The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture


How dated are these concerns of Paris is Burning's minority appropriation? With regard to the actual film, the answer is, apparently, not at all, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Paris at the “Celebrate Brooklyn” LGBT* Pride event in 2015. Initially, no one from the house/ball scene was consulted or invited. An ensuing internet storm led to musical performers canceling in protest, a re-adjudication of Livingston’s initial appropriation, and an eventual attempt to make amends with a staging of a House United ball.[1] In a Bully Bloggers essay, "After the Ball," Tavia Nyong’o argues that this incident demonstrates how paradoxical attitudes toward queer of color life persist. On the one hand, the house members were once again sidelined, their legends presumed to be dead, and their actual thriving community relegated to a kind of social death through a merely nostalgic embrace of the film’s anniversary. On the other hand, the rectification of throwing the House United ball in conjunction with the screening called for a command performance that Nyong’o links to José Muñoz’s idea of a particular queer of color “burden of liveness,” which Nyong’o glosses as the condition where “queers of color are expected to perform liveness and vitality under conditions of temporary visibility that erase our histories and futures.”[2]

Whereas the very existence of REACH LA stands as a testimony to the material concerns that still affect actual queer of color lives, the status of Paris is Burning has changed through the sheer force of time. Nyong’o writes that “rather than standing in for ball culture – an unfair expectation of any single film, no matter how amazing — the film could be understood as part of queer history, and specifically part of the ball culture’s history, and even part of its futurity as well.”[3] At one time, both Paris's production and reception spoke of elitism, replete with its eventual NEA funding and exclusive film-festival viewing venues. As the internet becomes more available geographically and across socioeconomic circumstances, the financial barriers around access to films like Paris are no longer such a burden. As of the writing of this sentence, the "full movie" version of Paris is available on; it may disappear tomorrow, only to be uploaded again. And our participant informant, Adrienne Adams, who went on to work with REACH LA, attests, most of members of the LA house/ball scene have seen Paris is Burning, but watch it not as an "ur-text," but rather as an archive of legends lost.

As Nyong’o points out, the historical position of the film, and the critiques that followed it, are best read in contrast to today’s born-digital age. The proliferation of smart-phone-produced media and viral videos has resulted in an increased tendency of “broadcasting our daily lives in a potential revenue stream, if only we make that life interesting/outrageous/abject enough.”[4] Where Harper and others once focused on the material condition of the ball-goers lives and Livingston’s means of production, Nyong’o notes that a culture of ego-casting fueled by new media not only disrupts the documentarian and subject divide but also renders “performance […] almost a default setting for everyone.” As Nyong'o points out, "Octavia St. Laurent’s and Venus Xtravaganza’s expectations of celebrity, that once seemed tinged with pathos, now seem like viable career ambitions. Dorian Corey’s world-wise wisdom about the illusions of fame seem to come from a vanished queer world now lost in the glare of mass media visibility."

Yet issues of racial appropriation are age-old and ongoing. What Eric Lott famously framed as an ambivalent interracial relation of cultural “love and theft," extending from ante-bellum blackface minstrel shows to the present, has also changed significantly with technological advances.[5] Questions of cultural appropriation have recently been renewed via viral video and instant responses on internet "comment" venues, as evidenced by the controversy over Miley Cyrus’s foray into the African American dance style “twerking” at the 2013 MTV Music Video Awards. It is ironic that the same summer of the Brooklyn Pride debacle saw the debut of Tangerine (2015), a day-in-the-life narrative feature about black trans sex workers, based largely on the experiences of its main amateur actresses.[6] One wonders whether this movie was not similarly accused of cultural appropriation because audiences and critics were distracted by the fact that its white cis-male director, Sean Baker, shot it entirely on an iPhone for one-fifth of Livingston’s budget. The mashup of heightened technophilia and social-justice enthusiasm for the “trans tipping point” of the last few years may account for Tangerine’s free pass, but we would note that the burden of queer of color “liveness” is still at play with this movie. Tangerine’s trailer shows how the grit and grain of the cell phone format recovers some glamour by “goin’ hard” with performance and soundtrack.
We are reminded here of Diana Taylor’s foundational performance studies work on the distinction between the archive and the repertoire. “As opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same. The repertoire both keeps and transforms choreographies of meaning.”[7] Taylor issues a pessimistic view of how the digital era will affect the embodied knowledge system of the repertoire: “Now, on the brink of the digital revolution that both utilizes and threatens to displace writing, the body again seems poised to disappear in a virtual space that eludes embodiment.”[8]

But does it? Upon our initial release of Grit and Glamour's ongoing project, the FX scripted show Pose (2018-) produced by television's white gay cis-male enfante terrible Ryan Murphy, has premiered and is now bingeable. One of the more interesting aspects of the blended cinéma vérité and tv show-clip trailer for Pose displayed here is that it shows the actress/characters inserting and watching a vhs tape to correct their repertoire as a kind of in-"house" archive of moves.

Many of the "authors" of the "trans tipping point" -- Janet Mock (Marie Claire), Silas Howard (Transparent), and Our Lady J. (Transparent) --  are writers and directors on this venture. But so are the actors and actresses, many of whom come directly from the New York house/ball scene and have blurred the lines between actress, writer, and director, as well as community member and "professional" culture producer with their input. Overall, Pose features the largest queer and trans cast and crew ever to grace television.[9] Having once optioned Paris for a fictionalized version and then taken over a pilot script from queer of color writer Steven Canals, Murphy is hailed by the cast as the "Mother of the House of Murphy."[10] Time will tell if Pose registers as just another round of cultural appropriation. Regardless, with its more direct address to HIV/AIDS, nuanced treatment of sex work, and damning critique of Trumpism's rise in 1980s New York, Pose certainly provides a kind of popular cultural bookend to our discussion of both Paris's influence and digital media's influence over the past three decades. In our following section, we will address archiving and archival research as a problem of digital transfer and cultural appropriation.

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