Thursday, April 16, 2009
Like A Gay Street Gang...
One of my first thoughts after the credits for Paris Is Burning ended (after, Well, this should make for an interesting discussion) was that I am really glad that someone documented all of this. Jeanie Livingston's careful documentation of New York City drag life would not have been out of place in any anthropology class I've ever had, so the experience of watching kind of shocking and foreign things wasn't so, well, shocking and foreign. I was more fascinated by the entirety of the culture, from the practice of voguing to the categories and processes of competing in balls, and the way it related and fit in to American culture as a whole. I'm not a huge fan of the classroom brand of American history, but things like this remind me that the history of the U.S. isn't just old guys making laws and wars. I'm a dork, I know.
Ball culture began in earnest for minority LBGTQ people in the 1960s and 1970s when the underground drag shows began in Harlem and started being organized by groups of people who separated into houses modeled after mainstream culture fashion houses, such as the House of Chanel. Though balls had been around since the 1930s, they were previously run by white men and had limited minority participation; perhaps the fact that these separate events began taking place around the time of mainstream civil rights movements is not complete coincidence. This subculture is inextricably connected to mainstream culture, and over time, the drag culture has become an inextricable part of mainstream popular culture.
The most fascinating thing about Paris Is Burning in relation to the other films we've watched, especially Saturday Night Fever, is how thin the line between escapism and reality can be. For Tony in Saturday Night Fever, the nightclub scene is only a part of his life that he uses to escape from the day to day dreariness. It is a hobby in which he finds meaning, and though it influences other areas of his life, like his monetary habits and work ethic, the disco is largely separate. For the people in Paris Is Burning (who are real, mind you) the drag balls are not just a hobby, they are a way of life. The balls are what brought about different houses, which provide the function of a family for individuals who grew up without a family or who were rejected by their own biological kin. These houses are just one of the ways that people in an extreme minority can cope with the rejection and even hatred of others in the same social class. Although ball culture may have started for some as escapism, it has become for most participants the main focus of one's life, unlike Tony in Saturday Night Fever.
Seeing Paris Is Burning was a valuable experience not just in the sense of understanding a different type of cool, but also in understanding a part of American history and culture. Kudos to Jeanie Livingston for capturing the ball culture to be remembered and shared, and I hope to see more of her work in the future.