which African American and Latino gay men and transgender women walk the runway in categories such as Butch Queen, School Boy/School Girl, Executive Realness, Military Realness, Bangee Boy/Bangee Girl or High Fashion Realness, and contestants are judged based on the “realness” of their performance.[1] As one of the best known documentaries about drag and transgenderism, Paris Is Burning has had a significant influence on the current reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Hosted by model, musician, actor and drag queen RuPaul, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a competition to find “America’s next drag superstar.” The show features progressive elimination, and, in each regular episode, contestants compete in a mini challenge, a main challenge and a runway walk before facing the judging panel. Finally, the bottom two contestants, as chosen by RuPaul, must “lip sync for their lives” to decide who goes home.

DVD cover, Paris is Burning, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2005

DVD cover, Paris is Burning, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2005.

As Susan Murray notes in her essay “‘I Think We Need a New Name for It,’” documentary is seen as addressing important social issues, whereas reality TV is dismissed as mindless entertainment.[2] Moreover, reality TV is often linked to spectacle and exploitation. These assumptions are present in John Corner’s assertion that we have now entered a post-documentary context in which the primary function of actuality programming is “documentary as diversion.”[3] Yet, a comparison between Paris Is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race reveals the extent to which this distinction between documentary and reality TV is a false one. Though a critical and popular success, Paris Is Burning was criticized by some academics such as bell hooks for exploiting its subjects and spectacularizing their suffering.[4] Likewise, starting with Allen Funt’s Candid Camera going up to Big Brother, the history of reality TV is also a history of social experiment;[5] like these shows preceding it, RuPaul’s Drag Race explores social issues. Moreover, documentary and reality TV use many of the same formal techniques to achieve their objectives.

Admittedly, in contrast to the more traditional documentary style of Paris Is Burning, RuPaul’s Drag Race conforms to the formal and production models of reality TV. Like many competitive reality TV shows, RuPaul’s Drag Race uses voting to choose the winner of each season and announces the winner live, which responds to the rise in television viewers who watch programs after they originally air with the aid of DVR technology. Viewers can now choose to record their favorite programs and watch them later, skipping or fast forwarding through the commercials, a practice evident as the varying live, live plus same day and live plus seven day ratings attest.[6] As journalist Michael Lewis points out, networks now favor programming such as sports or talent competitions that can guarantee viewers for their commercials, which translate directly into advertising revenue.[7] Additionally, like much reality TV, RuPaul’s Drag Race relies heavily on product placement. The winner of each main challenge receives a prize, which in the past has included goods and services such as clothing, accessories and cruises. Each season has corporate sponsors like Absolut Vodka, who sometimes provide part of the grand prize. The product integration on RuPaul’s Drag Race reflects the imperative for a reality TV show to make money the first time it is broadcast instead of in syndication as with dramatic programming, limiting representation to that which can turn an immediate profit.[8]

Advertisement for RuPaul's Drag Race, Logo, 2012

Advertisement for RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, 2012.

Nonetheless, despite the complicity of RuPaul’s Drag Race with reality TV’s forms and modes of production, both Drag Race and Paris is Burning address contemporary social issues, which include construction of identity, alternative kinship formations and social injustice. The most apparent issue addressed in Paris Is Burning is the construction of identity, which is discussed by almost all of the scholars writing about the film.[9] According to Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble, gender identity is performative, that is, constructed through the repetition of gendered behaviors and the cultivation of external gender characteristics. Drag is a practice that can potentially draw attention to the imitative nature of gender itself through its parodic repetition of gender norms.[10] Butler’s book has become a cornerstone of anti-essentialist feminism, which drew on earlier notions of the female masquerade, and Paris Is Burning almost seems to be a filmic explication of Butler’s ideas. Furthermore, as Butler herself points out in “Gender Is Burning,” a chapter from her 1993 book Bodies that Matter, the documentary extends this argument to include the constructed nature of race and class identity as well as gender identity.[11]

Key to this demonstration of the constructed nature of identity is the concept of “realness,” that is, the extent to which a performance conforms to the standard by which it is being judged. In their performances, ball participants seek to appear as what they are not, be it female, straight, white or rich, through their behavior and dress. As participant Dorian Corey puts it, “In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore you are showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one.”[12] The participants’ efforts to reinvent themselves are highlighted by footage of straight, white, middle-class people intercut into the ball scenes. As many writers note, these performances are shown to be just as inauthentic as those of the ball participants themselves, thus demonstrating that everyone essentially is in drag.[13]

Intertitle, Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston (71 min. color, sound), 1990

Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning (71 min. color, sound), 1990. Film still.

As a television show about drag queens, to a certain extent RuPaul’s Drag Race also illustrates the performative nature of gender identity, although this message has not been as unequivocal as in Paris Is Burning. For example, the high number of glamour queens, conforming to conventional standards of femininity and female beauty, undermines the subversive potential of drag. These queens reflect RuPaul’s own highly polished aesthetic. Additionally, contestants on the show must be biological males at the time of filming and not faux queens or transgender women, and, although it is not a rule, to date all the contestants on the show have been gay. However, there is some evidence that the show is moving in a more progressive direction. Recent seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race have featured a number of unconventional queens such as alternative queen The Princess and horror drag act Sharon Needles, who ultimately won. The only body queer queen in Season 5 was audience selected Penny Tration, but others such as Jinkx Monsoon, Alaska and Detox are more comedy than glamour queens. More significantly, in “Lip Sync Extravaganza Eleganza” Monica Beverly Hillz revealed that she was not a man but a transgender woman in the middle of transitioning.[14] The success of less conventional queens like Latrice Royale, Sharon Needles, Alaska and Jinkx Monsoon as well as the participation of a transgender woman on the show implies that in the future there may be more transgender women, straight men or even faux queens on the show, which would be more in line with the constructionist conception of identity expressed in Paris Is Burning.

Paris Is Burning also explores the issue of social injustice—clarifying why the balls are important, Corey says, “In real life you can’t get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life…black people have a hard time getting anywhere. And those that do are usually straight.”[15] Similarly, contestant Pepper LaBeija remarks, “You know a lot of those kids that are in the balls, they don’t have two of nothing. Some of them don’t even eat. They come to balls starving. And they sleep in the Under Twenty-Ones, or they sleep under the piers. They don’t have a home to go to.”[16]

In her essay “Is Paris Burning?” one of bell hooks’ main criticisms is that the documentary does not provide sufficient social context for the balls, and this sentiment is echoed by film and media scholars Caryl Flinn and Lisa Henderson.[17] hooks maintains that there are two competing narratives in the film, that of the lives of the participants and that of the balls, and that the spectacle of the ball overwhelms the suffering of the participants’ lives.[18] Flinn similarly claims that the misery of the contestants’ lives is subverted to spectacle in the documentary.[19] However, this overestimates the extent to which Paris Is Burning is unambiguously celebratory of the balls. While hooks asserts that the death of Venus Xtravaganza, murdered by a john who discovered she was biologically male, goes unmourned in the film, both Phelan and Ann Cvetkovich point out that the death of Venus is the climax of the film.[20]

Social injustice is also explored in RuPaul’s Drag Race. Much of Season 4 centered around Latrice Royale, the African American queen who spent eighteen months in prison for drug possession. In “RuPocalypse Now!” Latrice tells RuPaul that she was driven to crime out of poverty.[21] During season 5, in an episode titled “Super Troopers,” the queens give drag make-overs to five veterans who served before the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” An older veteran, Dave, reveals that he was discharged from the military after being seen at a gay bar with a group of friends in full uniform. [22] Finally, in preparation for a presidential debate in “Frock the Vote,” Sharon Needles tells Dan Savage, liberal sex advice columnist and cofounder of the It Gets Better Project (an organization that helps prevent suicide among LGBT youth), that she was bullied a lot as a child. Likewise, in “Dragazines,” Phi Phi O’Hara tells the other contestants that in Texas you couldn’t hold hands, kiss or even look at your partner without being called a faggot.[23]

Latrice Royale, RuPaul's Drag Race, 2012.

Latrice Royale, RuPaul’s Drag Race, 2012.

Another central theme in both Paris Is Burning and RuPaul’s Drag Race is the formation of alternative kinships. In Paris Is Burning this is done primarily through an examination of the ball “houses.” As the film indicates, ball participants are organized into houses, which are named after either fashion houses or the most famous person in the house. The “mother” of each house cares for her “children” much the way biological mother would, providing them with food and sometimes a place to stay. One of the members of the House of Xtravaganza says of house mother Angie Xtravaganza that she is more of a mother to him than his real mother is. His mother never sends him a birthday card on his birthday, but Angie always does.[24]

On RuPaul’s Drag Race alternative kinship formations are articulated through the concept of “drag family.” In “The Fabulous Bitch Ball” Sharon Needles criticizes Phi Phi O’Hara for not valuing drag family, and in “RuPaul Roast” RuPaul says that the best thing about being gay is that you get to choose your family.[25] This concept of a drag family functions in a remarkably similar way to the houses of the ball scene, which turn the oppressive terms of the heterosexual family against themselves to create something better. The connection between drag family and the houses of the ball scene is made explicit in “Super Troopers” since contestants must make the veterans into their “drag family.” The contestant and veteran drag queen teams are referred to as “House of Detox,” “House of Alaska,” “House of Monsoon,” “House of Andrews” and “House of Montrese,” an obvious allusion to the ball culture depicted in Paris Is Burning.[26]

However, despite the praise heaped upon Paris Is Burning, the film has been accused of spectacle and exploitation. At the heart of many of these criticisms is the use of ethnographic filmmaking conventions.[27] Intertitles are used to introduce terms such as “realness,” “voguing” or “shade” and viewers come to understand the nuances of these concepts through the following footage and interviews (the interview format itself is a convention from ethnographic filmmaking). Intertitles are also used to introduce people like Corey, Pepper and Venus.[28] The ethnographic conventions of Paris Is Burning are also criticized for imposing an unquestioned white, middle-class norm on the people it seeks to represent.[29] As an ethnographic film, Paris Is Burning spectacularizes the Other, in this case African American and Latino gay men and transgender women. Not only scholars but also interviewees criticize Livingston for exploiting them. Flinn remarks that some of the people in the film were disappointed in Livingston for “not having compensated them better financially.”[30] Supposedly, Livingston celebrates the aspirations of ball participants for the wealth and luxury associated with white-dominated high fashion. However, these criticisms of the film’s ethnographic address fail to take into consideration the extent to which Livingston herself critiques the internalization of white, middle-class norms by the ball participants through film form, primarily editing.

As both Cvetkovich and Henderson indicate, there is something of a generation divide between older participants such as Corey and Pepper LaBeija, who are more aware of the social implications of the balls, and the younger participants like Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia St Laurent, who blindly accept hegemonic norms mistakenly thinking that it will gain them access to the dominant culture.[31] Interviews with Corey and Pepper occur near the beginning of the film, often very close to each other and interspersed with ball scenes. In one interview, Corey acknowledges the white norm structuring the balls. When he was young, Corey says, “Nobody wanted to look like Lena Horne. Everybody wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe.”[32] In a later interview, explaining why he never had a sex change, Pepper concedes that women do not necessarily have it better than gay men. “Women get treated badly. You know, they get beat, they get robbed, they get dogged, so having the vagina, that doesn’t mean that you are going to have a fabulous life. It might in fact be worse,” he says.[33]

Venus and Octavia, by contrast, both want a sex change so that they can become “real” or “complete” women. Two of the most extensive interviews with Venus and Octavia, about their hopes for the future, are located near the end of the film, just prior to the death of Venus and the success of Willi Ninja. Like the interviews with Corey and Pepper, these interviews are intercut with one another. Octavia says that she wants a normal life, to be married with kids and to become rich and famous. Likewise, Venus wants a car, a husband, a home in the country, to get married in a church wearing a white dress and to become a professional fashion model like her idol, the white supermodel Pauline. Both think that passing as a woman or as white will offer them access to privilege and wealth, a tragic misconception that directly leads to the murder of Venus.[34]

Octavia St. Laurent, Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston (71 min. color, sound), 1990

Octavia St. Laurent in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (71 min. color, sound), 1990. Film still.

Venus Xtravaganza, Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston (71 min. color, sound), 1990

Venus Xtravaganza in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (71 min. color, sound), 1990. Film still.

Grouping the interviews with Corey and Pepper at the beginning of the film and the interviews with Venus and Octavia at the end of the film serves to set them in dialogue with one another. While Venus and Octavia have internalized the class, race and gender norms imitated in the balls, Corey and Pepper are more critical of these norms and their relationship to ball culture. By placing the interviews with Venus and Octavia at the end of the film just prior to the death of Venus, the film seems to come down on the side of the older queens. Livingston implies that the film’s tragedy is the outcome of an over-identification with the dominant culture on the part of some ball participants. Although Paris Is Burning is undeniably spectacular in many ways, this criticism of oppressive social norms encourages the white, middle-class audience to question its own values.

Likewise, RuPaul’s Drag Race is not exempt from accusations of spectacle and exploitation. This is partially because the form of reality television, particularly that of game-docs like RuPaul’s Drag Race, is heavily influenced by ethnographic filmmaking techniques in its use of interviews; retrospective interviews with contestants are frequently employed to comment upon the dramatic action of the show. These interviews in both reality TV and documentary film presumably allow the subjects to speak for themselves, but the questions asked impact the way that these subjects are received by audiences. The editing of narrative events can likewise influence the way that audiences respond to a subject. Since one of the primary goals of reality television (and, to a lesser extent, documentary film) is entertainment, the way a filmmaker or producer chooses to present a subject will not necessarily be the way that subject would choose to present themselves.

Moreover, although it was made for cable’s first gay targeted channel, Logo, and as such can be seen as an instance of self-representation, RuPaul’s Drag Race is marked by a double address, to gay men and straight women; ads for tampons and women’s deodorant appear on Logo’s streaming site.[35] While a dual address is in and of itself not a bad thing, the address toward straight women could be seen as exoticizing the sexual difference of the competitors, and the scenes of competitors talking about their hardships may spectacularize these hardships for the entertainment of a straight audience.

Admittedly, documentary and reality TV each have their own conventions and production practices. Nevertheless, reality TV has a history of addressing relevant social issues, and documentary, from its inception in Nanook of the North (1922), has been as much about entertainment as education.[36] Just as RuPaul’s Drag Race addresses social issues like the construction of identity, social injustice and alternative kinship formations, Paris Is Burning has been accused of spectacle and exploitation. Furthermore, reality TV and documentary share narrative strategies such as the use of interviews and rhetorical editing. Ultimately, the conception of the documentary as a format for addressing social issues and reality TV as mindless entertainment, which results in the cultural hierarchy between these two forms, is an oversimplification.

*Lauren Levitt is an MA candidate in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU Steinhardt, and her main research interests are gender and sexuality in popular culture.  She received her BA in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, where she wrote her dissertation on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest.  Currently she is writing her master’s thesis on 1960s science fiction television and film and the aesthetics of camp.


[1] Paris Is Burning, Dir. Jennie Livingston, Miramax Home Entertainment, 2005, DVD.

[2] Susan Murray, “‘I Think We Need a New Name for It’: Documentary and Reality TV,” in Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, ed. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009), 65-81.

[3] John Corner, “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions,” in Reality TV, 46-64.

[4] bell hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” in Reel to Real: Race Sex, and Class at the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1996), 214-26.

[5] Anna McCarthy, “‘Stanley Milgram, Allen Funt and Me’: Postwar Social Science and the ‘First Wave’ of Reality TV,” in Reality TV, 23-43.

[6] Ted Magder, “Television 2.0: The Business of American Television in Transition,” in Reality TV, 157-9.

[7] Michael Lewis, “Boom Box,” New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2000, 36, Gale (A67270495)

[8] Ted Magder, “Television 2.0: The Business of American Television in Transition,” in Reality TV, 141-64.

[9] Judith Butler, “Gender Is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 81-97, ebrary version; Ryan Ashley Caldwell, “Gender Queer Productions and the Bridge of Cultural Legitimacy: ‘Realness’ and ‘Identity’ in Paris Is Burning,” in Co-Opting Culture: Culture and Power in Sociology and Cultural Studies, ed. B Garrick Harden and Robert Carley (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009), 77-90; Ann Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing and Being Seen: Truth or Dare and Paris Is Burning,” in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner and Ava Preacher Collins (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 155-69; Caryl Flinn, “Containing Fire: Performance in Paris Is Burning,” in Documenting the Documentary: Film and Video, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 429-45; Jackie Goldsby, “Queens of Language: Paris Is Burning,” in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, ed. Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar and John Greyson (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 108-15; Lisa Henderson, “Paris Is Burning and Academic Conservatism,” Journal of Communication 42 (1992): 113-22; Peggy Phelan, “The Golden Apple: Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, “ in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) 93-111, ebrary version.

[10] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 2006).

[11] Butler, “Gender Is Burning,” 89.

[12] Paris Is Burning.

[13] Butler, “Gender is Burning,” 85-6; Caldwell, “Gender Queer Productions,” 83; Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing,” 167; Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 430; Goldsby, “Queens of Language,” 110; Henderson, “Paris Is Burning,” 116.

[14] “Lip Synch Extravaganza Eleganza,” RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, February 4, 2013, Television.

[15] Paris Is Burning.

[16] Ibid.

[17] hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 223; Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 436-7, 441-3; Henderson, “Paris Is Burning,” 116.

[18] hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 223.

[19] Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 440.

[20] hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 224; Phelan, “The Golden Apple,” 108-9; Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing,” 168.

[21]“RuPocalypse Now,” RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, January 30, 2012, Television.

[22] “Super Troopers, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, April 8, 2013, Television;” Paris Is Burning.

[23] “Frock the Vote,” RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, March 26, 2012, Television; “Dragazines,” RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, March 12, 2012. Television.

[24] Paris Is Burning.

[25] “The Fabulous Bitch Ball;” “RuPaul Roast,” RuPaul’s Drag Race, Logo, March 11, 2013, Television.

[26] “Super Troopers.”

[27] Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing,” 164-5; Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 434-5; hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 220-2; Phelan, “The Golden Apple,” 93-4, 102.

[28] Paris Is Burning.

[29] Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing,” 164-5; Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 434-5; hooks, “Is Paris Burning?” 220-2; Phelan, “The Golden Apple,” 93-4, 102.

[30] Flinn, “Containing Fire,” 439.

[31] Cvetkovitch, “The Powers of Seeing,” 168; Henderson, “Paris Is Burning,” 115.

[32] Paris Is Burning.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35]RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4,” Viacom International Inc., last modified May 1, 2012, http://www.logotv.com/shows/rupauls_drag_race/season_4/series.jhtml; “RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5,” Viacom International Inc., last modified September 23, 2013, http://www.logotv.com/shows/rupauls_drag_race/season_5/series.jhtml.

[36] Nanook of the North, dir. Robert J. Flaherty, The Criterion Collection, 2004, DVD.