Harlem, 1987: the golden age of hip hop, the D.A.I.S.Y. age. I picture myself living on Sesame Street; kids play hopscotch and dance in formation on brownstone steps; gents tip their caps politely to ladies, who hang out of windows like old nylons. I wear a hi-top fade, high top Reeboks and a Starter jacket (except on Saturdays, when I wear roller skates). On balmy nights, folk take their parties to the streets; Native Tongues and Bambaataa reign supreme over boom boxes everywhere and whiskey flows all night from brown paper bags. Under fire-escapes and flashing neon signs, there are bodies spinning on asphalt and feet dancing on beer cans; there are heads swinging and legs pushing at the moon until day breaks.
An accurate pastiche or not, the vision through my cazals is most definitely rose-tinted. In the late 80s wake of Reagan's masculine wisdom, Harlemites weren't as all-embracing towards "otherness" as Elmo and Co. You could have been the kid from next door, invited to all the block parties and greeted affectionately by all in your neighbourhood as you were growing up; but come out of that closet and everything must change. Now, because of your sexual orientation and/or your gender identification you are an outcast, rejected by society. But, sister, there is nothing to lose by being outside a society that offers you only sufferance and subjugation. If the world doesn't accept you, create a new one.
Paris is Burning, a 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston, captures the lives of Harlem men who did just so. Cast aside by their biological families, these inner-city homosexual men, predominately African-American or Latino, abandoned their daily struggle and strife to create an extravagant and heady subculture for themselves. In a rundown dance-hall, they incarnated their secret, glamorous selves and participated in elaborately structured Ball competitions. Music sets the scene; light piano plays for high-tone performances, disco and Aretha blear for the sequinned showgirl drag. Raucous spectators surround the performance space or hang over balconies like snipers, shooting snappy invectives at the competitors. An MC presides over this underground kingdom, ruling with a soft glove and an acid tongue, his words and wit as sharp as the moves on the floor.
“Walking” as if on a runway or else vogueing fiercely to disco, participants – known as “children” - vied for cash, trophies and legendary status among their peers. The creative energy of the balls is portrayed by Livingston as an alternative to street violence, with dance-offs between queens often becoming just as intense as gang duels. Many of those competing for glory in the balls represented 'Houses'. Whereas Paris has the House of Dior and the House of Chanel, Harlem had the House of Labeija and the House of Ninja. These 'Houses' served as surrogate families for the men, in which they 'mothered' one another, 'housed' one another and 'reared' one another. In creating this community, they were able to fill the voids left by their real families and provide each other with a support network in the face of such social ills as homelessness, prostitution, AIDS and poverty.
The categories they created mimicked the vaunted symbols of class in America, usually the wealthy white echelons that were denied to them. In this post-Warholian universe, propelled by the capitalistic media culture of the '80s, they wanted to be beautiful and they wanted to be rich. To the children, the two states had become virtually inseparable and so they dressed as haute-couture models, Wall Street executives and Ivy League blue-bloods. However, by parodying the rigidity of this patriarchy, they acted out a certain defiance against their prescribed role in it. In their underworld, artifice equals power. By looking good one can feel good. By looking powerful, one can feel powerful. One can be powerful. The children who won the trophies and those that were hailed as the most legendary were thought to display the most convincing "realness".
"Realness" is not exactly a category in which one competes; it is a standard that is used to judge a performance. "To be able to blend, that's what realness is. If you can pass by the untrained eye or even the trained eye and not give away the fact that you are gay, that's when it's realness." As one older, weary drag queen explains in the film, "Rather than have to go through the prejudices about your life and your lifestyle, you can walk around comfortably blending in with everybody else. You've erased all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect. When they're undetectable, when they can walk into the sunlight and onto the subway and still have on all their clothes and no blood running off their backs, those are the Femme Realness Queens." As it goes, I would have scored a zero in my opening gambit.
As much as there is defiance and affirmation in the film and as highly quotable and amusing as the subjects are, there appears to be an underlying self-destructiveness in the aim of these balls. The irony, of course, is that the people here attain ''realness'' when they're least like themselves. Yet despite Livingston's up front exploration of race, class and gender through interviews with the children, the affect of "realness" as a fetishized and idealized vision of success is only hinted at. To me it seems like a somewhat paradoxical, if not empty, self-validation and leads, hauntingly, to one of them being beaten to death when her “realness” is unveiled as illusion.
As a result, I was left wondering whether their desire to be seen as 'real', this longing to assimilate with the patriarchy that is causing their oppression, is a conformity which is merely masquerading as liberation. Does the children’s ability to be seen as 'real' in the eyes of those who they see as 'real' turn them from society's rejects into society's reminders, pricking the self-satisfied bubble of that majority? Or, does their aspiration for 'realness' undermine the value of their own reality outside of the balls, and thus, does it only serve to perpetuate their own oppression?