'Paris is Burning' and the Legacy of New York Ballroom Culture

From Pose to Blood Orange to Drag Race, this influential queer documentary lives on.

Paris Is Burning
Janus Films

The lyrics of Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 hit song “Got to Be Real”: “What you find/What you feel now/What you know/To be real!” reverberate throughout Jennie Livingston‘s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, encapsulating the integrity and self-awareness of the New York City ballroom community. Livingston spent six years immersed in this subculture of queer and trans performers, speaking with them at length and observing the glamorous and theatrical traditions of ballroom, wherein queens of all genders walk the runway showing off their beauty, impeccable outfits, and makeup, modeling, and dance abilities.

Paris is Burning was a critical and box office hit upon its release, winning a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary. It remains one of the most important and influential queer films of all time and captures an incredibly specific time and place — New York City ballrooms in the late ’80s and early ’90s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Paris is Burning received a re-release this summer in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, offering an opportunity to reexamine the film’s legacy and impact on popular culture.

As K. Austin Collins writes at Vanity FairParis is Burning is not the first documentary about drag culture, nor is it the first work of pop culture to bring vogueing into the mainstream (that honor goes to Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue”), yet it is significant for the way it offers a look into a specific queer subculture that audiences likely have no previous knowledge of. Bringing queer (sub)culture into the mainstream is contentious, as it opens the door for straight audiences to appropriate language, mannerisms, fashion, and art that originated in marginalized communities in direct opposition to the hegemonic powers of heteronormative society.

Livingston herself has been criticized for bringing an outsider’s gaze to a community she is not herself a part of. Most of the performers at the balls are poor Black and Latinx queer and trans folks, and Livingston, in contrast, is a white, Ivy-league educated, middle-class filmmaker. In a 1993 New York Times article, she defends herself, noting that as an openly queer woman, she faced many institutional roadblocks in getting the film made, and that her impulse was to provide a platform for the performers to express themselves, an opportunity they may never have had without her privileged assistance (the article also outlines the fact that many performers felt they were not fairly compensated for their work on the film).

Collins points out that Marlon Riggs had been making experimental films about Blackness, queerness, and the AIDS crisis years before Livingston came along. Livingston’s film is inevitably inflected by her own blind spots and biases, despite her best intentions. Her onscreen presence is deliberately minimal, allowing the performers to talk at length about their experiences. The wide range of people she interviews demonstrates the multifaceted nature of this community, offering a look at girls who have day jobs, aspiring models, sex workers, house mothers, and up-and-coming children who wish to use their sewing, dancing, and modeling skills to earn the title of “legendary.”

It is impossible to forget these performers: Pepper Labeija‘s cynical inflections, Dorian Corey‘s Elizabeth Taylor-esque presence as the voice of wisdom, Venus Xtravaganza‘s softness and sweetness juxtaposed with her bombastic performances (“You wanna talk about reading? Let’s talk about reading”). Livingston interviews young queers on the streets and the piers of New York who long to be part of the ballroom community. She visits peoples’ bedrooms and apartments, imbuing these scenes with a sense of comfort, something this community rarely has access to in the face of violent racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia.

While some things have changed since Paris is Burning — AIDS has been significantly suppressed, gay marriage is legal in places all over the world, and queer people are much more comfortable being out and proud in public — the harsh realities of violence against trans women of color remain the same. Toward the end of the film, house mother Angie Xtravaganza solemnly shares that Venus was found murdered in a hotel room, an experience that is all too common for trans women, and one that almost never ends in justice. On British musician Blood Orange’s 2016 album Freetown Sound, the song “Desirée” is interspersed with quotes from Venus Xtravaganza, a loving tribute to this film and the community of young trans women who have lost their lives to the violence that still plagues the LGBTQ+ community today.

These experiences come to life in the fictionalized world of the current TV series Pose, created by Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Falchuk. A direct successor to Paris is Burning, Pose begins in 1987 and follows a cast of ballroom performers as they navigate AIDS, family drama, sex, friendship, and the nuances of ballroom culture. The cast and crew is almost entirely made up of queer and trans folks: writer/directors Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Silas Howard, and Steven Canals, and performers MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Billy Porter, Ryan Jamaal Swain, and Dominique Jackson imbue every episode with a deep feeling of personal connection and emotional truth. If Paris is Burning provided a surface-level look into the lives of queer and trans people, Pose seeks to demonstrate the intricacies of these performers’ personal lives.

While Pose is quite popular and airs on the mainstream television network FX, perhaps no media depiction of drag culture has surpassed RuPaul’s Drag Race. For the few people who have not seen it, Drag Race is a reality competition program wherein drag queens compete in a series of acting, dancing, comedy, and design challenges, followed by a runway presentation toward the end of each episode. The runway presentations closely resemble the format of ballroom ceremonies, with their various categories (“Executive Realness,” “Red for Filth,” “Dripping in Jewels”) and the panel of judges providing biting commentary and feedback for the contestants.

Since the show’s earliest seasons, RuPaul has made no secret of his deep affection for Paris is Burning. He casually quotes the film in conversation as well as in challenge descriptions and runway commentary, and most of the queens throw quotes right back at him without hesitation. In Season 2 of Drag Race, Jujubee recites the entirety of Venus Xtravaganza’s legendary reading monologue (“Touch this skin darling, touch all of this skin!”), and in Season 4, contestant Phi Phi O’Hara is criticized for having not seen the movie, considered by the queens to be an essential part of queer history.

As Elyssa Goodman writes in her history of ballroom culture, one of RuPaul’s Drag Race‘s most significant cultural impacts is that it has brought the language of ballroom to mainstream culture. Phrases such as “the tea,” “yaaasss queen,” “werk,” and “fierce” that originated with Black and Latinx queer and trans folks are now regularly used by straight people (and sometimes corporations) in an attempt to emulate the Drag Race queens they love. Goodman notes that as problematic as it is when straight and white people use these phrases without knowing where they came from, Drag Race may inspire people to learn more about the history of drag and ballroom.

Paris is Burning is one of the most socially and culturally important, vibrant, and beautiful documentaries of the 1990s, and its continued relevance serves as a reminder that things have not improved for LGBTQ+ folks as much as we like to think they have. Yet it also demonstrates the resilience of marginalized people and the necessary practice of turning one’s suffering into something beautiful, creative, and life-affirming. It is also easy to forget that ballroom is still alive and well to this day, but the continued popularity of Paris is Burning, Pose, and RuPaul’s Drag Race keep these innovative queer performers at the forefront of cultural representation. Paris is still burning, and will hopefully keep doing so for a very long time.

Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.