Thursday, April 16, 2009

Got to Be Real

Paris is Burning (1990) is a documentary about the homosexuals, drag queens, and transgenders of New York City in the 1980s. The film is a wonderful peek into the brightly colored world of balls, vogueing, and life in the streets. The people that are shown in the film are living in the most poverty stricken neighborhoods of New York and most were abandoned in some way by their parents. The members of this community should be admired for facing adversity, finding a new family, and striving for a better life. Although this culture is intriguing at first glance, I am not sure that it can be considered cool.

The underground houses and balls formed their own culture and their own idea of what they found cool. The styles and fashions that this group found cool were on obvious display through the balls. The winners of the competition were those that looked the best and had the coolest outfit. The main criterion that was used in judging these competitions is “realness.” Realness was a term used by this community to grade how well you’re able to blend or well you’re able to portray a certain role. The competitions had a huge array of categories that range from masculine roles such as military or college student to extremely feminine ones like school girl or beauty. This concept of realness is ironic because what is actually judging is how good you are at being fake (or at least being something you’re not). The coolest drag queens were the legends and up and coming legends, who were the most convincing or real.

Coolness, however, is not only determined by your own group of friends, but cool is dependent on the opinion of the public community as a whole. From footage in the documentary, it is obvious that transvestites and homosexuals were not well received by others in New York City at the time it was shot. Often people or groups that become cool are at first rejected by society. Think of the grunge music that also started in the 80s. The first grunge bands were looked down upon by society, before the genre gained popularity. In reference to how cool was defined at the beginning of the semester, the drag community would fall into the category of dissident cool. The members of the houses ignored the negative comments and continued to live their lives in whatever fashion they felt like. Now many members of this culture have become extremely successful in the fashion industry, therefore I find that this cultural has followed a common pattern of cool.


  1. "From footage in the documentary, it is obvious that transvestites and homosexuals were not well received by others in New York City at the time it was shot."
    This is focused on a very small portion of the homosexual population, and in New York, I think it's more of the flamboyant, over-the-top drag that wasn't accepted rather than the fact that the person may or may not have been gay. What're your thoughts?

  2. Hmmm... you raise an interesting question for me. If a subculture never gains mainstream appeal then how can we ever tell that it was cool? Is cool just something we have in hindsight?