Once every season, RuPaul gathers her remaining gurls, brings them to the front of the “Werk Room”, gives them fake frames to hold over their faces like a monocle, and announces elegantly, “In the grand tradition of Paris is Burning, the library is now open.” The queens, on RuPaul’s Drag Race, proceed to read – make snarky insults at one another, kind of like a roast – the rest of the queens, and whomever makes the cleverest and wittiest jabs wins the mini-challenge. This is what is left of Paris is Burning. The embers that still glow are, shall we say, a bit appropriative. “Werk”, “Realness”, “Shade”, and the rest of them have all entered into a cultural lexicon that is no longer exclusive to the community from whom it was basically taken (some of the vernacular stems from AAEV), and though Jennie Livingston’s documentary still exists as a cultural touchstone, it’s only in the most “basic” of ways.
Livingston’s Paris is Burning — whether we accept it as an examination of the different dynamics of race, gender, class, marginalization, performance, or subcultural hierarchies or as a voyeuristic look inside a community that never asked for it in the first place — is a seminal documentary that lives on and whose legacy extends beyond the queer community, but not exactly in the ways one would necessarily hope. For many young queer people, it remains the go-to text to understanding the subculture, yet as “gay culture” is allegedly dying, what remains of the film (and arguably of gay culture) is its language.
This is a double edged sword. On the one hand, the film – able to very fluidly oscillate between the entertaining and the incendiary – still seems to have a legacy in the first place, acting as Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason did decades before: as a spotlight on a particular community that the mainstream wanted nothing to do with. But that its primary remembrance, if any at all (several queens on Drag Race admitted to never having seen the film) is only linguistic, there’s an inherently appropriative nature to that.
The strange thing about gay culture is that it is primarily crafted and cultivated by cis white men, something that even David Halperin won’t even deny. A majority of its cultural artifacts either depict white people and/or are created by them. It’s also a common criticism of the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement that it consists heavily of the same demographic, perhaps the most egregious piece of evidence being the recent internal report regarding the policies and staff at the Human Rights Campaign. Despite the Stonewall riots being catalyzed by a trans woman, Sylvia Rivera, the gay rights movement has long silenced the voices of trans and queer people of color and women (TQPOC). Pride parades now exhibit a kind of conservatism which has seeped into the mainstream LGBT movement, buying into a capitalistic model which has, in turn, affected the drag community for the mainstream. What was once anarchic now heavily relies on buzzwords rather than examining the interplay of gender expression and performance which was intended to be built into drag. Its transgressive nature has dissipated, as has the LGBT’ movement’s as a whole; arguably trying to seem as palatable as possible, even if it means buying into a notion of assimilation into a heteronormative institution/society. What we see in Paris is Burning is a result of marginalized groups of queer people being rejected from the white ball scene. TQPOC had to, as the general gay population before it, create their own culture given that no institution exist(s)ed.
And so what black culture did create, particularly these phrases, terms, etc., the white (gay) culture took with little acknowledgment to from whom they took it. Madonna’s “Vogue” is certainly an example of this, since it nearly divorced itself from its original usage. Although the lyrics, and the video, mention the “cover of a magazine”, what is ignored is that “voguing” was created because these people knew that (at that time) they would never make it on the cover of a glamorous magazine in the first place. The emotional weight that creeps behind voguing is case aside for its more superficial meaning.
In addition to that appropriation, other TQPOC have basically had to assimilate into white gay culture, as the homonormative standard is exactly a white cisgender male gay person, who is, more often than not, urban and affluent. It is relatively uncommon to see portrayals of queer life that diverge from this standard, from Looking to A Single Man. This isn’t to suggest that these depictions are bad, just that the queer canon in general has a tendency to be myopic, and symptomatic of an insidious systematic racism and sexism within the queer community.
Ironically, given that the film is supposed to function as a panorama of this culture, as a way for light to be shed on communities that are rarely seen in the mainstream, and for voices to be elevated, its legacy as is still seems to ignore some of the people most at risk: trans women of color. The film does its best not to conflate drag and transness, and articulates the experience of being trans most empathetically through Venus Xtravaganza, whose arc as a sex worker is told without judgment. Yet, however revered Paris is Burning is throughout the gay community, it often fails to acknowledge not only things like the nearly half a dozen trans women murdered in 2015, but also the works trans women have done for their peers, not least of all exemplified by the response to Jennicet Gutiérrez, who interrupted President Obama at a recent Pride event at the White House (which was initiated by a queer woman of color) to “demand respect and acknowledgment” for the trans community. Livingston’s ostensible goal was to utilize her privilege to, as aforementioned, elevate the voices of the unheard. But it seems everyone else has picked and chosen what they found appealing about Paris is Burning without considering the film’s larger ideas and purposes.
The drag community as a whole isn’t necessarily to blame, but it ends up being it’s the mainstream drag community that has reduced Paris is Burning’s reputation as singularly about drag; RuPaul’s gleeful “Because reading is fundamental” ignores the film as a larger portrait of different people and different lives who exist in similar spaces because of marginalization from the larger, mainstream community. It’s almost as if the cause and effects of the film are repeating themselves, only this time we’re seeing the former rather than the latter.
It’s a shame, then, that Paris is Burning, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has been reduced to a series of catch phrases. What is extraordinary about the film is its ability to look thoroughly at the different dynamics at hand without losing the intimacy of its cast of characters: Dorian Corey, a rather maternal figure and the in to understanding many of the rituals taking place; Angie Xtravaganza, a young Latina trans woman, with guts and passion and ambition; Pepper Labeija, mother at the House of Labeija and as fiery as her wont to perform for the camera. One of its most affecting scenes is when Corey elaborates on the idea of “realness” (serving such and such realness): she explains that “passing” is critical to understanding the terminology, and the film reveals itself as, amongst many other things, the roles we play for others and for ourselves, the concept extending to its other discourses on class and race.
Taking seven years to make, and still causing a bit of controversy within the queer community, it almost looks like the extravagant house that these fascinating folks built, and that Livingston showed to the public, is almost burnt. And though trans visibility, and TQPOC in general, is on the rise, other people – in and outside of the queer community – seem to have no problem taking the kindling that’s left and using it for their own purposes, as the rest of the (drag) family is left to pick up the pieces.