(Published on ARTSCLASH)
Shade is I don’t tell you you’re ugly but I don’t have to tell you because you know you’re ugly … and that’s shade.
Paris Is Burning, a 1990 documentary about the New York drag balls of the late ’80s and early ’90s, seems like the perfect place to start for my education into gay/camp culture and what we can learn from it (see my first article, The Death of ‘Gay’ Culture for details). After all, it shows like perhaps no other film the dual nature of queer identity, being a deeply confusing combination of fabulous and brutal.
Firstly, though, the film is a hell of a lot of fun. Facing neglect and hostility from a straight world, the young gay kids of the cast have found refuge in makeshift drag Houses, or ‘gay street gangs’ as one drag baller terms them. But instead of bloody fights over territories, they act like fashion houses, fighting over ball trophies, creating personas through make-up and fashion to compete against each other. On the surface, then, we have a deeply positive message, a testament to the unique creativity of young gay minds, who even against all the hardships of their lives (abandonment by their parents, widespread homophobia, reliance on prostitution and crime) are able to create and redefinine themselves in a million defiant ways.
However, even the most basic deeper reading of the film undermines this. Even within the film, the glittery beauty of the first two-thirds has been thoroughly dirtied by the end, as director Jenny Livingstone gives us a heartbreaking insight into the untenable dreams and horrific murder of one of the ball participants, showing the limits of the performance – although you can redefinine yourself within the queer perspective you cannot change outside opinion. Also, there’s the problem of foresight: we know that within a decade of the film’s release, most of its main players would be dead, as hate crimes, drugs, and the hovering black cloud of AIDS took its toll on the scene, leaving it a husk of the wonderful dirty glamour of the earliest balls.
Also, my own watching of this film proves some of its difficulties. As this Harlem-based underground movement got more and more mainstream, and adopted more and more by the traditional overground forms of entertainment (with the ball-goers moving from being inspired by fashion houses to inspiring fashion houses, and Madonna almost wholesale adopts the aesthetic for Vogue and the Blonde Ambition tour,) the original participants found themselves increasingly distanced from their own movement, raising an interesting question; what happens when the movement you join in rebellion to orthodoxy becomes popular? What then is your place?
Thus, my initial look into the gay aesthetic proves problematic, with my current conclusion being that although the gay aesthetic is crucial to the continuation of creativity in the mainstream, this comes at the cost of the original movement, which in Paris is Burning literally dies.
Following on from this then, next week’s class will be looking at Paris is Burning in the mainstream through that most strong of gay icons; her Madge-esty the Queen of Pop, Madonna. What happened to the PiB aesthetic when she absorbed it into Vogue, Truth or Dare and the Blonde Ambition Tour. Is her role as a gay icon one of liberation or one of strangulation? We’ll see next week, so until then strike a pose (there’s nothing to it!) and let me know your views on PiB and the gay aesthetic, and what film/album/TV show etc you’d like me to look at next.