What is Paris is burning about? - “This movie is about the ball circuit and the gay people that’s involved in it and how each person’s life brought them to this circuit.” This simple answer is given by an unknown man’s voice in the first minutes of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film. The award-winning and nowadays iconic documentary invites it’s viewers to get to know the “ball culture” scene in New York City from mid to late 80’s through the stories of people involved in it. As in a documentary, we not only see the glam and extravagant performances, but also the everyday life struggles of the gay and transgender community.
This documentary follows gay and transgender people who, by answering to director’s questions, explain crucial keywords from their community, for example, what is a “ball”, what “categories” are in it, what “vogueing” is, a “house”, a “house mother” and “father”, “readings” and “shade”. Already in the 1920’s gay men would gather under one roof and decide to have a competition amongst themselves – “balls”. (Hughes, 2001). It is a place where gay people compete by walking in different categories to win trophies. There is always a category for everyone. If you can blend in and look like a heterosexual male, you can walk in “butch queen realness” category. If on the other hand, you can blend in with cisgender women, you can walk in “Femme Queen realness”. And if you can walk like a supermodel, the “Runway” category is the one for you. (Mohenu, 2018) Ball is a celebration, and as one of the interviewed men in the film says - “it is like crossing into the looking glass in wonderland. You go in there and you feel 100% right as of being gay”. However, behind the trophies and costumes lies a harsh truth – for most of the members this ball is the closest they can get actually get to their dream life. Usually these participants have been not accepted by their real family, so they move into other same-like people in “houses” that are led by “house mothers or fathers”.
Even though the people featured in the documentary can be considered “actors” due to the nature of filmmaking, they are still real people explaining/displaying real phenomena and expressing real feelings. Some of the “actors” may have a certain persona in front of the camera or adjust their behavior for the audience (performative elements), in that way it can be viewed as actors performing. However, this is always the case when people are consciously put in front of a camera, it is just an inherent part of filmmaking: “to authenticate the fictionalisation” (Bruzzi, 2006). This blog takes a look at the performative elements and stories presented by the actors in the documentary.
Pepper LaBeija: Mother of the House of LaBeija
In “Paris is burning”, each character is very personally depicted so the audience readily notices they have subtle different thoughts about their “realness”: performing realness and wanting to be real. It seems Livingston purposely draws attention to the individual story respectively so that viewers are able to see and compare their life realness in comparisons with others’ realness. For an example, Pepper LaBeija (pronounced la-BAY-zha), a drag queen in Harlem, preferred to be referred to by the feminine pronoun, because (s)he played both roles in a mother and a father in his house as his official title was “Mother of the House of LaBeija” (N/A, 2003).
Pepper LaBeija was called mother; the house's younger members were the children. ''A house is a family for those who don't have a family,'' Labeija said in the documentary (reference: Netflix? Livingston, 1990). However, when LaBeija was not onstage in the house, he was William Jackson of the Bronx, who sometimes dressed like an ordinary man. He was the last of the four great queens of the modern Harlem balls; Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey and Avis Pendavis all died in recent years (Martin, 2003).
Like many other performers in the documentary, he had also surgically implanted breasts. However, he did not want a sex-change operation, telling that women do not have it so great. Because Labeija knows that simply “having a pussy does not mean you will have a fabulous life”, he never wanted the actual transsexual operation. In other words, he suggests that becoming a woman means facing a new hardship: to be a real woman is simple to face real sexism (Halberstam and Livingston, 1995). “Women get treated bad. They get beat. They get robbed. They get dogged”, LaBeija continued.
“I can only say how a man who acts or dresses like a woman feels. I never wanted a sex change. That’s taking it a little so far… A lot of kids I know, they got the sex change… [but] I’ve never recommented it. And I would have never got it. I’m so thankful that I was that smart.” (Livingston, 1990)
After all, he points out, women have it a lot worse than men in many ways in this society. However, while many of the femme queens are satisfied to dress up feminine clothes, others in the ball house have had actual transsexual operation. For example, Venus Xtravaganza who surgically transformed her genitals promises a more satisfying life than a man who desires to escape from within the cave of a biological male body in the strongly homophobic nation. Venus Xtravacanza wants the operation and longs to be a spoiled, rich and white girl living in the suburbs. Indeed, surgery, for female - and increasingly for male - is an accepted way to achieve “self-improvement”, that fundamental aspiration of the American mythos (Phelan, 2003).
From the many actors in Paris is Burning, Venus Xtravaganza was one of the youngest She was born to Italian American and Puerto Rican parents. She left her house at the age of 13 to 14-year-old when her parents found out about her doing Drag. Her career took off in 1983 when she was accepted into the House Xtravaganza by the founder and also took Xtravaganza as a surname. After the founder Valle died from Aids, Angie Xtravaganza took the role of the house mother and she considered Venus as her own daughter and her right-hand women.
Venus Xtravaganza wanted a very much normal life, where she wanted to live far away from New York married to a man she loves. She wanted “to be a spoiled, rich white girl” and also wanted “a sex change” so she can lead a normal life as she says (Livingston, 1990).
Venus represents one of the many young children who take refuge in these houses. One of the core themes of the documentary is the concept of `House”. The houses are not only a gathering of black and Latin LGBT people for the ball but are also a family and a home to many young children who don’t have anywhere else to go. The “Mothers” of these not only manage the houses but also look after these children.
Outside of the ball which happened only occasionally she and most other drag queens did jobs to survive. Venus earned by going on date with rich men which solemnly also involved her giving sexual favours. According Angie was “very wild on the streets” and she constantly worried about Venus as Venus herself revealed that there were many incidents where she feared for her life when going out with men after they found out she’s transgender.
Unfortunately, one of these incidents is what led to her death in 1988 where she was found strangled to death under a hotel bed in New York city (Livingston, 1990). Later on, Angie is shown in the documentary reacting to her death and she comments how she feared that “something was going to happen” referring to Venus and how she was too wild with people in the streets. Later on, Angie finishes by saying “that’s part of life, as far as being a transsexual in New York city and surviving” which really encapsulates the whole message of the documentary that how uncertain the lives of LGBT people are especially who are POC.
William Roscoe Leake, also known as Willi Ninja is considered to be one of the godfathers of voguing. In the documentary Willi Ninja is asked to explain what voguing is and is shown performing the dance. He explains that voguing started out as a sort of dance “battle” between two ballroom members who did not like one another. Voguing would be a way to throw shade to the other and would be an opportunity to show everyone that you are better than your opponent.
During the documentary multiple clips of voguing are shown, including a vogue battle. It is not clear if this battle was a real vogue battle between rivaling ballroom members or if it was set up by the filmmakers so that they could document the voguing phenomena. Either way, the film succeeded in displaying the dance form accurately. What is interesting is that, as time went on, voguing became a way for ballroom participants to express themselves, and nowadays voguing has become a way for LGBTQ people to express theire true selves, and to embrace their sexuality and gender expression confidently (Aarts et al., 2017).
Octavia Saint Laurent
Another important persona introduced in Paris is Burning was born in 1964: Octavia Saint Laurent. She was a trans woman, who joined the BallRoom scene in New York in 1982. In the documentary, she describes herself as a woman who “wants to be somebody. I am somebody. I just want to be a rich somebody.” Octavia acknowledges that because she was not born a woman, she “went out of her way”, this because she “wanted to be the best she could be”. She describes herself and her lifestyle as “something I wanted to live”. Octavia performs an identity that differs than the one society has given to her, her lifestyle as a trans woman goes against what it was expected by society, which made her go out of her way to become who she wanted to be: “I don’t think the world has been fair to me, not yet anyway”. And by performing in the BallRoom scene, she has the freedom to be who she is. In addition, her goal was to be more than a participant of the BallRoom scene, she wanted to be a model, an actress. She wanted more for herself: “I believe that there is a big future out there, with a lot of beautiful things… a lot of handsome men, a lot of luxury.”
Questions of discussion:
Why is the documentary named “Paris is burning”?
What is the main message or the main messages of the documentary?
Why is or isn’t “Paris is burning” a performative documentary?
Aarts, F., Westerhof, S., Veranoudi, S., & Li, C. (2017, March 24). Voguing by definition: self-expression within the LGBTQ-community. Retrieved from https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/voguing-definition-self-expressi...
Halberstam, J. M., & Livingston, I. (1995). Posthuman Bodies. Indiana University Press.
Hughes, L. (2001). The Poems 1921. (A. Rampersad, Ed.) University of Missouri.
Livingston, J. (1990). Paris Is Burning. Retrieved from IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/?ref_=tt_ch
Martin, D. (2003, May 26). Pepper LaBeija, Queen of Harlem Drag Balls, Is Dead at 53. Retrieved from The New York TImes: https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/26/arts/pepper-labeija-queen-of-harlem-d...
Moheru, M. (2018, October 11). Here's everything you need to know about the ballroom scene. Retrieved from Red Bull: https://www.redbull.com/za-en/guide-to-ballroom-vogue-scene
Pepper LaBeija, 53; Queen of Drag Ball Scene in Harlem. (2003, May 29). Retrieved from Los Angels Times: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-may-29-me-passing29.2-story...
Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. (2003). Routledge.