Paris Has Burned: How the Influential Documentary Harmed the Community


Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) is a must-watch for drag fans. Set in the underground scene of ’80s New York ballrooms, the documentary follows drag legends such as Pepper LaBeija and Willi Ninja as they detail what the Harlem ballroom scene entails. Throughout, terms such as ‘throwing shade’ (the art of insulting one another), ‘voguing’ (“performance as a survival strategy”) and ‘realness’ (the now problematic term of looking like a woman) are explained. For devotees of RuPaul’s Drag Race, you will notice that much of RuPaul’s vocabulary and quips originate from Paris Is Burning and the Harlem scene.

The documentary serves as a great educational tool for those unfamiliar with the drag scene. In relation to the current BLM protests, a very relevant scene sees Ninja discuss voguing. He explains that, for black working-class individuals in the LGBT+ community, voguing acts as a means of fighting away from the streets – they can battle without touching, breaking away from stereotypes of violence. Another particularly poignant moment finds trans woman Venus Xtravangaza talking about her plans for the future, dreaming of the suburban fantasy of white American opulence. The following scene cuts to people mourning Venus, whose murder has never been solved. This portrays the dangerous realities many trans people face, with the threat of violence still very much present today.

Upon first glance Paris Is Burning seems an enlightening representation of marginalised people, yet the film – and its director- sadly exploited these individuals. Livingston was ‘white, educated, and therefore more powerful than the drag queens she represented.’ It seems unlikely that members from the scene itself would have been given the same opportunity: if they tried to represent their own culture, they probably would have been silenced or ignored. It is wonderful that we have Paris Is Burning as a document to remember a subculture that has now vanished, but the human lives depicted were left behind once the cameras stopped rolling.

As Jesse Green wrote in a 1993 article for The New York Times, ‘Paris is no longer burning. It has burned. […] Madonna gobbled it up’. This notes on the exploitative nature of Paris is Burning and its aftermath: white women appropriating and benefitting off of the culture of black LGBT+ people. This is the main criticism levelled at the documentary. It filmed the culture and gave it a larger audience, but Madonna took voguing worldwide and Livingston kick-started her own career while few from the culture gained anything. Ninja achieved his dream of becoming an international vogue sensation and some of the drag stars got to join Madonna on tour, but the subculture was largely left in the rear view mirror. Absorbed by the mainstream, many lost one of the few places they could call home.

Paris Is Burning is certainly a rich celebration of drag culture and of its black roots in Harlem. However, its dark side should not be ignored. As LaBeija stated post-filming, “the film came out – nothing. They all got rich, and we got nothing.” This sums up the experience of most of the film’s queens; they were recorded, appropriated by mainstream culture, and then forgotten about. We should be watching Paris Is Burning to celebrate and learn about the harsh realities of the ’80s ballroom scene, but we should also be aware of the exploitation involved in its representation.


About Author

fashion obsessed marmite advocate


  1. i’m so tired of these nearly uniform attacks on this film, which uniformly neglect its actual content. in doing so, they commit the same crime that they pin on Livingston– they neglect its subjects as well. The greatest injustice here is not that Livingston — Jewish, gender-nonconforming lesbian, also a woman, s**t– went ahead and made the film, but that after the camera’s stopped rolling, everyone died. everyone. angie xtravaganza, dorian corey, octavia saint-laurent and willie ninja died of AIDS. Kim Pendavis had a heart attack in his mid-twenties. Pepper Labeija swas completely ravaged by diabetes. Everyone died. Badly. Everyone. Paris Dupree as well. I say this not to undermine their anger, but to establish a context that you’re completely missing, which the film establishes: HIV/AIDS, the Reagan administration and the war on the poor, the prelude to Giulini’s overdevelop of the “inner city” such that denizens were driven out and rich, white people moved on in. Ball culture as it was at the time of filmmaking has indeed been gentrified as well, sanitized, popularized. Whaat you aren’t saying, what you aren’t acknowledging, is that while Madonna did co-opt vaguing and steal it away from its originators because that is what she does (and, unlike Livingston got away with it), Jennie Livingston didn’t rape and pillage and colonize the NYC ball scene in the late 1980s; she documented it. Her tragic mistake, I think, was looking away. For instance, sending flowers and a card to Angie Xtravaganza’s memorial. She should have put her ego and her hurt feelings aside, and shown up to pay her respects in person. She should have supported the community. And used her acclaim (while it lasted) and a portion of her earnings (ditto) to support or even co-found a resource that might have made a difference for those left standing, and for the upcoming children. children in the literal sense, like the thirteen year old boy we encounter at the start of the film, whose brittle, abbreviated and avoidant answers to Livingston’s questions (where is his father? “he’s gone.” where is his mother? “she’s gone too.” where is he staying? “with a friend”) signify a vulnerability and precariousness that undergirds the entire film. a film which your well worn arguments, suggest you never even bothered to watch from start to finish. As far as Livingston is concerned, she made some grave errors post-production in terms of what she had the opportunity to do and didn’t. But again: she never made another film. Nada. I’m not sure what purpose that serves, Or what good it does to try to argue the one film that she did make out of existence.

  2. P.S. It is widely understood that Frederick Wiseman’s “Titticut Follies” wasn’t banned out of any genuine concern for the privacy of the inmates. It was banned to protect the guards and the poor excuse for a doctor who tortured them, and the state-funded institution that paid them to do this. Incidentally, years later, when Bridgewater was back up and running, an inmate was trampled to death by a dozen-odd guards, and this was once again caught on (surveillance) video.

Leave A Reply