Judith Butler Presentation: The Gaze and To Wong Foo

Judith Butler makes numerous arguments in her chapter “Gender is Burning” from her book Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” One concept that she returns to multiple times is the idea of the gaze and how it affects our ability to read and understand performance, specifically drag. On page 132 she discusses it in relation to the audience:

"If a white homophobic hegemony considers the black drag ball queen to be a woman, that woman, constituted already by that hegemony, will become the occasion for the rearticulation of its terms; embodying the excess of that production, the queen will out-woman women, and in the process confuse and seduce an audience whose gaze must to some degree be structured through those hegemonies, an audience who, through the hyperbolic staging of the scene, will be drawn into the abjection it wants both to resist and to overcome." (132)

How do our ideas regarding what is normal, what makes a woman a woman, allow ourselves to be “confus[ed] and seduc[ed]?” If our gaze does not fall within these normative beliefs, what happens to our view of drag? Dressing in drag is not something that everyone does, but it does seem that each of us likens some aspect of our identity to something that we are not; everyone tries to imitate what is normal. For instance, heterosexual society has deemed that tall, thin, white woman are the ideal for beauty, yet the majority of us, one could say the “normal” part of society does not fall within these confines.

Butler also uses the gaze in regard to the film, Paris is Burning. She agrees with bell hooks that “within this culture the ethnographic conceit of the natural gaze will always be a white gaze, an unmarked white gaze, one which passes its own perspectives off as the omniscient, one with presumes upon and enacts its own perspective as if it were no perspective at all” (136). This notion of the “white gaze” along with the interaction of an audience’s understanding relating to its gaze brings us to the movie To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Sandy Newmar (1995). This movie pairs three drag queens, one white, one black, one Latina, as they attempt to move from one location to another only to end up stuck in a rural town. While the perspective of the film is not told directly from the viewpoint of the white character, everything she says is taken as truth while the others, especially the young Latina queen, are less significant. The clip I chose from the movie shows the characters interacting with each other within the confines of men dressing as women, and it also shows the complex racial undertones that affect their interactions and relationships.


Butler, Judith. “Gender is Burning.” Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-140.

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