Scenes of Survival
The way the performers in Paris remix and refashion language is one of the most memorable and widely discussed aspects of the film. The film captures linguistic rites of passage, as the performers define and perform various Black queer literacies. Corey discusses reading as an elevated form of insult, and shade as somewhat of the subversive counterpart to reading. Reading and shade are introduced on stark black title cards with white font, along with a host of other words, phrases and spaces specific to Harlem ballroom culture. In discussing the discourse in Paris, I am focused on the terms and phrasing they use, as well as how they frame their discussions. I argue that Black queer slang and literacy practices serve as discursive vestiges, understood through how they are performed. Paris captures a refashioning of language around identity formation, group membership specific the ballroom scene, and Black queer survival. In this section, I focus on the refashioning of language and discourse in the performers explanations Trans/Gay life more generally, the house system and terminology.
I love the opening of Paris. The film opens with scenes of Black and Latino people laughing, dancing and having a good time in the streets in 1987 New York City. There is a title shot giving the date and location but it is easy to tell the time by the late 80s fashion, music and film quality. It is like being transported into a different time. However once the voiceover begins, it is clear that the time is not so different from the time I live. Junior Labieja states, “I remember my dad say, ‘You have three strikes against you in this world.’ ‘Every black man has two—that they’re just black and they’re male.’ ‘But you’re black and you’re male and you’re gay.” This line informs the remainder of my analysis in the sense that it provides a impetus for the performers refashioning or language, performance and space. His father goes on to tell him that if he plans to live his life this way that he will have to be stronger than he ever imagined. This is a queer version of the “You have to be twice as good (as your White counterparts)” Black respectability rhetoric that many Black parents tell their kids to prepare them to compete in a racist, classist, and homophobic society. My father would often suggest that their was difference between the an “sexual orientation” and a “lifestyle” and stressed that I needed to be a close to the mainstream as possible in order to survive. This desire to blend and be apart of normative society is a salient theme throughout the film. While many of the performers relish in their Black queer identities and performances, the performers also express ambivalence to how they are read in and outside of the scene.
The ballroom performers within this subculture (The Harlem Ballroom scene) regularly engage with and refashion beyond the mainstream or static ideas of who they are and should be in the larger world. Specifically, the performers refashion terms, such as houses and housemothers, which complicate our understandings of each term. They reify the terms and deconstruct them by engaging them in a context where Black queer people are denied their biological family and are forced to create new families to survive in a homophobic world. In the film, David Ian Xtravaganza discusses the ballroom scenes as an alternate reality, where homophobia does not exist. He states, “It’s like crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland. You go in there and you feel… you feel a hundred percent right as being gay.” He goes on to say that the world outside of the scene is not like that at all. A common narrative throughout Paris and the larger gay community is that of gay youth being forced out of their houses by unsupportive and/or abusive parents and having to survive the best way they know how.
Pepper uses a similar narrative to discuss her role as a housemother in the ballroom scene. “I know this for experience because I’ve had kids come to me and latch hold of me like I’m their mother or like I’m their father, ‘cause they can talk to me and I’m gay and they’re gay…” In Peppers comments, it is clear that being queer bonds members of the community as a family beyond just sexuality. Anjie, who is crowned mother of year in the film, talks about having to help her kids get ready for the ball. “I do that one’s hair, the other one’s makeup. You know, choose their shoes, their accessories. I always offer advice, you know—as far as what I know and what I’ve been through in gay life, you know.” She goes on to say that she has had to learn good and bad ways to survive because gay life is hard. In the film outtakes, there are scenes of Willie Ninja’s mother cheering and yelling, “that’s my son” during one of his voguing scenes. This is important to note because many assume that all the performers had unsupportive biological parents and has to turn to the streets to find new ones, which is not true. Also in the audio commentary, Livingston discloses that Venus lived in a suburban house with her grandmother and engaged in street life simultaneously.As I discuss earlier, Crystal Labieja’s 1967 exit from the Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant and the founding of the House of Labieja is often referred to as the beginning of the ballroom scene and the founding of the first house. Dorian Corey discusses houses in the ballroom scene as families and compared them to families hippies created during the 1960s. Corey states, the hippies had families and no one thought nothing about it. It wasn’t a question of a man and a woman and children, which we grew up knowing as a family. It’s a question of a group of human beings in a mutual bond.” He goes on to say that early houses were named after people who had reputations for walking in the scene and snatching trophies. Then different groups would found houses and work on building their names by competing in balls.
In Butch Queens, Bailey discusses how many houses are named. “Most houses are named after haute couture designers, but some are named after mottos and symbols that express qualities or aims with which the leaders want a house to be associated” (5). Different houses featured in Paris include Saint Laurent, Overness, Pendavis, LaMay and Dupree. Another one of my favorite film scenes shows Pepper Labiieja sitting like Cleopatra in her living room surrounded by a King Tut bust and her house children. In this scene, she discusses the house of Labieja as the reigning house in the scene. In a bragadoccious rant she states, “The House of LaBeija is the legendary house above all of them. I have the most members. I’m the most popular. New York City is wrapped up in being LaBeija. So it speaks for itself. And I am the fiercest mother out of all of them.” Before one can recover from Labieja’s over the top declaration of supremacy, a clip of Freddie Pendavis being asked what he thought of the house of Labeija follows. In a moment of shade, Pendavis responds “LaBeija? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that house. I’m sorry. I don’t see that house. Only reason I see my house, Pendavis, is because of Kim and Avis. ‘Cause both of them walked. And at the last ball, Avis showed her goddamn ass off!” What is funny to me is that Freddie barely even gives his own house credit in his attempt to shade the house of Labieja. In this moment we see a glimpse into the playful rivalry that exist between houses in the ballroom scene and the grandiose posturing that informs a lot of the performances.
The legacy of Paris exists with contemporary Black queer discourse. Corey’s description/performance of shade as “Shade is… I don’t have to tell you you’re…,” speaks to the embodied and performative nature of shade and many other Black queer literacy practices. Shade is fierce literacy because it is a refashioning of language in terminology and framing. Shade comes from the African American tradition of verbal play called signifying, where participants makes humorous statements making fun of one another. In Word from the Mother, Smitherman discusses the double meaning that takes place in signifying: “Although signifyin is tantamount to a “dis,” an expression of disapproval, it’s acceptable because it is a well-known, long established Black verbal tradition, with socially defined rules and linguistic norms that those born under the lash share.” In Paris, the participants engage in throwing shade in various scenes.
Corey compares the verbal play when a Black queer person is amongst other Black people versus when they are amongst other Black queer people. Corey explains, “…if l’m a black queen and you’re a black queen, we can’t call each other black queens, ‘cause we’re both black queens. That’s not a read. That’s just a fact. So then we talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes.” In this example, context informs how deep the read goes and how it’s taken. Within the Black queer community, the focus is often placed on taking the finer points and making them larger than life for entertainment. A scene follows Corey’s comments where Freddie Pendavis accuses another performer of wearing more makeup than his mother. Whether or not he actually had on makeup is irrelevant.
I call attention to a specific Paris ballroom scene, where gender is being deconstructed, that Livingston and Corey use to articulate shade. Corey continues to discuss shade in reference to kerfuffle hat took place during one of the balls filmed. The scene begins with a voiceover of Corey saying the point of shade is to “knock ‘em out” and “hit ‘em below the belt.” Corey goes on to compare shade to the Olympics, where one can get disqualified for merely stepping on the wrong part of the mat. In this particular scene, we see David Father of the House of Xtravangaza sauntering down the runway in a white men tuxedo jacket, black slacks and a full-length fur coat feeling his beat. Then you hear announcer Junior Labieja shout over the microphone “I SAID men’s garments. Where are the men’s garments?” A visibly irritated David responds “A man bought it mother fucker!” and continues to argue for the fur coat being a men’s coat by yelling that “It buttons on the right side!” In this scene, a man walking in a men’s scene wearing a women’s fur is not read as a real performance of man. So pointing him out for wearing a women’s fur is a disqualification and shade in the sense that it exposes him as not a real man without explicitly saying it. Corey points out that the categories are arbitrary and uses this incident as an example of the fine points people notice to throw shade.
Other terms the performers use includes legendary and voguing. Legendary can be understood by its literal meaning. The term legendary has particular traction in the ballroom community. Many of the ballroom performers discuss wanting to be “legendary” in the scene. They compare becoming legendary to winning an Oscar award in the straight world. However, it is clear from the participants that this designation is earned. One of the performers says this about his status in the ball in one of my favorite moments from the film. While rocking blackout sunglasses and checking out what else is going on in the street, he states “I’ve walked….” The reason I love this scene is because the performer attempts to do the impossible, which is honor his elders while still making it clear he is the baddest bitch. In another scene, he suggests that the point of performing is to become a legend in the scene.
Willie Ninja discusses voguing at the nonverbal form of shade. Ninja explains, “The name is taken from the magazine Vogue, because some of the movements of the dance are also the same as the poses inside the magazine.” Vogue’s reputation as a bible for all things fierce informs the dancers’ appropriation of the title. Willie continues, “The name is a statement in itself. I mean, you really wouldn’t go to a ball to do the “Mademoiselle?” In voguing, performers use Vogue magazine fashion models and Egyptian hieroglyphics for inspiration as they dance against each other in the vogue category. I engage with voguing more critically in the next section as a performance. However, Paris is often credited as the first text (Pre-Madonna’s “Vogue”) to expose mainstream audiences to the art form.