The conditions were ideal for pop culture success. Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning captures the colorful costumes, big personalities, and booming performances of New York’s 1980s ball culture. The conditions were also ideal for sweeping criticism, if not condemnation.
Livingston, a white, cis, lesbian woman, documents the rejection, poverty, and death of black and brown, gay and transgender queens, and she profits, while the black and brown, gay and transgender queens she features arguably do not. Appropriation and racism in the queer community is a familiar struggle, one that is made more complicated by the diverse and complex identities of its members. New-age media has made access to queer media, especially depictions of drag culture, more available, but it hasn’t made them perfect.
Paris is Burning appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. It shocked mainstream audiences and critics alike; it was the first time that they were given a backstage pass into ball culture. Livingston interviewed mothers, queens, and the members of their houses and followed them during the process of getting ready for balls, everything from costume creation, putting on makeup and hair, and finally performing in the shows.
Apart from focusing on the extravagance of ball culture, audiences also got to see the hardships the queens endured as members of the community.
Dorian Corey spoke of the consumerism that had taken hold of the scene. Creative costumes mattered less and less, while designer clothes bought adoration–even if they were stolen.
Pepper Labeija made the point that some of the ball attendees had “two of nothing” and chose participating in balls to eating. Perhaps the most tragic of the stories, though, is that of Venus Xtravaganza, a trans woman of color, queen, and sex worker who dreamed of being a wealthy, white woman. By the end of the film, it is revealed that she was found strangled in a hotel room. Her housemother, Angie Xtravaganza, identified her body. Each of these issues finds members of the ball community struggling with their identities as queer people of color.
One of the film’s most vehement critics was author and activist Bell Hooks. She wrote of Livingston’s appropriation and commodification of blackness to suit the “white consumer appetite.”
“Just as white cultural imperialism informed and affirmed the adventurous journeys of colonizing whites into countries and cultures of ‘dark others,’ it allows white audiences to applaud representations of black culture, if they’re satisfied with the images and habits being represented,” she wrote.
Even with its faults, however, the documentary paved the way for shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009 and Pose in 2018. They’ve each been met with their fair share of criticism, as well.
Seven of the 11 winning queens on Drag Race have been people of color, but they still experience racial bias from fans of the show, as well as racist abuse online. RuPaul herself has been criticized directly for not personally addressing racism on the show and for his remarks on trans women.
As a writer, director, and producer, Ryan Murphy has also received his fair share of criticism in terms of LGBTQ representation. For Pose, Murphy wisely decided to collaborate with a diverse group of queer people including Steven Canals, Janet Mock, the talented cast of the show, and Freddie Pendavis, who is the only main subject in Paris is Burning who is still alive.
Theariale StCyr, also known as Felony Misdemeanor, housemother of The Misdemeanors in Denver, first saw Paris is Burning in 1999.
“I was so very inexperienced with the drag world, as I had just stepped into it. I was 24 at the time. I remember watching the movie and trying to understand what was going on. The houses. The voguing. The balls. Everything,” he said.
StCyr’s experience with Denver’s drag scene wasn’t initially the smoothest. After moving from Texas in 2003, he found the local queens unfriendly. He credits an AIDS benefit show for finally making his name in the community.
Still, in spite of finally feeling welcome, StCyr admits that there are not that many people of color in the Denver scene.
“Just from my standpoint, I’ve seen many [POC] queens not get recognized for something they’ve done only to have a Caucasian queen do something similar at a later point in time and get all the recognition for it–myself included. I don’t want to make this sound like it happens all the time; it doesn’t, though it happens more this way than the other way around,” he said.
Paris is Burning has been remastered and re-released this year for Pride season to the excitement of many, including StCyr.
“I know for a fact that some of the queer, black youth would love to see where the ballroom scene came from. Most everything that is drag today came from the ball scene. The up-and-coming generations needs to see this. I also believe white queens can benefit from this, too.”
Depicting drag culture in movies and TV shows allows audiences and show runners to continue to ask hard questions about race, because the cultures are so closely tied.
If we don’t recognize the contributions of people of color, then we are erasing them from a community that they built out of refuge from cis, white, heteronormative standards.
Transgender women of color are still disproportionately affected by bias and violence, bias that leads to a multitude of issues including poverty and homelessness and violence that often leads to death.
In the opening scene of Paris is Burning, we are greeted with a voiceover. “I remember my dad used to say you have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two–that you’re black and you’re a male. But you’re black, and you’re a male, and you’re gay. So you’re gonna have a hard f*cking time. So, if you’re gonna do this, then you’re going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”
If taking a look at the people who are in charge of Paris is Burning, Pose, and even Drag Race, tells us anything, it is that we have a long way to go to reconcile the relationship between race and drag.
Photo courtesy of Paris is Burning on Facebook