“If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be stronger than you could ever imagine.” These are the opening words of Paris Is Burning, one of the most iconic and most debated documentaries of all time. Spanning seven years in the New York ballroom scene, it’s a delicately woven tapestry, featuring legendary house mothers from Pepper LaBeija to Willi Ninja. I can’t think of another doc I’ve seen that covers so many different perspectives from the queer community of the time. Though it was one of the most fraught and integral decades for LGBT rights, you learn little about it unless you’re actively searching for it—but its influence is everywhere. In 2020, it’s odd to see terms that crop up in our day-to-day lives described by the queens that coined them. Dorian Corey, the de-facto narrator of Paris, explains words like “shade” and “work,” the type of vocabulary co-opted and appropriated by straight girls on Instagram. Like so many other aspects of Black and queer culture, it’s been stolen, ripped straight from its context. Without Paris Is Burning, the documentary that brought the balls to the mainstream, would that history still be represented? Do we take its complicated legacy for granted?
LGBT representation in media and coverage in the news has inched slowly forward with each passing year, to the point where TV shows and studies that came out in 2015 already feel dated. In many ways, they are, but our rapidly evolving understanding of LGBT issues can make gay history seem skewed, subtextual, and factually obsolete. In 1991, queer communities had few resources at their disposal and even fewer platforms for their voices; Paris Is Burning can’t be measured by modern standards of LGBT media because they didn’t exist. The people involved fought tooth and nail to get it made at a time when few gay stories were being told.
The film itself was directed by white, Jewish lesbian Jennie Livingston, who didn’t exactly have a foothold in the film industry herself. The cast and crew carved out a space for themselves, and the result was intimate but flawed. There is a quiet camaraderie between Livingston and the legendary queens in front of the camera, their lives painted in raw, uproarious detail. As a filmmaker and interviewer, Livingston prevails, framing a beautiful, competitive queer world. In other ways, she fails as an ally, something she has acknowledged but not necessarily rectified. Straight, white audiences viewed Paris Is Burning as scandalous entertainment rather than a portrait of a vibrant community or a vital look at the effects of marginalization. All-white, heterosexual guest speakers at screenings, failure to compensate subjects, straight pandering: Livingston is undoubtedly guilty of enabling the colonialist gaze, if not outright employing it.
If we owe anything to the ballroom drag scene, it’s the LGBT online communities that allow us to thrive. Before Gay Twitter and Club Quarantine, there were the balls, intense competitions filmed in dizzying glory during the course of Paris. There are categories for everyone, from butch queens to “executive” to “passing.” The balls exist somewhere between gay utopia and the reclamation of heteronormative society. Participants can be anything they want to be if they excel at it, as the house mothers knowingly joke. “I don’t tell you you’re ugly,” says Dorian Corey with a smile. “But I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly. That’s shade.” It’s the spirit of competition, the promise of an intimate sort of fame, that brings joy to the competitors. Queens vogue and sashay with bouncy music playing behind him, striking defiantly against the outside world. If anything can be taken away from the film, it’s that the terror that comes with being gay cannot destroy the vivid, life-saving counterculture.
But, just like the slang, if we remove the sensational pieces of queer culture from their very real context, we run the risk ignoring the history altogether. The influence of Paris Is Burning runs through RuPaul and Pose, pride parades and high fashion, but the roots aren’t always recognized. Even Pose, a beautiful but fictionalized account of the ballroom scene, runs the risk of pandering and titillating without acknowledging the transgender women who got us here. It’s no accident that Billy Porter adds to his Emmy nominations while the Academy ignores actresses Indya Moore and MJ Rodriguez. It lifts many of its plotlines from the lives of the queens in Paris, such as Venus Xtravaganza’s murder and the mummified body in Dorian Corey’s closet. Paris Is Burning has its fair share of missteps, especially by ending on the note of Venus’s gruesome death, but at least the events are not stripped from names and faces that should be remembered.
The oppression of a queer person is always presented as a sad but captivating story. LGBT history is a footnote, not a devoted study or an act of remembrance and respect. Nearly all of the people in Paris Is Burning are gone now, strangled or shot or taken by AIDS; we can’t allow their legacies to dissolve into pop culture without a trace. We can’t settle for a glossy narrative or a shallow emulation of the culture. Whatever the answer, Paris Is Burning still stands as a monument to community, suffering, and progress—one inch at a time.
By MJ Brown