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Burning Voices: Redefining "Realness" in Paris is Burning

By William Jones

"Everyone may not win, but everyone can walk." An image of a person wearing an extravagant outfit, headdress, and jewelry, from 'Paris Is Burning.'

Paris Is Burning opens with a dramatic entrance by a magnificent creature named Pepper Labeija. Wearing immense puffs of gold lame, gloves up to her elbows, and a feather headdress, Pepper glides into a Harlem Elks lodge as though the place is her own special kingdom, and in a sense it is, since she is a legendary drag queen. She walks the floor amid a throng of admirers until the emcee of the event orders them to clear the floor. Sexy and defiant, she struts to a disco beat and blithely sheds her headdress and sleeves to reveal a somewhat more sedate ensemble. If the spectacle looks a bit like a Hollywood premiere, it is no accident. As Dorian Corey, another legend, explains, "Liz Taylor is famous. So is Pepper Labeija."

In 1985, while she was taking a basic film production course at NYU, Jennie Livingston first encountered two men posing to cries of "butch queen in drag" and "Saks Fifth Avenue manne­quin" in Washington Square Park. She asked them to return on another day so that she could film them doing the dance they called voguing. They stood her up, but she was inspired to make her way into the world of all-night balls, where groups called "houses" (often named for fashion houses), and their members, or "children," competed. She discovered that voguing, which has since become famous, was only a part of the drag ball culture which has existed in Harlem for over twenty years. Livingston's acclaimed documentary, Paris Is Burning, tells the story of the children, their struggles to survive, and their hopes for fame and acceptance.

The balls exude the atmosphere of a social club, an haute couture fashion show, and a bitchy family argument combined. Judges evaluate contestants in dozens of categories, which accommodate many different looks and attitudes. As Jennie Livingston says, "Everyone may not win, but everyone can walk." Some categories resemble those of traditional beauty pageants, while others, especially the"realness" categories, define a new degree of finesse and exactitude in drag performance. These events are not just for Dynasty-style divas. Military realness, executive realness, and schoolboy realness provide opportunities for butch queens to imitate the traditional poses of masculinity. In many cases the performers mimic the bearing and gestures indicative of classes which they can only dream of joining. Outcasts because of their race and sexuality, the children at the balls transform traditional drag into a potent spectacle of glamour in the midst of hardship.

Octavia St. Laurent poses in a gender-blurring photo shoot.

Livingston, who spent years taking pictures at the balls before she filmed them, is cautious in discussing the irony that many spectators see in the drag balls. "I don 't think that most people who are engaging in 'realness' in a ball are doing it for overtly political reasons. You can look at it, as my film does, and say that this is ironic, but I think it's much more about a very visceral experience of wanting to go into a room where everybody loves you for what you are. There's an ultimate irony, and it's perceived by everyone there: 'if I were a traditional woman, and not a gay man; if I were a rich person and not a poor person; if I were a tough boy, a banji boy and not a fag, then everyone would accept me.' So there is still a revolt in what they're doing, even if it's not deliberately ironic."

The mood of the balls has evolved in keeping with changes in the society which the balls imitate in miniature. Livingston explains, "The '60s were a time of self expression, with wild drag queens in lots of glitter and sequins. The 80s were more about having labels, so the ball culture became more conformist. In each category, you conform to having a beautiful face, or you conform to being a perfect drag queen, you even conform to having a beautiful fat body. Each category has its world. This is in an age when you consider yourself valid if you have a certain type of car or a certain kind of jacker. I think the balls directly reflect the increased importance placed on material things in the '80s, the mood of greed that was, and is, so prevalent." The participants in the ball world occupy a precarious place in this society of su p­ posed plenty and opportunity. The houses provide the only social structure for the children, many of whom have been thrown out of their homes because they are gay. Shoplifting and hustling sustain those who are, to put it mildly, living beyond their means.

Some spectators may look for an obvious critique of the acquisitiveness and brutality of American society in the drag balls, but are puzzled by performances that seem naively uncritical. "In a sense, the balls are buying in. They aren't saying, 'Screw the establishment. ' They are saying, 'We want to look like the establishment. Dynasty is fabulous, and Dallas is fabulous."' But Livingston points out that this very emphasis on traditional appearances, particularly traditionally feminine ones, belies the harsh reality of their position in the world. "I think there is something disturbing about the way femininity is taken on, and it certainly isn't a flexible idea of what femininity is, but part of it, strangely enough, is about the things you get if you are traditionally feminine." Octavia of the House of St. Laurent states simply, "I want to use my looks to make money. "The scene featuring her attending a promotional appearance of Ford Agency models makes a devastating comment on the mannequins and their promoters, but her desire to achieve success in the world of fashion is absolutely earnest. "Octavia is acknowledging something essentially disturbing, that as a woman she could get picked up by a rich man, or she could conceivably be a model and sell her body. She's not in a socioeconomic position to say, 'Fuck that, I'm just going to go be a woman executive. I don't have to conform to the ideas of what men do or what women do,' because she's subject to these ideas more than people who are in a position of greater privilege."

"If you're going to give people their due, you have to listen a lot. In terms of documentary filmmaking, listening means wasting film." Livingston shot 70 hours of film for Paris Is Burning. Although she wasted many rolls of film in the process, she discovered two central characters she would never have filmed if the shooting ratio had been lower. Pepper Labeija, mother of the House of Labeija, and Dorian Corey, a veteran of two decades of drag balls, provide some of the most intelligent and poignant commentary in the film. The disadvantage of shooting such a large amount became obvious once the editing began, as Jonathan Oppenheim and Kate Davis waded through the footage and shaped the film into its present form. The finished film works as efficiently as a conventional narrative feat u re, but Livingston emphasizes that her goal of accessibility did not get in the way of emphasizing important issues. "Some­ one else looking at the footage, even from the standpoint of making it tight and concise, could have made a very exploitative film that said only, 'Aren't these people weird and sick and strange?' Certainly that's not what we set out to do." Venus, Pepper, Dorian, and the others who appear in the film, talk with candor and perceptiveness about what they do. The effect is stunning.

The stories Livingston managed to get on film bespeak her close relationship with many of the children of the ball world. When she began attending ball s, she would be the only white woman in the audience, but eventually she became accepted as a regular, known as "Miss Jennie." Her interest in the balls derives, in some measure, from a concern for what she calls "the oppression of gender." She originally made photographs dealing with the constricting expectations of gender roles, but was frustrated when her audience (mostly straight,white men) missed the point. She then switched to filmmaking to represent the child ren, whose stories embody these concerns more urgently than any picture she could take.

Livingston's position of humility in relation to her subjects lets them expound on the conditions of their lives in a way that few films allow. The filmmaker admits, "It was so pleasantly shocking to me that people who didn't have the kind of education I had were more articulate than me, or than most of the educated people I knew. I guess in my own prejudiced way, I had to overcome ideas about the limitations that drag queens or prostitutes would have. It just seemed amazing that they were so politically aware of where they fit in. I think part of my personal odyssey in making the film was to overcome my own classism and racism. Everybody has it, no matter who you are. We grow up in a classist and racist society. "She adds that not everyone considers the lucid indictments of white, straight America so brilliant. "I think it's scary that people normally thought of as weird rejects could serve you up your own thing." When a shortened version of Paris Is Burning showed in England, the London Times panned it. The reviewer wrote that the people represented couldn't even speak English, and that the film was as inarticulate as they were. The race, sexuality, and class of the ball children have also proven threatening to many organiza­ tions that could have funded the film but didn't, since the subject matter wasn't "respectable" enough.

When voguing appears in the realm of popular culture, the moves and costumes remain, but indications of the specific identities of those practicing the art form fall away. Livingston has mixed feelings about Madonna 's recent appropriation of voguing, which has thus far proven to be the most successful attempt to render the ball world visible to a mass audience. "Madonna is an entertainer, and her job is to find things that appeal to the public, to sell them, and to make money for herself and the company she works for. Voguing is a very attractive thing. She brought it to the public, and they like it. I think she's to be credited in that she's hired people from the ball world to vogue for her. She didn't teach wh i te, straight boys to vogue. I think it's regrettable though understandable that she doesn 't, when interviewed, say that voguing is gay. She says it's a wild dance craze in New York. She's certainly not a homophobic performer either, but if she takes a trend and presents it to America, she's not going to say its roots are gay. She's just in a culture that's totally homophobic."

Livingston has had to field many questions on AIDS in question and answer sessions after festival screenings of the film, since Paris Is Burning mentions very little about it. She maintains that while AIDS is devastating, it is only one of the threats to the people involved in the ball world. For them, survival on a basic level has been difficult. Some of the children are on the verge of  homelessness, and those who work in the sex industry are subject to its abuses. Any of them may be shot in the street, and they are also at risk from violence directed against gay people in general, which is on the rise in New York City. "If you 're a drag queen, it is perhaps more likely that you will be murdered by somebody who hates drag queens or someone who's crazy before you get a chance to get any symptoms, if you happen to be carrying the virus. When we were shooting the film, doing an interview with Dorian, a gun battle erupted on the corner. There were crew members outside in the van while we were inside the apartment doing the interview. They had to drop to the floor and hope the bullets didn't go through our flimsy, cheap rental van. This shook us up. We spent two months shooting this film, and this happened once during a two-month period. It's happening many more times to the people who are living in these neighborhoods. So AIDS is just one thing in a series."

Paris Is Burning has been well received at various festivals, and will be released theatrically pending the negotiation of music rights; nevertheless, Livingston remains skeptical about the possibility of making gay films for a mass audience in America. She received some funding in the United States, but most of the money to make her film came from England's BBC. America's media establishment, the richest in the world, admits no responsibility to its gay audience. The habitual circumspection on the subject of sexuality accounts for "apologist films," rather than real gay films, gaining a place in popular culture. The economic clout of gay men and lesbians may be a deciding factor, and Livingston envisions a possible scenario of "Hollywood executives who 'll say, 'Wow, they make up 10% of the population, but they make up more than 10% of the movie going public, and if we give them some money to make images of themselves, they'll make us some money."' This trickle-down plan for a stake in the mass culture has yet to be realized, and a pious hypocrisy prevails. Although she plans no gay projects in the near future, Livingston 's interests lie with characters who are "out of the mainstream," and her concern for fair and decent represen­ tations of those who are summarily excluded from the mass media continues. "I hope that good representations are ultimately about humanity. As Dorian says at the end of the film, 'If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hurray for you.' That whole speech is really about what it's like to be living as a person in the world, and to have dreams, and to realize that as you age, those dreams may not be realizable in the form you imagined. She's not saying, I’m gay. I'm black.' She's saying, 'I'm a human being."'

William Jones is an independent filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His first feature film, Massillon, deals with growing up gay in a small Midwestern town.