Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

30 years ago, Paris Is Burning changed popular culture but not the lives of its subjects

Illustration for article titled 30 years ago, Paris Is Burning changed popular culture but not the lives of its subjects
Screenshot: Vimeo

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: It’s the start of Pride Month, so we’re looking back at some major or influential highlights of queer cinema.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

The simple fact that “throwing shade” has been added to the dictionary makes a compelling argument for Paris Is Burning as one of the most influential pieces of media of the past century. Disseminated through populist vehicles like RuPaul’s Drag Race—where the host often quotes the film verbatim—drag terms like “tea,” “serve,” “gagging,” and “reading” have entered the American pop cultural mainstream in the 30 years since Jennie Livingston’s documentary on New York City’s Black and Latinx ballroom scene debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. But who’s benefitted from this cultural shift? Certainly not the queer and trans people of color who introduce the terms in such an infectiously entertaining fashion in the film.


The debate over Paris Is Burning is nothing new. Dissent from the film’s subjects began almost immediately after its release, eventually culminating in a response documentary called How Do I Look? in 2006. Participants said that Livingston, a white lesbian, was a cultural tourist who took advantage of the moment. In a 1993 New York Times article titled “Paris Has Burned,” Pepper LaBeija expresses feelings of betrayal: “When Jennie first came, we were at a ball, in our fantasy, and she threw papers at us... she told us that when the film came out we would be all right... But then the film came out and—nothing.” That same article sees Livingston defending herself by saying she paid out $55,000 to 13 of the film’s subjects in 1991, and didn’t get rich besides.

Regardless of your stance on the controversial topic of paying documentary subjects for interviews, it’s undeniable that, for the drag queens, expert voguers, and transgender women profiled in Paris Is Burning, whatever boost they did get was temporary. Shortly before the film was released, Madonna hired two members of the House of Xtravaganza as dancers on her Blonde Ambition tour, and the movie’s box office and critical success did lead to bookings here and there. But to the white, wealthy high-fashion elite, ball culture was just a trend. For Octavia St. Laurent, the aspiring model whose life story provides the inspiration for Pose’s Angel Evangelista—minus the mainstream breakthrough—the crossover lasted for exactly one gig before she returned to dancing behind glass at a Times Square peepshow. She died in 2009.

Many of the film’s subjects are gone now, so much so that it’s easier to list those still alive than those who have died. Emcee Junior LaBeija has survived, as has Freddie Pendavis, the streetwise kid who’s not sure if he should explain what “mopping” (i.e., shoplifting) is to an outsider. Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza, the women who sing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Am What I Am” on the beach toward the end of the film, are reportedly still alive as of 2019. But then there’s sister Venus Xtravaganza, the petite smart aleck who provides both some of the funniest and most affecting moments of the documentary. Even a hit film revealing the details of her murder wasn’t enough to get the NYPD to care about solving it. Thirty-two years later, her case remains unsolved.

Ballroom culture is about creating new families and a new culture when the ones you’re born into won’t accept you. The very concept of “realness” as laid out in Livingston’s documentary is loaded both with poignancy—the point of blending in to straight cisgender society is so you won’t get killed for being gay or trans—and a defiant will to live. In 2020, as in 1990, transgender people, particularly Black trans women, face violence at much higher rates than the general population. Yet they continue not only to survive despite the odds but to also shape the culture as trendsetters and tastemakers—both credited and uncredited. It’s too late for many of the legends of Paris Is Burning, but we can help support the QTPOC who are still with us. If you’ve ever asked a friend to “spill the tea,” consider it a tip.

Availability: Paris Is Burning is currently streaming on YouTube. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD through The Criterion Collection.


Looking for even more ways to advocate for Black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.


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