The Unintentional (Therefore, Even Sadder) Increased Othering of the Other in Paris Is Burning

By Genna Rivieccio

In 1991, when Paris Is Burning was given its wide release into cinemas, the word ‘vogue’ had already entered the cultural lexicon – not thanks to the Black and Latino gay men who had helmed it, but to a white woman named Madonna. The same year as Paris Is Burning, Madonna’s rockumentary, Truth or Dare, was also released. Not only that, but it was released by the same distributor: Miramax. A company, as many know, infamously run by a grotesque, predatory producer named Harvey Weinstein who would, for decades, go unchecked for his oppressive behaviour. This seems more than slightly pertinent to mention in that Paris Is Burning, despite how celebrated it may be, is a film steeped in exploitation. And yet, like Jean-Michel Basquiat knowing full well that Andy Warhol was exploiting him just as much as Basquiat was exploiting Warhol, there’s no denying that the documentary subjects, treated as ‘exotic creatures’ though they might be, are getting something out of it. And some even continue to get something out of it to this day. At least, those that survived the ravages of the 80s and 90s as queer men. 

Ravages that a white woman of privilege like the film’s director, Jennie Livingston, could never understand, even if she was deft at depicting them. This is more than can be said of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, when she tries to make a documentary about Sunderland and its ‘impoverished’ a.k.a. working class – fascinating as they are to someone as high society as Julie. And yet, the backstory behind how Livingston came to make Paris Is Burning isn’t unlike Julie’s naïve, ‘ooh how exotic’ approach to her Sunderland project. Livingston, too, was a film student when she decided to document one of the balls at the Gay Community Center on 13th Street for an assignment she had to turn in for a class at NYU. This was after clocking two men voguing in Washington Square Park in the late 80s. Though, to her, it came across as ‘unusual dancing’. When she approached the men and asked them point-blank what they were doing, they told her: voguing. It planted a seed in Livingston’s mind that she would later follow up on, filming the self-funded portion of her product in 1986 so that she could cut a trailer to show around and secure additional funds for filming and editing. 

So it is that the film, though released in 1991, opens with the title card: NEW YORK 1987. Establishing shots then include a view of the Twin Towers, a billboard bearing the Statue of Liberty’s head and, finally, Times Square. All meant to set the tone. One that wants to remind viewers we are not just living in a material world, as Madonna said, but a world that is tailored to white patriarchal hegemony. Which is why, interestingly enough, one of the scrolling headlines on a now retro-looking news ticker that Livingston chooses to hold the shot on in Times Square is: ‘White Supremacist Church Begins National Conference’. But for the queer men of Paris Is Burning, every day, even in ‘liberal’ New York might as well be a national conference of the White Supremacist Church. That’s what it is to have it made abundantly clear that the stifling little box society created just for white hetero folks isn’t something you’ll ever fit into. And not only will you not fit into it, but the white people who instantly appraise you as ‘Other’ will only use your otherness for their own gain – whether financially or for artistic clout. In Livingston’s case, it turned out to be the latter. And, although a lesbian, therefore having an entrée into the LGBTQIA+ space (back when it was just LGBT) she wanted to document, the fact that Livingston came from a vantage point of privilege greatly matters not just to the telling of the story, but how it comes across on film. bell hooks took perspicacious note of this in her assessment of the documentary, in an essay from 1992’s Black Looks: Race and Representation called ‘Is Paris Burning?’.

Among many searing assessments, hooks remarks, ‘What could be more reassuring to a white public fearful that marginalized disenfranchised black folks might rise and make revolutionary black liberation struggle a reality than a documentary affirming that colonized, victimized, exploited black folks are all too willing to be complicit in perpetuating the fantasy that ruling-class white culture is the quintessential site of unrestricted joy, freedom, power and pleasure.’ From this vantage point, that makes Livingston the gleeful propagandist helping to affirm the longstanding message in our culture. And even in these seeming ‘non-scenes,’ like the one of the news ticker headline, there are details that insidiously reiterate the semiotics of white capitalistic dominance. In particular, the billboard showcasing a smiling Marilyn Monroe in the background of the news ticker. Although the shot doesn’t give a complete image of what, exactly, Monroe’s face is being used to advertise, it’s beside the point. Monroe’s instantly recognisable image is synonymous with the height of white glamour. Of the sort that Black women have been trying to emulate for decades because they’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s the ideal. As Jay-Z distilled it in his 2012 song, ‘That’s My Bitch’: ‘I mean Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice/But why all the pretty icons always all white?’.

It doesn’t help that the Black queer men of Paris Is Burning are only too ready to jump up and down (literally) in an attempt to re-create that ‘ideal’ of beauty for themselves. With categories for competing (e.g., Town and Country and Executive Realness) extending primarily into yuppie ideals of what it means to ‘be an American’. Because these ideals are shoved down the throats of everybody, it makes it all but impossible to avoid the brainwashing that leads one who doesn’t fit into the white hetero category to try desperately to become that ideal in some way, no matter how physically impossible (unless, of course, one goes the Michael Jackson route of extreme skin bleaching). The increased pressure to look a certain way, to exude your class reached an apex in the 1980s, when ballroom culture itself was at an apex. However, for Dorian Corey, one of the featured drag performers in Paris Is Burning, the 80s felt like end times for ballroom culture rather than a renaissance. Seeing how much more materialistic rather than innovative the competitions had become, Corey took note of how everyone wanted to model themselves after the ‘fabulous’ rich white women of TV shows like Dynasty (meaning fewer homemade gowns and more shoplifting). And yet, Corey has to admit that even when he was younger, he still wanted to model himself after white women, recalling, ‘When I grew up, you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable. Fortunately, I didn’t know that I really wanted to look like Lena Horne.’ One of the few Black women ‘allowed’ to be famous in Hollywood at a time when all white everything was the norm. Thus, Black people like Corey couldn’t admit that’s what they really wanted to look like: themselves. 

Corey then concludes, ‘Everybody wanted to look like Marilyn Monroe.’ Which harks back to her subtle presence behind the news ticker at the beginning of the film. And, in truth, everybody still wants to emulate that Monroe ‘ideal’. Just look at Kim Kardashian rummaging through her clothes and going blonde for the 2022 Met Gala. Even as a technically white woman (who still loves the art of Blackfishing), Kardashian felt the need to ‘correct’ some of the Blackness she had appropriated over the years as a result of it finally being ‘chic’. For the men that Livingston observes in Paris Is Burning, being Black is hardly ‘in vogue’ (pardon the pun). And it’s made clear that serving the realness of mimicking the white tropes that are shown to them every day in advertising, on TV and at work is essential not just for bare minimum survival, but to get ahead in the world in any way. Of these realness-serving appearances at the balls, with men dressed in yuppie, high-fashion garb on the dance floor, it is said that there’s no better practice for honing the craft of blending in among ‘real’ society. In other words, ‘They give the society that they live in what they want to see. So they won’t be questioned. Rather than have to go through prejudices about your life and your lifestyle. You can walk around confidently, blending in with everybody else. You’ve erased all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways to make your illusion perfect.’

And that illusion is more like delusion when considering that the thing these queens want to be is white and rich. Around the twenty-two-minute mark of the film, Venus Xtravaganza, a trans performer, unabashedly declares, ‘I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want …’ Eerily and ironically enough, there’s a scene of Madonna in Truth or Dare telling her makeup artist that Warren Beatty got her a gift (a shirt from Dolce & Gabbana) because she demanded one. She then asserts, ‘See? I get what I want’ and snaps her fingers with the same expected bombast of a gay man (indeed, it’s no coincidence that Madonna once said she’s a gay man trapped in a woman’s body). Livingston’s deliberate inclusion of these types of scenes featuring gay and trans men of colour yearning to be the non-other of this white society starts to become like her own capitalist propaganda after a while, whether she means it to be or not. It’s what hooks delineates as: ‘The whiteness celebrated in Paris is Burning is not just any old brand of whiteness but rather that brutal imperial ruling-class capitalist patriarchal whiteness that presents itself – its way of life – as the only meaningful life there is.’ The way Paris Is Burning comes off, it’s as though being white and rich is the solution to all one’s ills. Not, say, living in a society that amends itself to stop othering the poor or the non-white (though the racist perspective says that being poor and non-white are inextricably linked – cue Joe Biden telling the audience at the Asian and Latino Coalition PAC in 2019, ‘Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids’). Livingston is sure to perpetuate the idea that it’s tragic to be Black or Latino and gay. Her emphasis on this shines through in scenes like the one of house mother Pepper LaBeija remarking of the children who seek out the balls, ‘They come from such sad backgrounds, you know. Broken homes, or no home at all.’ This, too, echoes Madonna in Truth or Dare acting white saviour-y, as though she’s done a charitable act by taking these men on tour with her, stating, ‘This was the opportunity of their lives. And I know that they’ve suffered a great deal in their lives, whether with their families or just being poor or whatever. And I wanted to give them the thrill of their lives.’

It’s telling that Livingston was unable to ever top what Paris Is Burning would become, releasing, as of 2023, a mere three short films afterwards and then becoming a consulting producer on Pose. The show that seeks to Ryan Murphy-ify what has now mutated into yet another romanticised period in New York history. Never mind the rampant unchecked oppression and the blind eye turned to AIDS that dominated this era. Because othering the so-called other, from a white standpoint, has only become more lucrative since Paris Is Burning initially came out. Particularly since white people are still telling (therefore, profiting from) POC stories – and their presentation of such stories will never come across as authentically as a person of colour telling it. Junior LaBeija, who was approached by Livingston to consult on Pose confirmed this by telling The Hollywood Reporter, ‘Pose is a Black experience conducted by white leadership … for me, I cannot accept someone else telling my story that I lived.’ For whatever reason, he accepted it when Paris Is Burning was being filmed, perhaps too hopeless in the late 80s to push back against his own exploitation by Livingston. 

This form of exploitation applies to that indelible true first scene of Paris Is Burning: the exterior of a ballroom, followed by Pepper LaBeija flouncing through the streets in an over-the-top gold lamé gown and into the Savoy Manor Ballroom. It’s evident that while he might be ‘invisible’ outside, inside the ballroom, he is a god(dess). Worshipped for looking the same and exuding the same confidence as any white model. And with Livingston’s outsider eye, the very first ball the viewer is exposed to automatically speaks to what hooks was saying when she observed that Livingston’s perspective, through the camera lens, offers less of an illumination and more the feeling of ‘watching an ethnographic film documenting the life of black gay “natives”’ without recognising ‘that they are watching a work shaped and formed by a perspective and standpoint specific to Livingston.’ That standpoint being an upper-class white one. So yes, it’s easy to imagine Livingston, after graduating from humdrum Yale, moving to the big city and salivating over the sight of those two voguing gay men in Washington Square Park. That view she brings of being on a ‘city safari,’ where she could watch the natives in their natural habitat, quickly transposed itself onto Paris Is Burning

Just as one of her subjects notes of visiting the balls, ‘It’s like crossing into the looking glass, wonderland. You go in there and you feel, you feel a hundred percent right, being gay.’ For Livingston, the stakes of coming out/being gay weren’t likely to be as high – not with her ethnic and socioeconomic background. Indeed, this seems to be, subconsciously, why she chooses to start the film with the voiceover, ‘I remember my dad used to say, “You have three strikes against you in this world. Every Black man has two: that they’re just Black and they’re a male. But you’re Black and you’re a male and you’re gay and you’re gonna have a hard fucking time”. And he said, “If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.”’ The idea that a gay man’s father could position his sexuality as ‘if you’re gonna do this’ addresses the fact that just because you were gay, as a Black or Latino man, didn’t mean you could actually ‘act on it’ the way white gay men were more freely able to do. Livingston’s occasional verbal interjections manifest when the abovementioned man tells the camera that entering the ballroom space is the only ‘wonderland’ where it feels acceptable to be gay. Particularly as a person of colour. Livingston prompts, ‘And that’s not what it’s like in the world?’. The man, obviously without hesitating, replies, ‘That’s not what it’s like in the world. You know, it should be like that in the world.’ But Livingston apparently needs to be schooled on this as much as any white viewer ‘taking a safari’ by watching this film. And rather than the average white viewer seeing these Black and Latino gay men as empowered, it’s more likely they would be seen as pitiable for believing that, at a ball, ‘You can become anything and do anything’ and ‘Whatever you want to be, you be.’ To that end, the men of Paris Is Burning have a very Cinderella perception of what a ball is: just one night to ‘live the fantasy’. The dream of being a princess – rich and desired. 

Livingston studies these men as any anthropologist would: from a safe distance. Never getting too involved. Poetically enough, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the film when a man wearing sunglasses (while discussing the concept of what it means to be legendary) reveals the reflection of our white storyteller in his lenses. In this meta instant, we see a dual perception. On the one hand, the Black man sees the white person filming him as an opportunity – whether for exposure, being rendered uninvisible, what have you – and on the other, so does the white person (or people, with Livingston standing beside the camera operator) filming him. Again, it goes back to the ‘Warhol * Basquiat’ collaboration of 1985. Both were aware of a mutual kind of exploitation. But, in contrast to Basquiat (who didn’t have the ‘strike’ of being gay against him, in addition to Black and male), the men in Paris Is Burning are not already established, and certainly not rich. They’ll take what they can get – and that seems to be Livingston’s perspective on their ‘lifestyle’. As hooks would also assess, ‘Had Livingston approached her subject with greater awareness of the way white supremacy shapes cultural production – determining not only what representations of blackness are deemed acceptable, marketable, as well as worthy of seeing – perhaps the film would not so easily have turned the black drag ball into a spectacle for entertainment of those presumed to be on the outside looking in.’

Yet even from the inside, a man like Willi Ninja (one of the house mothers) couldn’t parlay voguing into something as lucrative or iconic as Madonna and Livingston, both being white women who greatly capitalised on something that wasn’t theirs. About forty minutes into Paris Is Burning, Ninja talks about wanting to spread the Gospel of Vogue everywhere, stating, ‘I want it to be known worldwide and I want to be on top of it when it hits … I want to be a big star, known generally every corner of the world.’ But Ninja would not be all that well-known to anyone apart from a niche demographic. He was not ‘the type’ to get credit. Madonna and Livingston are. Yet even Ninja admits to using the ball space for his own exploitative motives, mentioning, ‘What the balls have to do with [getting famous] as far as the dance field is maybe perfecting my craft a little better, to learn new things, new ideas and bring ‘em to the real world.’ So there’s that notion again: that the ‘real’ world is the white hetero one. And that the men of the ball scene ought to bend to it, not the other way around. The obsession with money and status shown throughout Paris Is Burning plays into the obsession with whiteness. For just as it is power to be white, so, too, is it power to have money. Hence, LaBeija insisting, ‘Just imagine if I had the dollars, it would be too much for the world.’ That is to say, Black people having money would be too much for the white world to bear (case in point, burning down Tulsa’s ‘Black Wall Street’ in 1921).

And so, with the balls, these men can create a land of make-believe, where their instructor (Junior LaBeija) shouts, ‘O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. Opulence! You own everything! Everything is yours!’. To quote Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’. Ultimately, though, all Paris Is Burning serves to underscore is that Black and Latino queer men do not own everything, not by any stretch of the imagination. And that all they’re left with is the clinging-to-a-dream fantasy of what it could be like if they were rich and white. Because, as one ball-goer says, ‘That is everybody’s dream and ambition as a minority: to live and look as well as a white person.’ The fact that it’s not intentional on Livingston’s part to convey and layer on this toxic message is actually what makes it all the more depressing … and indicative of white people reinforcing Black/Latino and queer feelings of inadequacy as a result of presenting white capitalist ‘values’ as some kind of panacea…that only white people can take. 

None of this is to say that Paris Is Burning isn’t a highly effective film, for its purpose. Which is to make the other seem so other that all they want is to desperately fit in with the white-dictated culture, to be seen as the same kind of beautiful and rich that affords the white hegemony its continuously unchecked power. 

This article appears in full in OTHER AS A JOURNAL, NO. 6.