Paris Is Burning (1990)

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Although the subject of the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning (ball culture) is unmistakably NYC-specific, it’s not difficult to see its connection to a more recent New Orleans trend: sissy bounce. There’s very little connecting the two geographically-disparate movements in the decade or so that separates them, but there’s still a similarly effortless punk spirit & vibrant defiance that binds them in my mind, a superficial connection or not. NYC ball culture was a fashion-minded escape fantasy for the city’s POC, queer, transgendered, and often homeless youth who used the platform to feel empowered instead of disenfranchised. Where sissy bounce offers New Orleans’ queer & transgendered POC youth access to the largely homophobic & hyper-masculine world of hip-hop, ball culture offered that same minority access to wealth & the world at large. That access may have been to more of a fantasy than a reality, but it was a transgressive fantasy that was so goddamn fabulously punk that there’s really nothing else like it, sissy bounce included.

We don’t have a worthy documentary about New Orleans’ sissy bounce culture yet, but there is a more than worthy NYC ball culture doc to be found in Paris Is Burning. As a culture, the film’s subject has everything necessary for a great film: sights (in the homemade fashion), sounds (in the music & dancing that accompanies the runway “voguing”), and narrative (in its long history as told through the eyes of old-timers who had occupied the scene decades before the film’s camera crew arrived in 1987). Part of what makes the film so arresting is its combination of both surface pleasures & much deeper, more meaningful aspects. Sure the film is stuffed with lush, beautiful fashion and the absurd hyroglypics-inspired dance moves of voguing, but there’s a lot of real heartbreak at the center of the culture’s need for escape.

These are marginalized people who’ve been abandoned by their families & society at large; they depend mostly on petty theft & sex work to get by. Although there is an aggressive, competitive aspect to ball culture, there’s also an intense comradery that includes makeshift families called “houses”. Ball competitors are seeking to better one another for a chance at a “legendary status” or at least a trophy for their troubles that night, but they also serve as their own support network, giving each other a place to go and something to look forward to when practically everything else has been stripped away. As the MC at one ball puts it to the more “vicious motherfuckers” in the crowd, “We’re not going to be shady, just fierce.” There’s a catty atmosphere on the surface of ball culture, but it’s a thin veneer on something much more thoughtful & fulfilling.

It’s a little sad, then, that the isolated act of voguing was assimilated & diluted into a much larger, uncaring pop culture by enterprising folks like Madonna the same way New Orleans’ bounce maneuver twerking was assimilated (poorly) by folks like Miley Cyrus. It’s sad that such a rich, complex culture had been boiled down to such a singular, somewhat superficial detail, but that’s often how mainstream success works. Part of what makes Paris is Burning so rewarding is that it arrived in time to capture that culture before it was exposed to the public at large. There’s still time for sissy bounce to receive the same reverent treatment , but not much. The recent national fetishization of twerking makes it feel like the moment has already passed. Of course, I may be oversimplifying both sissy bounce & ball culture by linking them with such a concrete tether, but I’m certainly not the first one to do so. There was even a huge event thrown last year celebrating their spiritual sisterhood. Although one had voguing & the other twerking and one was stationed in Harlem & the other in New Orleans, there’s still a rebellious, punk spirit of inclusivity for groups of young people who are normally excluded from everything. As one of the ball culture’s old timers puts it, “If more people went to balls and did less drugs the world would be a better place, wouldn’t it?” If balls were anything like the way they’re represented in the near-perfect Paris Is Burning, I’m inclined to agree.

-Brandon Ledet

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5 thoughts on “Paris Is Burning (1990)

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