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Not Shady, Just Fierce: "Paris Is Burning" Over 20 Years Later

Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary directed by Jennie Livingston that remains relevant decades after it's original release. Paris Is Burning is not merely an insight into the ultra competitive New York City ball culture. Paris Is Burning is also a visceral look into the challenges that transgender women, gay men, people of color, and drag queens face every day. Although Paris Is Burning was made over 20 years ago, the themes and voices of the individuals in the film are still apposite today.

Violence against transgender women is a topic that is discussed in depth in Paris Is Burning, along with the dangers that transgender women face every day. One woman featured in the film, Venus Xtravaganza, spoke candidly about the dangers she faced daily as a transgender sex worker. Venus highlighted a time that she had to escape through the window when a client discovered that she was transgender, and flew into a rage, threatening to to kill her. Physical violence against transgender women in Paris Is Burning is acknowledged as a real threat, especially for transgender women who do not have passing privilege and cannot effectively compete in the "femme realness" ball category. A Drag Queen in the film, Dorian Corey, describes the benefits of passing privilege:

"When they're undetectable and they can walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies- those are the femme realness queens... and usually its a category for young queens."

Tragically, Venus Xtravaganza became a victim of hate when she was found strangled underneath a hotel bedroom at the age of 23. Flash forward to the present day, and one can find that the trend of violence against transgender individuals is soberingly high. In 2011, GLAAD reported that 45% of victims of hate murders were transgender women, and that violence against transgender people and people of color is disproportionately high.


Paris Is Burning also shows the challenges that people of color experience when living in a "rich white world." In explaining the "Executive Realness" ball category, Dorian Corey shows how people of color participating in the balls transcend those challenges with strength and pride:

"In real life you can't get a job as an executive unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive but you're looking like an executive. You're showing the straight world that I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because can look like one, and that is like a fulfillment."

In the years that have passed since Paris Is Burning, being a person of color in America has not become any easier. The recent lack of justice for Mike Brown and Eric Garner (who was killed in New York City, where Paris Is Burning was filmed) exemplify how little we as an American society has progressed in 20 years.

Regardless of the prejudices that they have undoubtedly faced, the subjects of Paris Is Burning face the biases against them with "wit, dignity, and energy." Livingston aptly states that Paris Is Burning is ".... a little story about how we all survive." When watching Paris Is Burning today, any viewer can see that they are not watching a dated documentary. The issues that are described by the subjects of Paris Is Burning are contemporary, and are just as pertinent today as they were in 1990.


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