How does "realness" function in the film? How does understanding "realness" as a standard (or goal to acheive) reinforce and/or subvert notions of what it means to be normal/acceptable/intelligible/proper?
Think about these questions in relation to this quotation from Butler:
The rules that regulate and legitimate realness constitute the mechanism by which certain sanctioned fantasies, sanctioned imaginaries, are insidiously elevated as the parameters of realness (130).
What is realness?
In order to think about how to describe the mess of what exactly realness is, I'm trying a little exercise of unraveling *ahem* real gender, relatively citation free. Here goes.
Doing this real gender is a process infatuated with what it means to be "normal/acceptable/intelligible/proper." And the irreducible fact seems to be that in order to perform, to pass as a real gender, everything (or every appearance, at least) must align (one must do strictly feminine or strictly masculine, though there may become multiple ways of doing so). In effect, this means an erasure of all disruptions, all things contrary; if some aspect will not be "erased" or pushed to the background (ie. a woman who wears pants), then this fissure must be sealed by its reinforced relation to the more important reality (she is still a woman), that birthright of a marker of sex/gender.
In the balls of Paris Is Burning, realness seems to be judged and prized in precisely this way: by the neat balance of signals sent by the sum of all (predominantly white, predominantly middle to upper class) gendered cues, down to the very last detail (note: one's coat must button on the "proper" side). Though there may be multiple ways of doing so, there is also only one way. How can there be only one, you ask? The way must radiate white middle to upper class heterosexuality and heterosexual desire. The way doesn't have room for mixing signals.
Let's take for example the adoption of military dress/uniforms, pre-appropriation already a site of restriction and its own one way system, and in the context of the ball just as serious. The folks dressed, walking, performing as military (army, navy, they all run together for me) officers must follow all the rules to pass as real, to not be read. Already we have a problem: how does one go about passing as the reality of one's being? Or, if not how, why? Why does this reality concern itself with audience perception? For it is somewhat clear that the genders performed in the ball setting most certainly carry through to other situations for at least some performers. Further, the film presents no images of folks in military regalia mixing in symbols of liberation or gay/queer/trans identities: no pink, no piercings, no rainbows, no flagging hankies. Those would throw their realness into question.
What seems to emerge is a process in which what is real (gender) is in fact the suppression, the denial, the fear of anything that throws off the alignment with a real heteronormative femininity or masculinity. A point for more prodding here is perhaps that this process necessitates a reiterated performance, a covering up, an act sometimes viewed as a deception.The very hierarchical, white, heteronormative realness so awarded in the balls of Paris is Burning produces very different scenarios on the streets.
I'll close with this open-ended bit on perceived deception (which is also in the spoken/unspoken history of Venus Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning). Some of you probably know that in the early history of Leslie Feinberg's health struggles, ze was refused medical treatment in a very transphobic way. What I learned only recently is that this series of events occurred during hir speaking engagement at the U of M in 1995 (VHS recording on hand in the GLBTA Programs Office in Appleby Hall). According to my secondhand source, when Leslie sought treatment at a local hospital ze initially passed as male. When the reportedly masculine -identified and -presenting doctor learned the real reality of Leslie's body, however, Leslie was asked to leave and refused any diagnosis or treatment on the basis of hir "deception" of the doctor. Is there a price that comes with doing a real gender which runs the risk of being undone by perception?
For Venus there was.
Rather than what realness is, I want to know what it does.