PERFORMANCE STUDY: THE DRAG QUEEN BALL - PARIS IS BURNING

 
 

Living in New York City, one of the things I miss the most is the grit of the underground that I had access to on the west coast. That's not to say there isn't any here, but being new and not knowing many people (and also being in my 30s, married, and content living a quiet life), I haven't spent much time in the underground club & warehouse party scenes here. Plus, I think things have changed in the last 10 years. 

Today it seems that almost everything is commercial. Citibank sponsors pride parade floats, and pop music and fashion are capitalizing on feminism. This started in the 90s and is in full force right now. I believe that as a result, normcore was born (do people even say that term anymore?), and the 'xennials' have taken back marriage - including gays. Since everything is 'normal,' we've embraced normative behavior and recreated it to our liking. And not to seem too nostalgic, but with all this progress, I believe we have certainly compromised the grit. Sure there is still queer nightlife, but dissenters have it easy today in comparison to our forefathers/mothers. 'Underground' implies hiding. We no longer have much to hide. The goal is acceptance, so we should have an easier time, but with this soft life I often look back on the angst of my generation's youth and wonder if it just felt harder because I was in the trenches fighting.* 

*I play by saying 'soft life' but that is not to say there aren't struggles today. Equality is far away in terms of race, gender, and class. There is still a lot to fight for. I'm just looking back at all my closeted friends, and the gay bashing & racism I experienced like it was nothing and seeing how far we've come.

Nowadays, sometimes I go to the fancy drag parties in NY where beautiful people like Amanda Lapore and Susanne Bartsche grace us with their presence. But the drinks are always almost $30.00 and if I do end up knowing anyone, they either got on the list, or somehow snuck in because entry is very exclusive, and the fee is, shall we say... cost prohibitive. The costumes are amazing, and the illicit sexuality is uninhibited. The legends who attend helped build an empire, but today's parties they throw don't have much 'street.' Still, we could never have had these rather commercial parties without the work they did in the 70s and 80s.

In my teens and through my 20s I explored fashion and culture by dancing and going out at night. I never felt that I quite fit in where I grew up, so from an early age I gravitated towards the underground. Looking back, I believe that I was living through the tail end of what the 80s had created. Urban environments aren't as gritty as they once were. And most people in metropolitan areas aren't shocked by fashion, music, and lifestyle choices in the way that they could be in the 80s and 90s.

After going to a party on Fire Island recently, I will admit I was sort of saddened by how elite and extremely white it was. It was not a Suzanne Bartsche or Amanda Lapore party, where despite the cost, it seems all social classes and races attend. And though there was still a level of performance that I've come to expect from these types of parties, I couldn't help but romanticize what the underground clubs in NY must have been like in the golden era.

The reason I can even romanticize this period without having been there, is the film Paris is Burning. If you haven't seen it, you're in luck, because I have it right here:

When I went to high school I wanted desperately to fit in, but my privileged-suburban-theater nerd-dancer-dark wave-goth-punk-ska-chola-thrift store tween style was far from the norm. Also most people were white, and I was mixed with kinky, frizzy hair. So I put on a mask, straightened my hair, and bought Roxy clothes so that I could get invited to the parties and make out with boys. My approach was not unlike the 'children' of the Balls as seen in Paris is Burning. Balls were created by drag queens in the 60s, as a sort of escape, and slowly, as an adaptive measure, competitions started to become more inclusionary, allowing people to feel, "100% right being gay," no matter what their aesthetic was.

Because I didn't have an outlet like the Balls, I just told stories and made believe that I was someone else. Fortunately, despite not having an outlet, I grew out it after moving to the city where I found others like me.

In the film, the Balls took place in Harlem. In this tiny niche community, the Balls had competitions with categories where one could dress up according to the category and compete for 'realness.' The performative aspect of these competitions both helped encourage gay men (who were mostly black and minorities who didn't have a ton of money) to explore their notions of heteronormative pressures, while also gaining feelings of acceptance that they did not easily receive from everyday society.

Some of the categories for 'realness' included looking like a real woman, a real collegiate student, executive realness, town & country, high fashion evening wear, even the military - the idea was to find a more natural you. "To be able to blend, that's what realness is," to "look as much as possible like your straight counterpart." These competitions were not seen as satire - but as a "case of going back into the closet," so as not to not be questioned. And while some might say that this fantasy is repression in and of itself, the performances were like role reversals, which can be cathartic and empowering.

Many in the film argue that if given the opportunity to be a 'real' girl, or to be an executive; they could, and so they portray themselves as such as a way to prove it. As someone in the film says, "When you're a man and a woman, you can do whatever you want... But when you're gay, you monitor your everything." At a time when underground really implied hiding, these Balls and their competitions allowed one to be who they wanted without judgement.

In addition to suffering from prejudice against their sexuality, many in the Harlem night life scene were fairly poor, and/or came from troubled homes.  Balls served as an escape from the alternative, the streets. And much like gangs, 'houses' were created, where heads of the household took on much needed parental-like roles, which were gained from their status in the competitions. Over time, houses began to 'throw shade' on one another in competitions, vogueing their differences out on the dance floor. Before Madonna and Joan Rivers got a hold of vogueing, it was originally used to fight it out in competition.

One of my favorite explanations in the film is when they discuss vogueing. Someone says it's like break dancing: taken from hieroglyphics, gymnastics, perfect lines in the body, awkward positions, but where it differs are in the poses taken from magazines (hence the name) and most importantly, in throwing shade.

For a number of reasons, by the end of the 80s, the culmination of fashion, popular culture and the faster rate in which people were living, Balls became less about creating one's own outfit for the competitions, and more about owning labels and fitting with the aesthetics of the time. As the 80s was coming to an end, this underground culture was slowly hitting the mainstream.

In 1990, Madonna came out with Vogue after she saw it happening in the gay night clubs in NYC. But at this point, the era was almost over, as evidenced in Paris Is Burning. The film was made throughout the late 80s, I assume because the director saw that there was a very important, but fleeting cultural phenomenon happening. And once it hit the mainstream, people began adopting and appropriating all kinds of elements from the subculture.

Even today, more than 30 years later, we still use words like, "fierce," "throwing shade," and "24/7," and I see break dancers on the subway taking the vogueing dance moves and furthering them into crazy contortions. The balls that were created to stay off the street, went from underground, to commercial, and back to the streets again.

Anyway, I know I'm a straight woman writing about queer nightlife, but I identify with this group of people as part of my cultural lineage, so I thought I'd share my thoughts with you. And as a treat, here are a few videos of the amazing Joan Rivers interviewing some of the cast of Paris is Burning on her show. What a queen.


DISCLAIMER

This is an editorial piece reflecting on my own life in relation to Paris Is Burning, and my understanding of the subculture therein. Since I left San Francisco, I will admit I'm not as up on the current appropriate language that is expected of one who writes on this subject. Please forgive me, I'm getting old. If you have any objections or want to point out flaws, please leave a comment below.

Just no shade ✌️


COURTNEY CADY, © 2017