Paris Is Burning is a quintessential documentary for anyone who has ever felt cheated. I mean cheated in a big way; you were born with a body that doesn’t match your gender, you were born queer, you were born non-white, you were born poor, you were born something that the world isn’t typically kind to and you long to feel significant, validated and beautiful. That’s what Paris Is Burning about in a bigger sense: the outcast finding community, sanctuary and beauty in their self and others like them. What Paris Is Burning actually follows is the lives of minority drag queens, transsexuals, queers and voguers struggling in New York City in 1987. The culture is known as ballroom culture and it was these groups of people who championed it. The documentary is worth watching if not just to see how NYC was in the late ’80s and for the truly fierce and fantastic clothing.
So Madonna did not invent this. Voguing started in NYC ballroom culture and there was this one fantastic voguer named Willi Ninja who dreamed big about it. He wanted to take voguing around the world and out of the ghetto. He wanted it to become a legitimate dance form. He wanted to be a star. Of course we now know that he did become a star. Voguing became a household dance move, Willi starred in music videos, taught dance, travelled the world, modelled for Jean Paul-Gaultier and opened his own modeling agency. He passed away in 2006 due to AIDS related heart failure.
On Throwing Shade
Throwing shade may seem like America’s new favorite past time but it very much has a history. It’s origins lie within the houses of NYC drag ballroom culture. Shade is the most evolved form of insulting which initially started as reading. Reading is when you and your circle of friends insult each other on a personal level. Shade is when . . . well . .. see below.
On Beauty and Wish Fulfillment
A big part of the movie deals with exclusion from dominant culture. All of the subjects are of color or queer in some way so feeling rejected, hated and lacking opportunities is a matter of fact for them. However feeling excluded extends to more than just community but to beauty as well. A huge part of the ballroom pageants are “realness” competitions where people compete to pass as something: Can you pass as a real woman? As a straight man? As a business executive? As an army soldier? As a wealthy heir? Fashion – style, dress, costume – is way for these disenfranchised people to embody all of the roles they aren’t allowed to play in society. It’s one of the more bittersweet aspects of the culture. They created this amazing community of talented people but that community only exist because of our narrow-minded society.
These two boys who were thirteen and fifteen were caught hanging around some of the older gay men. That’s what they said when they were asked why they were hanging out in that part of the neighborhood so late. Paris Is Burning was released in 1990 and at that time the LGBT community had been demonized because of the AIDS epidemic. Paris helped to humanize them once again and gave a voice to a lot of people who would have otherwise never been heard and long forgotten.