“I thought of what my father had said about turning out “funny.” The word “funny,” as I understood it, meant either humorous or strange, as in the expression, “that’s funny.” Neither of these fitted the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone.”

– Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times, that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” 

– Kimberlé Crenshaw

In the dimly lit ballrooms of 1980s New York, where the marginalized and the fabulous converge, “Paris Is Burning” (1990) emerges not merely as a documentary but as a profound social commentary. Directed by Jennie Livingston, this seminal film delves into the vibrant drag ball culture, offering a poignant exploration of race, gender, and sexuality. Through its lens, the audience witnesses the intricate dance of identity and resilience captured in the lives of African American and Latino LGBTQIA+ communities.

Jennie Livingston’s documentary opens with a powerful quote from Venus Xtravaganza, setting the stage for the thematic depth that follows: “A lot of those kids that are in the balls, they don’t have two of nothing. Some of them don’t even eat. They come to balls starving.” This stark reality frames the narratives of individuals who, despite societal marginalization, find solace and a semblance of family within the ball culture. The ballroom becomes a sanctuary, a place where one can be whoever they want to be, far removed from the harsh judgments of the outside world.

The film also underscores the harsh realities of living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. In a society rife with racism, homophobia, and transphobia, the characters’ participation in the drag scene is an act of defiance and survival. As the narrator poignantly states, “You are black, you are a man, and you are gay. You’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.” This triple marginalization underscores the resilience required to navigate a world that often devalues their very existence.

‘Paris Is Burning’ provides a unique lens to examine the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. As Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality suggests, the overlapping systems of oppression faced by these individuals cannot be understood in isolation. The characters in the film, such as Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Willi Ninja, embody this intersectionality. Their experiences as black and Latino LGBTQIA+ individuals highlight the compounded discrimination they face, not just from mainstream society but often from within their own communities.

Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in her work ‘Epistemology of the Closet’ argues that “the closet” is a defining structure for LGBTQ+ experiences, where the constant negotiation of visibility and identity takes place. In the documentary, this concept is evident as characters navigate the precarious balance between their authentic selves and the need to conform to societal expectations for survival. Sedgwick’s assertion that “the performativity of gender and sexuality disrupts the coherence of these categories” resonates deeply with the ball culture’s challenge to normative binaries and hierarchies. This disruption is a radical act that both highlights and transcends the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

Paris is Burning: The Search for Freedom in Overlapping Systems of Oppressions
A still from “Paris is Burning” (1990)

One of the most poignant moments in the documentary is when Dorian Corey reflects on the nature of drag and its broader implications: “You’re not really a woman. You’re not really a man. You’re an entity unto yourself.” This sentiment encapsulates the fluidity and complexity of gender identity within the drag community. It challenges the binary constructs of gender, suggesting a more nuanced understanding that transcends traditional categories. Judith Butler’s concept of performativity is vividly illustrated in the film. Butler argues that gender is not something one is but something one does – an ongoing performance. In the drag balls, this performance is both a form of self-expression and a subversive act. By embodying exaggerated femininity or hyper-masculinity, the participants challenge and parody the rigid gender norms imposed upon them.

Furthermore, “Paris Is Burning” does not shy away from the economic struggles faced by its subjects. The concept of “realness,” so central to the ball culture, is intrinsically linked to socio-economic status. To “pass” as straight, wealthy, or white is not just a matter of aesthetics but a survival strategy. This performative aspect of realness critiques societal norms that dictate value based on appearances and conformity to dominant cultural standards. The film also touches upon the idea of family and community as vital support systems. The “houses” – House of LaBeija, House of Xtravaganza, and others – function as surrogate families, providing emotional and sometimes financial support. These chosen families are crucial for those who have been ostracized by their biological families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. The sense of belonging and acceptance within these houses is a testament to the power of community in fostering resilience and self-worth.

However, “Paris Is Burning” is not without its critiques. Some scholars and activists have argued that the film, directed by a white woman, has inadvertently exoticized and exploited its subjects for the consumption of a predominantly white, middle-class audience. Bell Hooks, in particular, critiques the film for what she sees as a voyeuristic gaze that reinforces the very power dynamics it seeks to expose. In her work, ‘Black Look: Race and Representation,’ she critiques how the film does not question the whiteness of the society responsible for the marginalization of those represented on screen-

“Watching Paris is Burning, I began to think that the many yuppie-looking, straight-acting, pushy, predominantly white folks in the audience were there because the film in no way interrogates “whiteness.” These folks left the film saying it was “amazing,” “marvelous,” “incredibly funny,” worthy of statements like, “Didn’t you just love it?” And no, I didn’t love it. For in many ways, the film was a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case, black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit. The “we” evoked here is all of us, black people/people of color, who are daily bombarded by a powerful colonizing whiteness that seduces us away from ourselves, that negates that there is beauty to be found in any form of blackness that is not imitation whiteness.”

This critique further invites a broader conversation about who gets to tell whose stories and the ethical responsibilities of documentary filmmaking. It suggests that allies end up taking center stage, which is meant for those to whom the platform belongs.

In conclusion, even with its critique of not questioning whiteness enough, “Paris Is Burning” remains a seminal work that captures the vibrancy and struggles of drag ball culture. Through its intimate portrayal of the lives of black and Latino LGBTQIA+ individuals, the film offers a powerful exploration of the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. It challenges viewers to reconsider their understanding of identity and the performative nature of gender. The documentary’s enduring impact lies in its celebration of resilience, creativity, and the indomitable human spirit. As the audience reflects on the stories told within its frames, they are reminded of the ongoing fight for recognition, equality, and the right to be unapologetically oneself.

Read More: 20 Important Queer Movies Of The 20th Century

Paris is Burning (1990) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd

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