Performing Fierce

While joining a house or learning the language may be the preliminary rites of passage into the ballroom scene, walking in a ball begins a performer’s journey toward becoming legendary. Everybody wants to be fierce and to perform the most authentic representation of his or her category as possible. The performances in Paris are arguably the most influential aspect. In a lot of ways, the discourse and performances in Paris have helped Black queer people define themselves for themselves. Specifically, the performers’ discussions of walking the ballroom, voguing and realness demonstrate the ways that the performers redefine themselves, as well as understand and refashion static notions of gender and class through performance. The performers help us understand how identity and literacy are informed and practiced through performance.

Kim and Freddie Pendavis’ working relationship is a prime example of how kinship and performance go hand in hand in Kim’s membership in the ballroom scene. In one scene, Kim Pendavis is shown diligently sewing his cream and white linen garment that he plans to wear to walk in at a ball. Interpolated with that shot is a scene of Avis flouncing around the ballroom in the same garment as the crowd goes wild. While never taking his eyes off his sewing machine, Kim discusses why he performs in balls. He states poetically,

I guess I like the excitement. You know, some cheering and screaming, if you were good. And that’s what got me. I like the competition. Makes me stronger. Makes me think more. Makes me want to come back and get them. It’s not just the winning, it’s… it’s the giving, too. Cause I feel that I give a lot of enjoyment to a lot of people that go to balls. And they enjoy to see it and I enjoy to walk for them…

It is clear that Kim enjoys entertaining those who are in the audience of his performances. However, what I find most compelling about his comments is they demonstrate how the ballroom and walking inform how the performers define themselves. Kim sees his performance at the balls as personally beneficial because the give people joy and it forces him to work hard and become better. Kim’s protégé Freddie works with him to create his looks and even helps iron his costumes. Freddie echoes similar selfless sentiments as Kim about why he helps Kim create his looks. He states, “What do I get out of fit? Just simple, you know, joy, satisfaction. That’s it. Not… You know, I don’t really ask much. And then from time to time, later on, I go wear the outfit.” In this scene, Kim and Freddie are laboring to craft and create Kim’s persona. Prepping for the scene is how they build kinship with each other, as well as the larger ballroom community.

Voguing is one of the most memorable aspects of Paris. Throughout the film are scenes of beautiful Black and Latino/a men and transwomen in bright colors and patterns contorting their bodies in different positions as they battle against each other. Willie Ninja introduces himself as the mother of the house of Ninja. He explains that his house is named ninja because “ninjas hit hard, they hit fast, an invisible assassin. And that’s what we are. We come out to assassinate.” He goes to say that voguing came from shade, in the sense that if two people did not like each other they would dance it out on the floor. In one scene, Ninja is shown voguing as a form of pantomime, where he pretends to putting on makeup using his hand as a compact. He starts by pretending to put makeup on himself and ends ups pretending to put makeup on the rival voguer. Ninja continues, “Then I’ll start doing their face, because what they have on their face right now needs a dramatic makeup job.” In this example, the verbal dueling taking place in throwing shade is refashioned into dance moves. The moves send legible messages about the ethos of performer and how they read their opponent(s). Willis discusses a desire to take voguing to Paris and Japan and have it accepted. Like Kim, Ninja identifies with the ballroom scene as a performer and expresses a long-term desire to practice and get better at his craft.

However, from the outside of the ballroom scene looking in, the ballroom scene’s idea of realness is often based in camp archetypes rather that what the actual people would look like. Unlike the dominant hetoronormative gender system of U.S. society, which includes two categories male and female, the gender system of the ballroom scene includes six categories Butch Queens (gay or bisexual male-bodied men), Femme Queens (transgender women or MTF [male to female] women), Butches (transgender men or FTM [female to male] men), Women (female-bodied women), and Men (male-bodied men who do not identify as gay).

Even though these categories exclude and delimit, Bailey argues that the categories are malleable and reflect the lived realities and material conditions of ballroom members. He writes, “To be clear, the genders and sexualities found in Ballroom culture are subjectivities insofar as members identify and fashion themselves by and through convergent notions of sex, gender, and sexuality within the ballroom community and as those meanings imposed on them by society” (35). Bailey goes on to say that the members do not reject the dominant gender norms entirely but rather they play on them and create more possibility. This creation of possibility is necessary for individuals who do not fit into traditional ideas of gender or sexuality and are regularly oppressed as a result.

In Paris, the performers comments demonstrate the ways gender is understood, policed and performed. The performers reimagine and perform gender in ways that reveal possibility for safety and liberation. In a voiceover, Junior Labieja talks about the difference between straight people and gay people when it comes to self-awareness in a largely homophobic society. He states,

When you’re a man and a woman, you can do anything. You can… you can almost have sex on the streets if you want to. The most somebody’s gonna say is, ‘Hey, get a hump for me, ‘you know. But when you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. You monitor how you look, how you dress, how you talk, how you act. ‘Do they see me? What do they think of me?’

In his statements, real manhood and womanhood are rooted in heterosexuality. Straight people do not have to worry about something where connotation a queer identity to a potentially dangerous homophobe like gay and trans people do day-to-day. The comments of the performers somewhat suggest that this self-monitoring informs the roles they play in the balls and in the larger world.

In a couple scenes, legendary femme queen Octavia St. Laurent is interviewed about her male to female transition and her hopes for the future. Throughout the film, Octavia is shown walking in various femme scenes, where announcers gush about how “real” and “soft.” One of my favorite ballroom performance moments is when as Octavia is walking in her scene and gracefully steps onto a chair in her leopard print blouse and skirt. As she flips her hair and flashes her effortless smile, the crowd erupts in screams and the announcer yells “The Virginia Slims girl is here,” referencing the cigarette aids that featured fashion models. Like the other performers, Octavia expresses a desire to be the best. She states, “Women don’t go out of their way because they are women. I went out of my way because I wasn’t and I felt that I wanted to be the best I could be.” She does not consider becoming a woman as a game but rather “something that I want to live.” She goes on to proudly state that she expects to be a “full-fledged” woman of the United States by 1988. I assume Octavia is referring to sex reassignment surgery. but it is not clear what she considers a full-fledged woman to be.

It is clear what she considers beauty to be. In the next scene, Octavia is shown in her bedroom gushes of pictures of Paulina Kurkova and other models. She touches the picture and states to the camera, “This is my idol, Paulina. Someday I hope to be up there with her. If that could be me, I think I would be the happiest person in the world. Just knowing that I am… that I can compare to Paulina, to stand next to her and to take pictures with her.” One of the reasons Octavia wants to take pictures with her is because it would suggest that she is a comparable beauty to Paulina. Dorian discusses as similar phenomenon at work with other members of the ballroom scene who perform in realness categories. Dorian states that one can only get a job as an executive if they have the background and opportunity and because of how racism and homophobia work to oppress Black queer people, it is hard for them to get ahead in this country. However, the ballroom allows individuals to fulfill these fantasies. He states, “You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. And therefore, you’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one, because I can look like one.”

Corey’s comments echo a lot of “dress for the job you want” lectures I heard while in college. While it can be argued that Octavia reifies Eurocentric standard of beauty by pining of White models and desiring to pose with them, I argue that Octavia and the many of the participants reify these standards while simultaneously creating something new. Like Crystal Labieja, she may have wanted to sit and be coronated amongst White beauties. However also like Crystal, she creates a new aesthetic. By sharing her story and performances, she gives countless Black femme trans and queer youth a new beauty standard, as well as an ancestor and a life with which to engage.

Refashioning Space