In the film Paris Is Burning, director Jennie Livingston immerses herself in black and latino queer culture in New York City in the mid-to-late ‘80s in order to document the developing drag scene of this time. The piece includes portraits of elegance, energy, and community, characteristics that define this style of performance. Paris Is Burning allows viewers to observe this counter culture, specifically how it manifests itself as performance. The central events that contribute to the conflict of the film are the Balls: competitions that resemble a fashion show or a beauty pageant. A Ball consists of competitive categories, which are defined by the role each contestant attempts to portray, but the goal is always the same: “realness.” For example, in the “Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness” portion, each contestant wears clothes they think exemplify being a student, and they perform this character, using books and backpacks to enhance their presentation. A panel judges each contestant, decides who is the most “real”, or convincing, and the winner receives a trophy.
Paris Is Burning has become a treasure to queer people and communities, as a product that celebrated gay culture and performance in a time that strongly rejected queerness. Though there has been deserved criticism surrounding the film’s production, specifically the unknown position of the director within the film, I argue that Paris’s ends justify its means, as the film allowed people frequently absent from media representation to thrive on screen. This representation made their reality accessible to audiences, who were allowed to identify, or disidentify, with their queerness.
In the “Ball” scene of Paris Is Burning, at the beginning of the film between the “Ball” intertitle and the “Kim Pendavis” intertitle, a number of fans and participants explain what Balls mean to them. One man says, “It’s like crossing into the looking glass…you feel 100% right as–of being gay…. That’s not what it’s like in the world.” The scene moves on to a group of young people discussing the stakes of these competitions, and what makes these events so important to them. One person explains that he knows “society” wants him to be interested in football games, but that he prefers Balls; he says, “We might spend more time preparing for a Ball than anyone would spend preparing for anything else…a ball is like our world.” As described by the participants and fans featured in this scene, these events offered queer people a space for community and an outlet to express themselves in ways they might never be able to in public.
These performances are examples of cultural expression; they are also an example of disidentification, as outlined by José Esteban Muñoz’s piece, Disidentifications. As described by Muñoz, and which is evident in Paris Is Burning, there was not frequent or positive representation of black or latino queer people in dominant mediums. Therefore the characters of this film had to search for themselves within interpellations created for people of different identities. Muñoz states that identities-in-difference, like when a male contestant embraces their femininity during the Ball, creates a conflict in the public sphere that challenges the expectations and rules of society (Muñoz 7). He suggests, “Their emergence is predicated on their ability to disidentify with the mass public and instead, through this disidentification, contribute to the function of a counterpublic sphere” (Muñoz 14). The viewing of these performances through a medium like film allows this “counterpublic sphere” to spread beyond the Balls themselves, and make this unique representation available to audiences outside of New York City.
Within the Ball scene, we hear one of the queens, Pepper Labeija, describe how she never felt comfortable being lower class, and she always saw more of herself in representations of wealthy, upper-class people. “I always felt cheated”, she says, about seeing luxuries she knew she could not afford to enjoy. We meet Labeija formally during an interview in the “Ball” scene. She is dressed in a satin blouse and gold jewelry; she smokes a cigarette under a large lamp, sitting half in its light and half in the darkness of the room. This image is fresh in our minds as Labeija discusses her material desires, and the camera flashes to advertisements that exclusively include scenes of wealthy, white people.
Labeija’s commentary is played over footage of high-end clothing stores, like Chanel, and pages of magazines that feature glamorous photos, in which beautiful people wearing long, shimmering fur coats embrace each other. Representations of white models, or subjects, indulging in luxurious, over-the-top “riches”, as Labeija refers to them, contrast greatly with the previous sequences of black and latino queer communities in the ‘80s. These images of wealth appear shamefully extravagant when presented alongside the characters of the film, many of whom are just trying to survive. The Ball scene, and the representation of this queer community beyond the gymnasium-appearing venue where the Ball is held, includes stories of hardship and longing. In her interview, Pepper Labeija says, “A lot of those kids that are in the Balls, they don’t have two of nothing. Some of them don’t even eat…they don’t have a home to go to.” The contrast between the reality of these young people and the fantasy they admire–and which they strive to project on the Ball stage–is one of the most compelling statements of the film. It is a testament to the disparity these subjects experience daily; challenges they face not only because they are queer, but because of multiple social hierarchies working together against them. What’s even more surprising is that this disparity also exists between the subjects of the film and its director, who probably shares more in common with the person in the fur coat from the magazine than she does with Pepper Labeija.
Jennie Livingston, the director, is not a New Yorker; she is not black; she is not latino; she is not low-income. Though Livingston does identify as lesbian, this shared queer-identity–a term which takes on many meanings–seems to be one of the few commonalities between Livingston and her subjects. The grand majority of the characters in Paris fall into many, if not all, of the aforementioned categories, and each of these shared identities and experiences helped guide them to the Ball circuit. It seems that Livingston intentionally hides her identity from her audience by taking a “fly on the wall” approach to filming, and choosing to never reveal herself on screen.
It’s easy to overlook the lack of connection between Livingston and the community she is documenting–or deem this disconnection unimportant–but it is a necessary detail when assessing the authenticity of this film’s intersectionality. Economic and racial inequality are factors which pluralize the queer experience of these characters, and these factors are part of what makes their stories so captivating. The characters’ experiences as queer-identified people are likely very different from those of the film’s director.
My conflict with Livingston’s relationship to her subjects is similar to Jasbir Puar’s critique of intersectionality in the piece “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”. Puar proposes that intersectionality has moved dangerously beyond its context as a legal doctrine. She worries that intersectionality, which likely was intentioned to unify marginalized groups toward a common purpose and shared understanding, has become a vehicle through which white women utilize feminism to benefit themselves further:
“Has intersectionality become, as Schueller implies, an alibi for the re-centering of white liberal feminists? What is a poststructuralist theory of intersectionality that might address liberal multicultural and “postracial” discourses of inclusion that destabilize the [woman of color] as a mere enabling prosthetic to white feminists?” (Puar 54)
This quote suggests that intersectionality has not actually served those whose occupy multiple marginalized positions, rather it has revindicated the most privileged identities that are frequently prioritized in feminist practices. Considering this idea in relation to the Ball scene from Paris, it is easy to see Livingston as an exploitative force, as she uses a queer culture that is not her own to reveal examples of inequality, without disclosing her positions of privilege within the hierarchies she is critiquing.
Livingston’s questionable relationship to her subjects creates conflict and disconnection within the Ball scene and the film in general. However, I argue that there are great benefits to her work when it is considered in the scope of disidentification. Paris Is Burning as a product challenges social norms and offers space to non-mainstream representations, which were rarely viewed during the time of this film’s release. As Hildebrand explains in his book about Paris Is Burning, he felt desperate to see this film as a queer teenager living in a non-accepting small town in South Dakota. Hildebrand writes, “Paris Is Burning was a testimony that there are other ways of being in the world, ways that are self-defined–at least in New York” (Hildebrand 23). Hildebrand recognizes that his reading of this film is not the only that exists, and it is likely not the dominant reading. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that he is not the only young, queer-identifying person who watched Paris Is Burning in search of acceptance, or something that felt familiar, and saw part of themselves onscreen for the first time. Livingston aided the accessibility of this culture, allowing the “crossing into the looking glass” feeling to reach far beyond gymnasiums in Harlem.