By James Caruso
The ballroom-house scene of New York City came to the public spotlight after the release of the film Paris is Burning (1991), which shined a light on the ways in which gay and transgender Black and Latino people socialized in the mid to late 1980’s. The ballroom-house structure came from the drag pageants that took place in the 1940s and 1950s in New York City, which brought with it a set of rules and structures of power that persist into today’s ballroom-house scene. Houses, the affiliations that individuals make with one another after recognizing talent and needing a support system in balls, often rely on hegemonic ideals of what it means to have a family. The mother and father of a house (usually the oldest and most talented of the group) oftentimes take care of and set rules for their children (usually younger and “up and coming” in the ballroom-house scene).
Scholars have also commented on performances that take place at balls for upholding hegemonic ideals surrounding masculinity and femininity in society. However, due to their self-conscious performances of masculinity and femininity, along with their presence within public and visual culture, Paris is Burning actively queers hegemonic structures of masculinity and femininity. The underground ballroom culture, comprised of primarily queer and trans people of color, actively transgresses boundaries of masculinity and femininity by self-consciously performing hegemonic masculine and feminine roles in balls. In doing so, performers are highlighting the performative nature of masculinity and femininity, thus queering the hegemony and appropriating both masculinity and femininity for use in queer and trans spaces.
Paris is Burning came at the height of neoliberalism in America; a Reagan-led America understood what it meant to be masculine in feminine in the new economic structure. Cut-scenes in Paris is Burning show newspaper and magazine images with white men and women in designer clothing living in lavish houses and working in large offices, displaying the ways in which American media and visual culture shaped masculinity and femininity for the public. By setting precedence for masculinity and femininity as only something straight white men and women can achieve, it excludes Asian, Black, and Latino people from being seen and seeing themselves as fitting into American society.
This where the ballroom-house scene comes in, as performances of masculinity and femininity in Paris is Burningsubvert norms of society through using their “categories” in balls. Categories such as “Executive Realness,” Town and Country,” and “School Girl/Boy,” task performers to portray an American ideal of what each of these categories suggest for each performer. In doing so, both Judith Butler and bell hooks argue that performers are simply reinforcing societal ideals of femininity and masculinity, and the act of portraying and performing as straight counterparts is unproductive in changing both structures. When speaking about the construction of femininity at ballroom performances, hooks states,
“the subversive power of those images is radically altered when informed by a racialized fictional construction of the ‘feminine’ that suddenly makes the representation of whiteness as crucial to the experience of female impersonation of gender, that’s is to say when the idealized notion of the female/feminine is really a sexist idealization of white womanhood.”
This is hooks’ issue with portrayals of femininity in Paris is Burning, as her assumption is that ball performances are reliant on white womanhood in order to portray women. Though several scenes in the film suggest to viewers that performers look up to white women, seen when Octavia Saint Laurent explains her idolization of Paulina Porizkova, overall trends in ballroom performances do not use American whiteness as a basis for femininity and masculinity.
The ballroom space itself allows for transgression of norms surrounding hegemonic structures of femininity and masculinity, as it often celebrates individuality in performance and reshapes ideas of the feminine/masculine dichotomy. The house system is an example of this subversion of hegemonic masculinity and femininity. In houses, oftentimes a transgender woman and cisgender male become the “mother” and “father” of the house due to their age, experience, and talent within the ballroom-house scene. This has hanged over time, however, as “butch queens” (transgender women or drag queens that have not undergone gender reassignment/affirmation surgery) and men have become accepted as mothers of ballroom houses. Though this small shift that has been isolated into the ballroom-house community, it shows the ways in which physical bodies are not read in similar ways outside of the ballroom-house context, where a reliance on genitals and physical bodies is important in forming relationships in larger society.
The dance form of “vogueing” also subverts gendered norms surrounding masculinity. In Paris is Burning, Willie Ninja, Mother of the House of Ninja, explains vogueing as “the same thing as taking two knives and cutting each other up…vogueing came from shade because it was a dance that two people did when they did not like each other. Instead of fighting, you would dance it out on the dance floor.” This style of dance thus shift hegemonic masculinities in Black and Latino spaces, which scholars note as having an emphasis on physical strength.The vogue style of dance thus queers black masculinities, combining feminine poses and dance forms in order to “battle” someone else, rather than fight in a physically violent manner.
Vogueing entered popular media and visual culture through Paris is Burning, where artists such as Madonna appropriate vogue in their music videos and sometimes even use vogue dancers in videos and television. Today, vogueing has reached a sort of renaissance, as modern day performers such as LeiomyMaldonado and Dashaun Wesley have made their ways into advertisements, music videos, films, and even live music events. The introduction of the vogue dance style has changed the ways in which masculinity works in performing contexts, for the dance itself is a traditionally gay and transgender form of dance. The presence of vogueing in films such as Magic Mike XXL (2015) displays the changes that the ballroom-house scene have made in constructions of masculinity; traditionally “masculine” exotic dancers adopting queer and transgender dance forms through the presence of ballroom-house scene thus queers the hegemony of masculinity.
The same occurs for constructions of femininity, but in a different, modern-day context. Modern day ballroom-house is highly influenced by the systems in place during the ballroom-house scene of Paris is Burning. The presence of heterosexual women in the ballroom-house scene of New York City has increased in recent decades, and their adoption of vogueing and other aspects of ballroom-house structures have shaped their identities through interaction with the traditionally queer and transgender space of the ballroom. The performance of femininity in modern day ballroom-house scenes around the country actively include heterosexual women in their systems, and the sheer presence of these women, who are influenced by the queer and transgender people around them, thus affect the ways in which hegemonic femininity is decorticated in ballroom-house contexts. Not only is this present in modern day ballroom-house scenes, but also in the popular Paris is BurningNew York scene.
The performance of femininity by women in Paris is Burning is not so much dependent on whiteness, as Butler and hooks argue, but rather on popular discourse and the women around performers in everyday lives. Categories such as “Banji Girl Realness” are those furthest away from whiteness, as it connotes low-income Black and Latina women in New York City. According to an interviewee in Paris is Burning, the purpose of such “realness” categories “is to look as much as possible as your straight counterpart.” In categories of realness, specifically Banji Girl/Boy Realness, performing hegemonic femininity and masculinity does not indicate whiteness as the basis, thus subverting norms of masculinity and femininity in 1980’s America, which depended on white middle-classness as the standard for masculine and feminine constructions. Therefore, the role of queer and transgender people of color in Paris is Burning and the current ballroom-house scenes actively subvert masculinity and femininity in performances.
The overall performances of gender in the film continue the subversion of masculinity and femininity in American society. In the film, performers understand the ways in which they are portraying hegemonies of masculinity and femininity. Dorian Corey, a drag queen who is slated as the wisest of the interviewees based on her perceived age and experience, states,
“Black people have a hard time getting anywhere… in a ballroom, you can be anything you want. 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 look like one. “
the self-conscious performance of ball walkers when acting as their straight counterparts is important to the queering of hegemonies, as self conscious performativity subverts the status quo. According to Butler, the drag performances seen in Paris is Burning, “ is subversive to the extent that it reflects on the imitative structure by which hegemonic gender is itself produced and disputes heterosexuality’s claim on naturalness and originality.” Performers in the ballroom-house scene understand their performances as pantomime of larger societal structures of masculinity and femininity, and expose this through their “Executive Realness.” The ability for performers to look, act, and dress like straight members of society shifts the centralized focus on straightness as a driving force of creation of hegemonic masculinities and femininities, and queers both concepts in order to include a larger population of queer and transgender people of color.
Much of the backlash against Paris is Burning is due to the proposed voyeuristic approach that director Jenny Livingstonused when filming the documentary. Though having a white woman do an ethnography on a minoritized group can be seen asexploitative, but the power of Paris is Burning in today’s context has been visible in visual culture and the modern-day ballroom-house scene. Featured interviewees in Paris is Burning, such as Alyssa LaPerla and Freddie Pendavis, continue to have influence on the current ballroom-house scene, where they are labeled as “legends” due to their prominence in the film. The role of the film for others featured have also influenced dance, fashion, and language, as Paris is Burning brought attention to Octavia Saint Laurent, Willie Ninja, and overall usages of gay and transgender slang. Livingston may have focused on a small number of individuals and only a short period of the ballroom-house scene, but her dedication to exposing these legendary performers to the public spotlight has led to a change in modern constructions of masculinity and femininity.
Butler’s theory of performativity in relation to Paris is Burning states, “that drag is not a secondary imitation that presupposes a prior and original gender, but that hegemonic heterosexuality is itself a constant and repeated effort to imitate its own idealizations.“ This is exactly what performers in Paris is Burning and today’s ballroom-house scene attempt to highlight in their performances: gender and sexuality are not fixed, but rather can be acted upon in order to change the ways in which larger society looks at both. The nature of the ballroom is in itself a deconstruction, where ball walkers and performers break down the hegemonies of masculinity and femininity in order to create new ideas surrounding both constructions. Thus, the ballroom is not dependent on or reproducing hegemonic ideals of masculinity and femininity, but rather exposing their malleability and changing them in ways that affect larger public discourses of hegemonic masculinity and femininity.
Bailey, Marlon M. “Gender/Racial Realness: Theorizing the Gender System in Ballroom
Culture.” Feminist Studies 37, no. 2: 365-386.
Blanchard, Olivier Jean, William Branson, and David Currie. “Reaganomics.” Economic
Policy 2, no. 5: 15-56.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge,
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press 1992.
Paris is Burning. Directed by Jenny Livingston, 1991; New York: Miramax, 1991. DVD.
Strayhorn, Terrell L. and Derrick L. Tillman-Kelly. “Queering Masculinity: Manhood and
Black Gay Men in College.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men 1, no. 2: 83-110.