A little Background:
Paris is Burning is a documentary style film that shows the 1980s queer social scene. It shows clips of major social events, personal interviews, and describes the local dialogue at the time. When I say main social events, I am talking about the Balls the queer community use to put on. These balls included fashion shows, singing, dancing, acting, and all other things that are wild, energetic, and over the top. People came to these balls to feel a sense of belonging while displaying their uniqueness. They also participated in these balls to earn trophies and to get notoriety from the queer community. The individuals in this film compared the balls to the fame of Hollywood which is what most of the people aspired to in their personal interviews. They wanted to be famous and live a lavish, rich life style. The main people involved in this film are African American and is told from their point of view. Just reading my description of the film, one might think that this film shows queer history from the African American perspective. Amazing right? It wasn’t until I actually watched the film that I noticed that there are some serious flaws with this film. Like every film, there are positives and negatives.
The main thing that I LOVED about this film was the education on queer language. The film would display a word on the screen and then multiple people would give their definition of the word, what is means to them and examples of how the word is relevant to them. To give an example, the stars of the film described what “realness” meant. In the queer community in the 1980s, “realness” would be used to describe a trans person that could pass as the gender they were identifying with without people wondering if they are trans. I saw this as historical. I didn’t know what half of those words meant and I loved learning about what was relevant to the queer generation before me because it is cool to see how much language can change and how communities can have their own way of communicating.
The second aspect I loved about this film was how the queer community would create their own families. Family is a huge part of American culture and it is not unusual for a queer person to have difficulties with their biological family after “coming out.” Since education and visibility has grown for the queer community today it is less likely for this to happen but in the 1980s it was prominent. Lack of family support caused queer individuals to create their own families which was huge in the ball scene. The mother and father of the family would be older individuals who were well know within the community due to their ball performances. They would be supportive and help their “children” compete and win at the balls. They would all identify with the same last name and certain families would be know for certain talents. For example, the Ninja family was know for voguing and the head of the family was Willi Ninja. I loved how the film showed how strong the queer community is and how they would take care of one another.
Willi Ninja, Voguing, Paris is Burning (1990)
Though I loved two aspects of this film which I found to be educational and historical, there was some serious negatives about this film, how it was made, and what it was saying about the African American queer community.
To start, the Director of the film was a cis white woman. For those unfamiliar with the term cis-gender, it means you identify with the gender you were biologically assigned at birth. Now some might think, why does it matter who directed the film? Well let me tell you. It matters who directed the film because what the audience is seeing is through the perspective of the director. We are only seeing what the director wants us to see. We are only thinking what the director wants us to think. Since the movie is mainly about queer African Americans, the film should not be through the perspective of a cis, white woman because the perspective is inaccurate. Author B. Hooks accurately describes this in Black looks: Race and representation.
Lastly, the film shows how society has made individuals strive for a white ideal. The lighter the color your skin is, the more revered you were. Many of the transwomen did not even feel like a complete “woman” with out a sex change surgery. They also wanted the money and fame that skinny white women in the magazines had. People having these ideals make it seem like being African American and being queer are not good enough. This film should be empowering but it showed that people did not like who they were because of social standards.
Venus Xtravaganza, A transwoman who was murdered trying to achieve the white woman ideal. Paris is Burning (1990).
I would recommend this movie for the education it gives on how queer culture was in the 1980s. I also would advise the importance of analyzing this film while watching and to be aware of its flaws.
Hooks, B. Black looks: Race and representation. Print. (p. 145- 156).
Livingston, J. (Director). 1990. Paris is burning. Documentary. United States: Arts Matter Inc.