How We “Do Gender” with Paris is Burning.

   In the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, viewers are confronted with main themes including gender, race, class, sexuality, health polices and more. The director and producer, Jennie Livingston, received harsh criticism surrounding her filming style. Without getting into too much of my own criticism, I believe that she filmed in a way that upheld and celebrated whiteness. A scene that stuck with me was during a few interviews, there were clips of white people shown while the interviewers were talking about dreams and goals of wanting to be famous. Despite this skewed lens we watched this documentary through during class, we were still given a chance to see a glimpse of ball culture in the 90’s.

Houses, being made of primarily of gay men still had a resemblance of a “typical” family home: having a mother, father and children. Something interesting that came up in class discussion surrounding this was that everyone felt like the roles of the mother being the most important role of the household isn’t typical, and therefore the houses in Paris is Burning is atypical. I’m going to have to disagree because an intersection of class was left out. Typically women in poor households are the breadwinners, and I think that is what the houses resemble. The family structure that they are most familiar with. This intersection that was completely glossed over could have simply come from ignorance of how class status affects households, and thus gender roles. In Lober’s article, she mentions that “In poorer groups that have few resources, women and men are more nearly equal, and the women may even outstrip the men in education and occupational “status”( Lober 1994). However, fails to illustrate how this plays out in a family structure.

What do we do with the fact that poor women are more likely to be the head of households? For the people in the film, they found comfort and even pride in house mothers. In the balls, the best house mothers are awarded with plaques for “keeping the children together”. A house mother proudly tells Jennie about how they help everyone with ball, by doing someones hair, another makeup and helping pick shoes and jewelry. The figure of a house mother, is the most respectable and strongest figure in ball culture. Even the way the mothers would sit themselves in the interviews was full of confidence. Not one ounce of self doubt was portrayed. As seen with the interviews, the children all respected and loved their housemothers, despite the natural conflict that arises. This replacement family structure for these LGBTQ black and brown youth, provided not only a sort of nationalism from house pride at ball, but also a sense of belonging that humans naturally crave. The way they use gender roles to almost find comfort is interesting to me. The houses could have easily resembled a structure of fraternities, with someone at the top and a “brother” like community, but instead houses took the shape of a “traditional” home, despite generally being all the same age. I’m still learning about gender theory, but I find the way gender is “done” in Paris is Burning  is fascinating.

2 thoughts on “How We “Do Gender” with Paris is Burning.

  1. Chania,

    I think your analysis of house “mothers” was very intriguing, particularly the way you highlight their status as breadwinner in poor households. I wonder if the house structure is actually “traditional,” though–“father” and “brother” roles are strikingly absent. What does this suggest about the community’s reading of masculinities? I would also be interested in more analysis of specific scenes that highlight whiteness–I assume you are referencing the depiction of Venus Xtravaganza. Is this complicated by the fact that Venus was of Italian and Puerto Rican descent?


  2. I think the absent “father” and “brother” roles are a reflection of reality, again for poor POC households. With the overrepresentation of people of color in prisons especially black men, there is a lack of presence of these groups. This was also after Nixon’s war on drugs, which disproportionately affected POC. I’m not sure what this has to say about the community’s reading of masculinities. I read a few things that part of “being a man” for poor black men is going to prison, as some type of rite of passage. As for the scenes of whiteness, was mostly referring to how Jennie made it seem as if was a goal everyone was striving for, I don’t have any specific scenes in mind at the moment. I think Venus is a very interesting person for this documentary with her very white passing, blonde hair thin framed body. The way she used her privileges to get sponsors for clothing, was something the other queens didn’t do/ talk about. However at the end, she is killed and left for dead for four days in a hotel room, presumably by a John. I wish this documentary took some type of stand for the violence people in this community face. Especially when they highlighted Venus’ death during filming because she was trans.


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