Looking at Paris Is Burning 25 years after its release

The groundbreaking film has been mined for slang used across the world today – we should not forget its influence nor the fact that the LGBT community is still under attack

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Paris Is Burning is a seminal piece of queer cinema exploring the lives of Harlem drag queens

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the general release of cult documentary classic Paris is Burning. I say ‘general release’ because there is some disagreement as to whether the film should be dated from its first showing at Toronto Film Festival in 1990 or its general distribution in August 1991. Quibbles about the precise anniversary, however, are among the smallest of the many controversies that surround this iconic piece of queer cinema.

Paris is Burning presents the lives of an ensemble cast of real people in the Harlem drag ball scene of the late 80s – a subculture located at a unique crossroads of urban poverty, marginalised black and Latin communities and queer identity. If I were to try and explain it to someone who had never seen it, I would say that the film is a meditation on how specific individuals – consistently robbed by society of privileges which many watching would take for granted – regenerate and create among themselves a new capacity for self-worth, for value, for joy and, crucially, for family.  

While the feigned sumptuousness of the ball scenes themselves (a ball is a strange mixture of pageant and party, in which competitors square up in various different themed drag categories: “military”, “executive”, “banji girl”, and so on) are some of the film’s the most memorable, the Harlem ball subculture was not just about performed glamour. It was dominated by several ‘Houses’ – each with its own family name and overseen by a House “mother” or “father” who served as parental figures to their gay and trans wards in lieu of families which had rejected them under the perpetual menace of the Aids crisis.

Like many people, I first saw the film as a student. It is rare to find a queer film festival or an undergrad LGBT society that won’t host a screening of the film. This is landmark gay cinema we’re told, part of ‘our’ history. Of course, this glib elision of the specific role of race and class in the film is also to grossly misrepresent it. For others in the gay community specifically, discovery of the film will come out of an attraction to modern drag and working backwards to its sources. This is done easily: the immensely popular RuPaul’s Drag Race, whose audience even stretches beyond gay audiences, explicitly references Paris is Burning wherever it imports drag slang first popularised by the film. The most familiar of these expressions to most people – gay or straight – will be “throwing shade”. (I don’t quite know when even my straight, white male friends started to know what “throwing shade” means but I believe I can date it back to some time in 2014.)

Paris is Burning is a fascinating study in language, among many other things. Jennie Livingston, its director – a white, middle-class lesbian – was as much a stranger to the world she presents as her film festival audience: itself a source of controversy. The black feminist and commentator bell hooks penned an essay accusing Livingston of skimming over the imperialist and racial oppression her subjects were living under, given that Livingston was an ‘outsider looking in’. Some of Livingston’s craft in translating the world she depicts is shown quite unabashedly: the film is intercut with large full screen subtitles of key terms from ball culture followed by participants’ explanations. ‘READING’, ‘SHADE’ and ‘EXECUTIVE REALNESS’ all flash up across the screen for several seconds and are all then explained to us, principally by Dorian Corey, an older drag mother in her late 50s at the time of filming. Corey provides Livingston’s audience with droll definitions of these specific concepts as she applies her makeup and then sits in full drag.

Corey is one of my favourite cast members – not least because after her death in 1993, a mummified man was found among her personal effects. No one is clear how or why she came to own a male corpse. I appreciate the story behind the dead man is likely to be dark but I confess I find watching the ageing Corey explaining “shade” to camera in a bouffant wig, knowing there is a mummy somewhere, hidden in the background, one of the sickest, funniest and most tremendous things.

Minority language and slang like that of ball culture are tricky things – when they proliferate they become mere artefacts and their original context inevitably gets lost. One of the most bizarre things this year has been witnessing several online thinkpieces attributing the phrase “Yas Kween” or “Yas Queen’ to mainstream, white heterosexual comedy Broad City or to an overexcited fan praising Lady Gaga in 2013. While these may well have been the avenues the phrase tumbled down along the way to mass popularity, the idea that it originates here is comical: it orginates from black and Latinx drag culture. After all, how else are drag queens supposed to address each other but as “queen”?

While the expansion of language is both inevitable and perhaps harmless, its counter effect is more troubling – forgetting the people who enriched both white gay and heterosexual culture at no benefit to themselves. This has been, more generally, a great controversy of the legacy of Paris is Burning. Almost all of its subjects are now dead: only Freddie Pendavis, a black gay man who reports on camera during the film how he often eats at a Roy Rogers fast food restaurant and leaves without paying, was a guest at an anniversary screening last year. Most of the cast died young from Aids-related illness and saw little of material benefit from their widely enjoyed performances. The invention of voguing, a dance art form the film displays repeatedly, was subsequently attributed to Madonna. Who, much as I love her, shamelessly stole it .

“One of the most bizarre things this year has been witnessing several online thinkpieces attributing the phrase “Yas Kween” or “Yas Queen’ to mainstream, white heterosexual comedy Broad City or to an overexcited fan praising Lady Gaga in 2013”

While the film is at great pains to unfurl the nuances of drag slang, one of the most curious things to modern queer audiences is its largely un-signposted presentation of variant genders. As a trans person, I’m often amused that many cisgender people seem to think we have only existed for the past couple of years. Paris is Burning is unique insight into a community featuring many gender nonconforming people at a time when it was rare to see trans people speak on camera in their own voices. The rise of queer theory in the 90s and the expansion of trans activism online has created new language to make distinctions in the LGBT community. A cis gay man is a man who lives as a man – whether he does drag or not. A trans woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth but is not ‘gay’. In Paris is Burning this kind of discourse doesn’t exist – the mixture of transsexual women, femme drag queens and gay men are presented as an ensemble and never firmly distinguished. Often it is unclear which are male drag queens in costume and which are transgender women.

However, one of the films most brilliant characters, Venus Xtravaganza, is particularly open about her transsexuality. Despite being assigned male at birth she says there is “nothing mannish about me”. Venus is the errant ‘daughter’ of drag mother Angie Xtravaganza and is a sex worker who dreams of being a spoilt, rich white woman. She provides the film with its most acerbic reads and its most chilling narrative arc. In a haunting prefiguration, Venus speaks on camera about how a client once tried to kill her when he discovered she was trans. However, during filming, and placed towards the end of the film itself, we learn from her mother Angie that Venus was, ultimately, murdered – found strangled in a hotel room four days after her death. She was 23.

As a trans journalist, I find the scene of Angie describing Venus’ death always produces an effect where I feel like I have been punched. Not least because as a trans viewer of the film I connect to her onscreen presence but because I know that what happened to her still happens to trans women of colour: now, more than ever. Last year saw the highest rates of slaughter of trans people on record. This year, 17 trans people have been killed in America: women like Monica Loera, Deeniquia Dodds and Skye Mockabee have been killed just like Xtravaganza was. The general narrative that LGBT people’s rights have advanced and progressed significantly since her death in 1988 rides roughshod over the fact that, for black and Latina trans women, things are now much worse.

This disparity between what we take from the film and what we omit when we consider it is uncomfortable. One of the key concepts Paris is Burning introduces to its audience is “realness”, which Dorian Corey explains in the context of “executive realness” (a ball category where the participants dress up as corporate executives):

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. In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive but you're looking like an executive. You're showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfilment.”

‘Realness’ has become a beloved password among modern drag queens and their gay audiences. But what is often forgotten in modern use of the term is that, in fact the word “realness” in Paris is Burning means the very opposite – it is not just a sassy by-word for a convincing costume but a tragicomic disguise of the chasm between what is being emulated and what is absent (namely racial justice, class equality and safety). ‘Realness’, in this sense, ought to be as harrowing as it is captivating and enchanting. I think this is an important idea to remember when looking at the film’s legacy. The opulent aesthetics of the balls have been preserved and widely distributed in a now-commoditised gay culture where drag and its slang are popular but, so too has the film’s central chasm widened.

“What is often forgotten in modern use of the term is that the word “realness” in Paris is Burning is not just a sassy by-word for a convincing costume but a tragicomic disguise of the chasm between what is being emulated”

We are 25 years on from the release of Paris is Burning and while HIV acquisition has been stemmed across much of the LGBT community, in America 43 per cent of new HIV infections in the queer community are black gay men specifically. In this fact alone, it is clear the stranglehold of oppression around the Paris is Burning cast did not wither when they went to their graves but still holds power in the communities from which they came.

What fans of the film may reflect on as they watch the film around its 25th anniversary is that consumption of such a work of art – complex because its subjects are so – is that it remains ‘queer’ in the purest sense of that word. Uncomfortable, uneasy and retreating from one definition and then another and then another – just as we try to pin it down. Is it a seminal artefact of our history? Yes, of course. But it is also not just about looking back – the film is also, for many interested in intersectional queer politics, a roadmap to how we got here: where we are now. Nor is it a museum piece: its characters are kept alive in our culture in their wit and style. But so is their pain still here in the lives of many queer people. Without remembering that, too, our modern communities may strut and look the part – but we deserve no trophies for our realness.

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