10 Apr 2011

'They fought with dresses'

1) Films on the frontier 'Paris is Burning'

'Paris is Burning' is wonderful film of the drag balls put together by gay African-Americans in the 1970s and 1980s in New York.

Though she was only 27, Angie had been a mother more than a dozen times. Not in the usual way; she was biologically male. "But a mother is one who raises a child, not one who borns it," Hector pointed out. And as mother of the House of Xtravaganza, Angie had taken many rejected, wayward, even homeless children under her wing; she had fed them, observed their birthdays, taught them all about "walking the balls." Competing in categories like High-Fashion Eveningwear and Alexis vs. Krystle, Angie was legendary, a Queen among queens, achieving in fantasy what the world had denied her in reality.

Drag balls, the product of a poor, gay and mostly nonwhite culture, had been held in Harlem since the 1920's. But it wasn't until Jennie Livingston's award-winning documentary, "Paris Is Burning," was released in 1991 that anyone outside that world knew much about them.

An arresting documentary, some where near the start some one says something like 'if you are gay and black, you have to fight' and fight they did.

They fought with dresses!

There is a class politics, these people were poor and on the bottom of the heap but made their own culture.

The Joan Armatrading song (see video above) might not seem quite right, gay woman rather than gay men but the lines in 'Me, Myself I' made me think of the film.

I wanna be a bigshot
And have nineteen cars
I wanna have a boyfriend
And a girl for laughs
But only on saturdays

It has its very poignant moments and some which are shocking. One of the interviewees is murdered, his body found in a sleazy hotel.

Before filming was even completed in 1989, her "main daughter," Venus, a frail transsexual who in the movie dreamed of marriage and a home "in the Peekskills," was found strangled under a bed in a hotel. Since then, Kim Pendavis, filmed sewing his costumes, has died of a heart attack though he was only in his 20's. Of nine featured players, five are gone or going.

The aspirations to be essentially glamorous women are touching in the extreme.

Its similar to the aspirations in some elements of rap culture, poor want to be rich.

bell hooks (yes she uses lower case) is a black feminist theorist who attacks the drag ball culture and the film:

From her point of view as a black female, hooks states in regard to Livingston's documentary: within the world of the black gay drag ball culture she depicts, the idea of womanness and femininity is totally personified by whiteness". White womanhood is the most sought after in that environment. That's why black gay men try to be like white women, not black ones. They hope being (acting) like white women will bring them closer to the white male, partiarch, which symbolises power and class.


I think hooks is a bit hard on the drag queens, they are doing their best in a difficult situation to move out of the marginal and/or celebrate themselves.

We should all think about how we perform our identity and how to subvert what is.

Any how definitely worth a watch, a great LGBT film, a great film about sub-cultures, a great New York film and if you don't do New York or sub-cultures simply a very moving and great documentary.

Gracias to Kevin for flagging it for me.

New York looks like a place to be (doubt I will ever get there!)


More films on the frontier as I watch and blog!

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