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New York Ball Culture in “Paris is Burning” Documentary

Did Paris Burn in Vain?

The tolerance and acceptance of minorities into society is always a tough process. American society has witnessed several successful occasions when the outcasts have gained their right to equality. Saying that you are gay today is a much less risky feat than it was, say, twenty years ago. And while all the milestones in this path are too numerous to count, Paris is Burning is among the most prominent.

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A documentary shot by Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning tells a story of the New York ball phenomenon, a subculture of the LGBT community. The film consists of the footage of several balls, the events at which the participants engage in “walks”, similar to fashion models, competing with others. The balls comprise several disciplines, including dancing, “shading” (competing in subtle and gracious insults), and “voguing” (dancing in style reminiscent of posing for a fashion magazine cover). The film also features interviews and footage of the famous drag queens, like Venus Xtravaganza and Pepper LaBeija, as well as other characters strongly associated with the scene, like choreographer Willi Ninja. The film takes the observational approach, offering mostly uncommented raw footage of the phenomenon.

According to the author, she was interested in the drag ball subculture and wanted to highlight the political and social undertones implied by it. However, it is not an easy task to determine if she succeeded.

The film mostly depicts the people rejected by society, some of them forced from their homes by their homophobic parents, trying to live their daily lives and express themselves as they do. This may lead to the feeling that they mostly engage in vanity, mimicking the style of high ranks of society. Indeed, several critics, as well as representatives of the LGBT community, accused the film of treating the ball culture as a curiosity rather than a socially relevant issue, going as far as stating that a white director could not possibly grasp its significance. Nevertheless, the documentary had a noticeable impact on the public upon its release, contributing to the gay rights movement.

The subculture itself, however, is not that easily defined. The film leaves a bitter impression of people trying to resemble the society which rejects them by copying its most controversial traits. Bell hooks, a social activist, openly states that drag balls harm the image of the LGBT community as they have neither artistic nor political value and has expressed her concerns that the film would have the same effect. Even some of the actors in the picture are seen questioning the activities they are engaging in, like Dorian Corey, a drag queen who expressed her disappointment with the goals she no longer finds appealing. The documentary shifts its focus in the same manner, with talks of becoming stars gradually being replaced with bitter life experiences shared by the participants. Thus, starting as a film about strange and eccentric activity, it ends up being a story about people, the hardships and joys they are facing daily, with the former being sadly predominant.

The film has unearthed the micro-world that was present in American society for over half a century but was largely unsuspected by the general public. It is often cited as a major contributor shifting the tides in the struggle for equality. If it did so, it was probably because it had drawn people’s attention to the fact that this unseen world we go by every day also has a human face…

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