Deconstructing a Piece of Mass Media Paper

Mass Media

A Deconstruct of the movie “Paris is Burning” as it relates to 6 Chapters in our textbook

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Paris Is Burning is a provocative and controversial documentary film released in the year 1990. The direction was done by Jennie Livingston who focused on filming the drag ball culture and society that existed in the city of New York during the 1980s. The film focuses on three primary topics: race, homosexuality and prejudice towards a social stereotype. Hence the movie focuses on not just the culture of the whites in the American urban society but also the lifestyles of the African-Americans, Latinos and gays within the communities while also shedding light on the lives of the transsexual and sex workers in the city.

The significance of the movie is not only on the thought-provoking topics it covers, but also in its style of filming and the fact that it perhaps marks the end of the cultural phenomenon that was in fact the New York Drag Balls. The way that the documentary is shot is that it moves between footage of the drag ball events and interviews from some of the more popular personalities in American culture at the time form the African community, Latino community, gay as well as transsexual community. The drag ball events and competitions were all structure and divided across specific themes and all contestants were meant to walk across and around a crowded room like models do on a ramp. The only difference was that the judgment criterion was not based only on fashion sense and representation but on the authenticity of the individual and what he was representing as part of himself. Each group of contestants was divided into houses based on their fashion sense and styling however e.g. The house of Prada. Each house was representative of the family or social circle of the contestant. The most consistent winners would attain the status of a legend. The interviews included talks with some of the best in the business like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Anji Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja. The interviews and commentaries were all focused on how these individuals who were leading different lives from the norms had to tackle issues on intolerance, racism, homophobia even from their own families, diseases, medical/social/economic deterioration.

The drag ball is also represented as a multifaceted presentation of sex, social divide and race. It’s a place where any and every individual can freely express one’s lifestyle, identity, orientation, dreams, goals and opinions without any fear of intolerance, ridicule or judgment. The film manages to not only bring to light the African-American community within America but also the Latino community each coming with a wide array of identities, sexes, orientations and social transgressions. The film also received recognition for its provocative approach and thoughts. Some of the accolades included the following:

It won the International Documentary Association Award in 1990

It won Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Documentary in the year 1990 as well

It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 1990

It won the Grand Jury Prize for the Best Documentary at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival; the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival

It also won in 1991 the Best Documentary at the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (BSFC)

It was also in the year 1991 that it won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival

In the year 1992 it won the Outstanding Film or Documentary at the GLAAD Media Awards as well as the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Documentary

The limitations of the discourse of norms: Gay visibility and degrees of transgression by Jay Clarkson

The chapter focuses on what can be believed or perceived to be normal gay representation either in the media or in a normal social setting. The chapter starts off with a very interesting opening passage where we read the discomfort of a upon the very open gay behavior of one of his friends at a local community hangout. The concerns of the straight-acting gay man is not the open gay exhibition but in the setting that the gay exhibition was made. The setting was a local family hangout in an area where gay visibility was minimal to say the least. The chapter goes further on to discuss how the society and media too are still somewhat bemused as to the right amount of gay visibility within a heterosexual setting. The chapter also highlights that it is the media depiction that somewhat leads the way to how homosexuality is generally tolerated in the social structure. One very important aspect that this chapter highlights is that more gay visibility does not mean that there is somehow more power and acceptance given to gays in the society; what it merely does is bring it under the spotlight a lot more, which in turn can also lead to higher scrutiny.

When we analyze media gay visibility, we see that the effort is to make it feel more like a daily norm or part of the social structure as opposed to one that is frowned upon or trampled. The same was not the case for the individuals presented in the movie. It shows how one of the characters of the movie became part of the New York Drag Balls phenomenon because his homophobic parents could not accept his lifestyle choice and threw him out of the house onto the streets. The documentary again is a very important piece of work when understanding how the attitude was for a majority of the people back then with regards to homosexuals.

The interesting comparison here is that New York Drags Balls served as the expansive media outlet for gays back in the 1980s and 1990s. The Drag Balls was the outlet for the homosexuals and queer individuals to express themselves freely without shame, judgment or punishment. The documentary focused on this particular drag ball culture that existed at the time in the city of New York City with focus on the African-Americans, Latinos as well as transgender visibility in the communities and societies. This not only helped them highlight the numerous homosexual issues that the societies were facing at the time but simultaneously brought forth the issue of race and prejudice that existed.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the documentary movie is the commentary made on how a lifestyle of the white people when achieved by the minorities is when they know that they have succeeded. The passage is a very simple two and a half minute commentary. However, it is also perhaps the most clear-cur description of the difference between the lifestyles of the whites and the minority races within the American society. It states again how the media does not accurately depict the minorities as most advertisings show that the average person is either rich or highly educated; even when the children are shown playing in an ad, they are shown to be playing in a lawn with a connected backyard and a pool instead of a concrete wall in an alley way. The media depiction was a cause for concerns for the minorities back then because they all knew that the media depictions was what led the social structures to a large extent and as long as they couldn’t match the whites’ lifestyle, there was little to no chance of them showcasing the truth about the lifestyle that they originally came from.

This is a very interesting take as conformity is given importance here by the minorities for their own recognition. The media depictions are going through the exact same phase for the homosexuals now which is why many have to choose where and when to freely express themselves in homosexual activities. It is why the media depictions are focusing more on how and when a gay or lesbian ‘comes out of the closet’ as opposed to focusing on why they come out. If the focus did shift towards why they come out, it would become obvious that the visibility in the media was the reason that there is increased scrutiny in the social classes towards homosexuals. This increased scrutiny has led to increased peer pressure and pre-conceived judgments on what behavioral aspects are associated with homosexuals.

Three faces of Eva: Perpetuation of the hot-Latina stereotype in Desperate Housewives by Debra Merskin

This particular chapter focuses on the actress Eva Longoria as the Latina stereotype in the television series Desperate Housewives; making the point that Eva’s choices in life are correspondent to the role on the series as Gabrielle Solis. She is perceived to be a desirable and “hot” woman because of her ethnic background and its influence thereof. What is really interesting to note here is that this perception is actually self-imposed by the character.

This perhaps is best reflected in the settings of the drag balls where the contestants are divided into ‘Houses’, each house representing a fashion styling or sense thereby self-imposing a standard for the rest to follow. This also then sets a parameter in the minds of the contestants as well who conform or adhere to a certain styling or fashion sense, or at least one closest to it. Even though the drag balls was the one very successful outlet for the social minorities and misfits to express themselves, the division of the houses was again a restriction for most and called for a .

Resisting, reiterating and dancing through: the swinging closet doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s televised personalities by Candace Moore

The chapter highlights how Ellen DeGeneres in one celebrity who uses the media to consistently reiterate her own lesbian status in a subliminal way. The chapter is a discussion of how not talking directly about how she is a lesbian and instead using the medium of a dancing ritual in her show, she has managed to target and win over a very specific audience by being herself and focusing on the person that she is as opposed to the lifestyle that she has chosen for herself.

If we were to analyze the movie with regards to this chapter, the racial discrimination would again be the first aspect that comes to mind, specifically the white advertising tactics. As discussed earlier, all advertising revolved around the quality of the lifestyle that the whites followed without necessarily focusing on the choices that they made on a personal level. Constant reiteration of the quality and resistance of personal input was what influenced many of the minorities to feel like once they were able to accomplish a similar lifestyle and status could they regards themselves as successful community members.

This consistent reiteration of the quality of being as opposed to choices might be a logical approach for advertising; however, it does little good for a social structure as it disallows tolerance and growth. While the movie is proof of the fact that the American society shows a clear history of evolving from a into one which rebels and continues to support individualism at different levels, it still is not good enough to be encouraging reiteration to the level that conformity gets accepted without realization of its promotion.

The anxieties of the enterprising self and the limits of the mind cure in the age of Oprah by Janice Peck

The chapter deals with the power of thoughts and projection of those thoughts into actions and one’s lifestyle choices. The chapter begins with the focus being on the icon that is Oprah Winfrey. The chapter highlights how she has over the years been the voice that constantly refers to the power of the mind and one’s thoughts to be the strongest and most important aspect of one’s individual life. The chapter also highlights how she has been a living example of acting upon strong thoughts as opposed to the circumstances that one lives in and how she aims to teach that through the opening of the ‘Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls’ in South Africa.

A very good but somewhat subdued version of this very aspect was obvious in the movie as well. The scene shows a drag queen putting on make-up and talking about dreams. She moves from the dreams of becoming a star and one that influences the world to knowing that when she leaves, she will have made a difference to a smaller group of important people in her life, knowing that they will remember her, that they will be her legacy. She goes to say that ‘you don’t have to bend the whole world’ but knowing that you will be remembered, that you were able to aim high and still attain your goals, even if your goals weren’t to ‘bend the world’. Yes, at first glance it would seen that they are both saying very different things but they fact is the both Oprah and the drag queen want individuals to dream their own dreams and conquer their own life as opposed to the world.

A good example of someone who conquered their own world is also present in the movie in the form of Venus Xtravagnaza. Even though she was a sex worker, which by most people’s definitions is not aiming high in life, she dealt the best cards in her life according to what she believed was right. This particular aspect of her personality shines through the most in her memento video when another character talks about how she always went for what she wanted despite being a transsexual and never cared about what people perceived of her dreams. Furthermore, the clip personifies very simply what the drag queen was talking about. Venus did not ‘bend the world’, in fact she only had one friend who was able to recognize her dead body, but despite all of that, her character in the movie was the one that came across as the ones that lived a full life on her own terms. When looking at this particular chapter, the message is the same, to know what you want, to know it to be right within you and to go for it, not for the world but for yourself. It is exactly what both Oprah and the drag wueen were talking about.

There are bitches and hoes by Tricia Rose

This chapter deals specifically with the stereotyping of black women in the rap world. The chapter shows men to be the authoritarians and the women to be very submissive in nature towards the needs of the men. When analyzing the philosophies of the authoritarian man for the movie, the reference again has to be made to Venus Xtravaganza, a sex worker, as the one woman who defied all submissive depictions of women and lived her own life. In a scene when she is trying to seal a business deal with two black men, she shows her own power over them and says that ‘you just can’t take it & #8230; you are an overgrown orangutan’. This scene grew to be one of the most popular from the movie, partially because of the ever charming personality of Venus, and partially because it challenged and negated the dominance and authority of men over women, something that was common not only in the rap world but also in the social structure in general. The scene showed her to be the one dealing the cards and controlling the play and defies all hip-hop propaganda about all being ‘bitches and hoes’ who can be controlled and dominated.

From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live: the Content of Commercial Messages in Children’s advertising by Juliet Schor

The one aspect of advertising and marketing that stood out at the completion of this chapter was that consumerism was no more one dimensional & #8230; the target market was expanding beyond the consumers who could pay for the products; instead it was including and focusing more so on the consumers who would “use” the products. The chapter focuses on the shift of marketing to the authoritarian parent to the ever-needy child, giving the credit to James McNeal, the pioneer of the shift in marketing approach. The entire era of the 1980s and 1990s saw the advertising being focused on the quality of the product i.e. The sweetness of the Jell-Os or the puddings and the healthiness of the cheese as opposed to the lowered price ranges or status signatures that these products brought with them. What this approach did was put all the power back in the hands of the children, and eventually giving them so much power that they were the ones calling the shots and the authoritarian roles of the mothers turned into submissive roles.

When we analyze the movie “Paris is Burning” with regards to the philosophies presented in this chapter, the one scenario that pops up in the mind immediately is when Venus Xtravaganza, who was one the featured characters in the movie as a sex worker, is talking to two guys about ‘Reading’ when the conversation is really about how the two guys don’t understand her reasons for choosing to be a sex worker and how it has really served her better. She talks about the lack of open-mindedness of the two individuals which is where ‘reading’ is an interesting pun here. I say this as a personal interpretation as reading is something that can broaden the spectrum of possibilities, choices and flexibility when it comes to lifestyles. The fact that Venus refers to ‘Reading’ in the same scene as when she is explaining to two individuals that they need to open their mind and ‘feel’ the change can be very easily interpreted as an open call to everyone at the time to not only be open towards sex workers or sex change but also other issues that had been so vividly dealt in the movie particularly homophobia and racism. This is what makes this particular scene so very important for the movie even though it’s a scene that barely takes up more than a couple of minutes of the entire documentary.

Venus, here, can be referred to as the marketer who is attempting to promote a shift in approach. Sex work industry is a controversial and provocative topic that, even today, sparks up quite a few interesting discussions and emotions amongst people. This is what makes the inclusion of the story of Venus even more extraordinary for a documentary filmed more than two decades ago. Even though in comparison, the shift of advertising to children came more easily, throughout the documentary one can see the same amount of conviction and belief from Venus that one could determine the advertisers had back in 1980s from the analysis of the chapter.

The similarities, however, do not end there. Interestingly enough, the role of Venus Xtravaganza and her choice to go for a sex worker’s carrer also shows the shift in power. Since the movie was primarily about teenagers or young adults who had been scorned by their families or had trouble being accepted by society, the fact that Venus managed to still stand against the odds and do what she felt was right for her shows that the ‘quality’ of the product on her lifestyle was the focus. Furthermore, she was the ‘user’ and the one making her lifestyle choices, instead of being managed or directed by someone else in her life.

To conclude, the chapters discussed here are thought provoking and their comparison with a controversial movie like ‘Paris is Burning’ makes the philosophies presented even more interesting to analyze. The movie is a very eclectic collection of interviews from interesting personalities giving a very honest backstage all-access pass to the world of fashion, racism, homophobia and the New York Drag Balls. The movie clearly depicts how these balls were the centre of some of the most disturbing lifestyle topics but also how they became the tunnel for numerous individuals to express their self-belief and pride.

The audience when watching the movie can immediately recognize and associate with the existence of a life within another life and how they are intertwined with the same ambitions, dreams, desires and goals that represents the American society in general, not only back in the 1980s and 1990s when the movie first came out but even today. This particular association is what makes this particular documentary a fascinating masterpiece in the sense that while limiting itself to the depiction of a small urban town, the story still renders deep in the hearts of all individuals who look for success, status and wealth and yearn for a lifestyle that allows them to enjoy a consistent sense of happiness, approval and above all, love.

The chapters chosen for discussion here are a great source for critical and thorough evaluation of all the different aspects of the movie from the insides of the fashion world, to racism and prejudices. Furthermore, they help see that the movie is about the real people who live and belong to a real society, and while they might be flawed in some ways, there are many other ways where there goodness can help overcome these flaws and better their lifestyles choices.


Clarkson, J. (2008). The limitations of the discourse of norms: Gay visibility and degrees of transgression. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 32(4), 368-382. Published by Sage Publications, Inc.

Green, J. (1993). “Paris Has Burned.” The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE0DF143DF93BA25757C0A965958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved August 9th, 2011

Merskin, D. (2007). Three faces of Eva: Perpetuation of the hot-Latina stereotype in Desperate Housewives. Howard Journal of Communications, 18, 133-151. Reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd.

Moore, C. (2008). Resisting, reiterating and dancing through: the swinging closet doors of Ellen DeGeneres’s televised personalities. In R. Beirne (Ed.), Televising queer women: A reader (pp. 17-31). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peck, J. (2008). The anxieties of the enterprising self and the limits of the mind cure in the age of Oprah. In J. Peck, the age of Oprah: Cultural icon for the neoliberal era (pp. 211-239). Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Rose, T. (2008). There are bitches and hoes. In the Hip-Hop wars (pp.167-185). New York: Perseus.

Schor, J. (2004). From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live: The Content of Commercial Messages in Children’s Advertising. Excerpt from Born to Buy: the commercialized child and the new consumer culture. New York: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.

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