Shot between 1985 and 1989, Paris Is Burning is a documentary that explores the “ball culture” of New York City. These balls were beauty pageants of sorts, for drag queens certainly, but categories for competition tended to make room for black people, latino people, gay people, and transgendered. These categories and sub-categories are so structured that I could never explain them all to you, but people competed in “executive realness” (how well you can “pass” for a business person), for example, or showed off their catwalking skills, elaborate costumes, or dance moves.
Competitors grouped together in “houses” (like the House of Chanel), which were substitute families in a community that really needed them. Director Jennie Livingston spent years interviewing people and putting this thing together, and it’s given me insight into a world I never knew existed. Drag isn’t just a subculture here, it’s a complex thing of race and class and gender identity that allowed for a pretty wonderful self-expression.
The film brought voguing into the mainstream although it was actually just a small part of the movie. What I’ve gleaned is this:
First, reading: to get a good ‘read’ on someone, you find their flaw and you come up with a good insult about it. But the truer the flaw, the better the read. It’s not just about being mean, it’s about being shrewd I think.
Then, shade: to throw shade is to slyly insult someone. You disrespect them with trash talk.
And finally, voguing: which is the dance equivalent. I never knew that all these concepts were somehow interconnected, but yes, voguing is part of a dance battle where you freeze repeatedly in glamourous positions (as if you’re a model on the cover of Vogue magazine), trying to outdo each other. A few years later Madonna will bring this trend to the mainstream, white-washing it and losing its flavour, but it’s actually a pretty cool thing to watch the real stuff go down.