With RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine being fast-tracked to Australia by Stan, starting on March 25, we can all look forward to months of shade and reading from thirteen stunning queens. Before season nine begins, let’s reflect on some herstory and learn about the film RuPaul references throughout the show: Paris is Burning.
Released in 1990, Paris is Burning looks at the ballroom culture of Harlem in New York City. Directed by Jennie Livingston and filmed in the late 1980s, the film documents a infamous drag scene in which queens competed in categories including - but certainly not limited to: luscious body, schoolboy/schoolgirl realness, town and country, executive realness, high fashion evening wear, and femme realness. Livingston also tracks the ‘house’ system associated with these events—groups lead by ‘drag mothers’, and often used as a replacement for people’s biological families.
Likely most famous for the slang peppered through the film that has today become central to queer culture, if you’ve ever used terms like ‘yaasss queen’, ‘werk', ‘shade’ or ‘reading’, you are part of the film’s legacy. However, the film is about a lot more than that, in that it is an essential investigation into the interaction between drag, oppression, race and class. Shon Feye describes it best:
“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.”
The culture documented in Paris is Burning likely dates back to the 1860s, with the first events occurring in Harlem’s Hamilton Lodge. Balls became extremely popular in the 1920s and 30s, and were soon a mainstay of New York queer culture. Events were held a few times a year, organised and frequented largely by white gay men who gave out prizes for the most outrageous costumes.
This scene was born out of necessity, defiance, and sheer creativity. Balls were a place where queers could meet safely, and most importantly, form communities of their own. These communities represented a deep sense of resilience, which was then expressed through a creativity that embraced - rather than rejected - queer difference.
It is this sense of resilience that runs strongest throughout Livingstone’s film. We see this most clearly through the ‘houses’—the creation of community for those who have been rejected from mainstream society. This resilience is also represented in the way in which the balls become a space for queers to create lives that are otherwise unavailable. In the film, interviewee Dorian Corey discusses the ‘executive realness’ category, stating it is about “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.”
While Bel Hooks argues that this represents a perverse attempt to emulate straight and white worlds, Paris is Burning also documents the opposite — the creation of culture that is inherently queer. Livingstone interviews Willie Ninja, considered the ‘godfather of Voguing’. Developed not by Madonna, but within the New York ball culture, voguing was created as a form of dance fighting — a way in which one could throw shade through movement and not word. This creation of culture is core to the documentary, highlighting the role that carving out inherently queer spaces was essential to the survival of so many.
While the documentation of this culture is core to Paris is Burning, the movie’s greatness comes through how this intersects this with issues of race and class. Although black and latinx queens often attended the ball events in the '20s and '30s, they were normally expected to whiten their face, and rarely, if ever, won any prizes. By the ‘60s, these queens were fed up and began their own circuit, pushing “the institution to heights undreamed of by little gangs of white men parading around in frock in basement taverns”.
Much of the brilliance of Paris is Burning comes through documenting this culture specifically, delving into a space run and managed primarily by queer people of colour. In doing so, participants are given the space not just to detail their experiences of racism and poverty, but also about how they created and use the ball culture to give them space to understand and deal with these social disadvantages.The movie highlights the ball scene not just as a queer culture, but as one much deeper than that. It’s an interrogation of multitudes of social disadvantage many queers face; one that is rarely investigated in mainstream culture.
While there have been critiques of the way Livingstone dealt with these issues, particularly regarding Livingstone's treatment of the key interviewees, this representation comes across as real and raw. It is a real life documentary about the lives of poor, black or latinx queers in New York in the 1980s. Livingstone allows her protagonists to speak for themselves, not just about how they survive, but also their hopes and dreams. Most importantly, the movie showcases how these dreams can be expressed through a unique queer culture, one developed not just as a reaction to oppression but as a way for queers to live creative, authentic lives.
Before you watch this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, do yourself a favour and engage in some herstory. As probably the most important film about drag ever made, Paris is Burning is a must watch.