The release of the documentary Paris is Burning (1990) has inspired various discussions and sparked public controversy, as it put the spotlight on the practices of a marginalized subculture in the 80’s. (Clark, 2015) Documentary maker Jennie Livingston discovered and grew interested in the members of New York’s vibrant ballroom community and spent seven years recording the “African American and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women as they compete in simultaneously fierce and fun competitions involving fashion runways and vogue dancing battles.” (Ibid) Through various ballroom scenes and interviews with its participants, Livingston shed light on the different forms of oppression the community faced, such as racism, sexism, classism and discrimination based solely on not fitting into mainstream society.
This societal oppression can be seen as a trigger for the development of the ballroom culture, within which members are free to present themselves as well as act out roles that society denies them.
Putting the focus on the doings and beings, the hopes and dreams of these members, the documentary not only exposes their marginalization, but also helps to explore the complex layers of diversity within the community itself, unmasking the discriminatory practices between members.
In this article, we will discuss the two-dimensional forms of differentiation as documented in Paris is Burning, the community vs. outside (mainstream society) and within the community itself, and aim to analyse how this shapes ballroom culture, specifically focusing on the way in which this defines the lives of this marginalized community.
In order to do so, we utilize Audre Lorde’s notion of differentiation and her conceptualization of anger as a productive force to fight oppression in society. Lorde herself experienced societal oppression throughout her life for being a black, lesbian woman and mother of two, which naturally positioned her on the fringes of society. She deals with the anger derived from the discrimination she faced by translating it into poetry and essays. Her writings are now considered and used in academic work, yet she does not see herself as an academic.
In the book Sister Outsider, she uses her experiences to re-evaluate contemporary American society, or more so its system of norms and values, which she sees as the cause of all forms of societal injustice. She stresses that the system promotes racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, classism and other ills and therefore tries to provoke and invoke her readers to challenge the dominant norms and values of mainstream society (Lorde, 1993). Her way of dealing with long-term oppression through creative practices aligns with the way the participants of the ballroom community in Paris is Burning express their emotions, hopes, and dreams.
Two-dimensional forms of differentiation
Following Lorde, everyone that strays from the norm - which is white, male, middle class, heterosexual, thin - becomes to some degree marginalized. But within marginalized groups oppression takes place just the same, on a different level of course but nonetheless. (Ibid: p. 116) Lorde argues that there are different ‘shades’ of oppression, explaining that subconsciously it is difficult for most people to understand what kind of injustices other people are facing, since they have their own problems to deal with and do not relate to other people’s issues.
For instance, white women focus on their oppression solely in terms of sex – on the collective experience of being oppressed by men, and with that ignore other issues – “within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age. There is a pretence to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.” (Ibid)
This refers to the tendency that whereas women’s oppression that is based on sexism is openly spoken about and protested against, a woman’s oppression based on sexual orientation or race is less vocalized or even used by straight, white women to further outcast ‘others’ within their group. Just like women, members of other marginalized groups obviously don’t all share the same experiences and problems, but rather than recognizing these differences, they are mostly ignored, which actually reinforces oppression rather than challenges it.
For Lorde, the natural response to being oppressed by society is anger, which can and should be used as a productive force, emphasizing that instead of being silent and repressing that anger, people need to use it in a productive and/or creative way. (Ibid: p. 124) “Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” (Ibid: p. 127) For example, the anger which stands between all oppressed women regardless of race, colour, age or sexual orientation needs to be used in a creative way, differences need to be recognized for mutual empowerment, so that their joint efforts can eventually lead to a fundamental societal change. (Ibid: p. 70)
There are many similarities between the way Lorde deals with oppression and how participants in the Paris is Burning documentary are trying to tackle their own issues. The various forms of differentiation outlined in Lorde’s book are seen in the documentary Paris is Burning in both the forms of differentiation between the community and mainstream society, and the differentiation within the community itself.
Community vs. mainstream society
The elaborate ballroom sequences in Paris is Burning outline the harsh reality of living at the fringes of society due to the impact of differentiation between the marginalized subculture of African-American and Hispanic transgender, homosexual, and queer people, and the mainstream society. Lorde argues that “[s]omewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is [...] a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘that is not me.’” (Ibid: p. 116)
Similarly, the participants in the documentary are aware that they do not fit the gender binary roles that are so highly valued by society for being normal or acceptable. Since they deviate from this norm, the community members are actively pushed to the margins of society. This is already evident in the opening scene of the documentary, in which one of the participants remembers an advice given by his dad: “[Y]ou have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two - that they’re just black, and they’re a male. But you’re black, and you’re a male, and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard f****** time.” (Livingston, 1990: from min 00:50)
By walking in the ball competitions, the participants are striving to enact a “real” woman or a “real” man. Trying to pass as real as possible in front of a jury is their way of preparing their “act” for the outside world. As many participants remark, walking down the street as a gay man can get them beaten up. Therefore, by walking like a straight man or woman, they are blending in with mainstream society in order to remain safe. “To be able to blend. That’s what realness is.” (Ibid: from min 18:00) The walks are emotionally charged contests in which one is named the categorie's winner and the other labelled as its loser.
Logically, the spotlight can only shine on one at a time, which leads the performers to fiercely compete about who comes across as more ‘real’. So then, what if you are gay and transgender, walking as the ‘real’ women that you strive to enact, but cannot manage to convince the jury of that? What does that mean for your appearance to the ‘outside’ world?
Being different from binary gender roles already makes them outsiders and forces them to hide from the eyes of the mainstream society, therefore their need to become visible and famous becomes more exaggerated on the ballroom floor. One contestant explains it like this: “The balls, to us, is as closest to reality as we’re gonna get to all of that fame and fortune and stardom and spotlight.” (Ibid: from min 04:33) In the balls everybody gets a chance to express themselves creatively and be who they are or who they want to be - this is their 15 minutes of fame, their opportunity to shine.
For many participants the ballroom competitions represent compensation for their lack of fame and visibility in mainstream society. This is evident from the excessive number of categories the contestant can compete in where all their differences are recognised and appreciated. “In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really and executive, but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore, you’re showing the straight world that ‘I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one, because I can look like one.’” (Ibid: from min 14:36)
“One of the most intriguing elements of Paris Is Burning is its revelation that style is the chief weapon used by transvestites and their entourages. Style is pervasive in speech, vocabulary, manner, dress and attitude.” (Levy, 2006)
The variety of categories not only embraces difference but celebrates it by encouraging performers to find their individual niche in which they triumph over another. However, the documentary also shows the dark side of this, as the celebration of each other’s differences comes with a shadow of discrimination.
Differentiation within the community
Besides the obvious differences between the community and mainstream society, one must not overlook the seemingly subtler but just as complex forms of differentiation within the community itself. As outlined above, it is this excessive number of categories that highlights the diversity inherent in the community. The members belong to the same community, as they share similar interests and are united by marginalisation, bound to the same life circumstances that are imposed on them for being deviant from mainstream society. Nonetheless, they are a group of individuals with diverse characteristics, which logically comes along with the drive to differentiate one from another.
In Paris is Burning, it is documented that this striving for differentiation leads the participants to partake in discriminatory practices. Within the ballroom culture though, discrimination, or the conscious act of showing off through putting down one’s opposite, is enacted in creative ways – reading, shading and voguing.
The anger created by discrimination, which comes with differentiation, fuels the creative energy of the ballroom community. The subcultural practices within the ballroom help its members to deal with their issues in a productive way by reading the others ‘weaknesses’ and using them to throw shade on each other, either verbally or physically by partaking in voguing dance battles, which thrive on emotional expressions and enactment.
Reading, as introduced in the documentary by drag queen Dorian Corey, is the ‘real art form of insult’, from which shading is derived. “You get in a smart crack, and everyone laughs and kee-kees, ‘cause you found a flaw and exaggerated it, then you got a good read going on.” (Livingston, 1990: from min 34:15) In this sense, reading is the grasping of another’s flaw and critically commenting on it, which is usually seen as a witty and humorous form of insult, rather than solely spiteful or sparked with hatred. (Oxford Dictionaries)
Whereas it is easy for an outsider to ‘insult’ members of the community by calling them names, such as "faggot" or "drag-queen", who then find something to call them right back, this becomes more of a challenge when you’re all the same ‘thing’, as you have to go to a fine point. “In other words, if I’m a black queen and you’re a black queen we can’t call each other black queen cause we’re both black queens. That’s not a read. That’s just a fact. So, then we talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes.” (Livingston, 1990: from min 34:50)
Moving on from this, reading develops into another form, which is shading. “Shade is, I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly.” (Ibid: from min 35:35) Shading therefore is an implicit battle, in which you unequivocally show your disapproval towards somebody, either through an evil look or body language. (Oxford Dictionaries) In this way, shading is intertwined with voguing, a form of dance through which the participants express their anger non-verbally on the dance floor.
Willi Ninja, who is considered the father of voguing, explains: “Voguing is the same thing as like taking two knives and cutting each other up, but through a dance form. […] Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor, and whoever did the better moves, was throwing the best shade, basically.” (Livingston, 1990: from min 35:50) In the context of ballroom contests, whenever it is difficult to judge which categorial performance of showing off one’s outfit is better, the opponents vogue it out.
Another form of differentiation is constituted through the community’s housing system. “The interviews reveal a whole new way of living, one that’s highly structured and self-protective.” (Levy, 2016)
Paradoxically, the father of voguing, Willi Ninja, is also the mother and name patron of the ‘house Ninja’.
Besides the house Ninja, there is, for example, the house of LaBeija and house of Xtravaganza. These houses are communities within the broader ballroom community, that compete as teams against each other in the Vogue Balls. (Oxford Dictionaries) Each house has a certain image that unites its residents and differentiates them from other houses. Besides the team function, these houses resemble family homes, in which the residents get to experience a ‘real’ family life and compensate for the lack of it in their childhood by imitating certain features of ‘traditional’ family structures.
Paris is Burning
Based on our analysis of the different forms of differentiation in the documentary Paris is Burning we conclude that there are indeed two dimensions within the documented forms of differentiation, the community vs. mainstream society and within the community itself, which shape the ballroom culture as well as the lives of the community members. The subcultural practices that unite the community, such as reading, shading and voguing, the ball competitions and housing system came into existence through the constant oppression members face for being ‘different’ from mainstream norms.
Similar to Lorde, the members of the community fight societal oppression by utilizing anger as a productive force. The creative choices made in this process are based on the need to protect themselves from the ‘outside’ world by blending in, through practising to act ‘normal’ in the ballroom. And at the same time, in order to satisfy their hopes and dreams - that is to be accepted by society, which in their definition means to be visible and famous - they strive to extraordinarily stand out within the community.
Clark, A. (2015). Burning down the house: why the debate over Paris is Burning rages on. Retrieved on 01.01.2018.
Levy., E. (2006). Paris is Burning (1991): Jennie Livingston’s Docu about Sub-Culture of Gay Black and Hispanic. Retrieved on 01.01.2018.
Livingston, J. (Producer and Director). (1990). Paris is Burning [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.netflix.com/nl-en/
Lorde, A. (1993). Zami. Sister Outsider. Undersong. [special edition] New York: Quality Paperback Book Collection.
Oxford Dictionaries. The linguistic legacy of Paris is Burning. Retrieved on 01.01.2018.