A friend of mine told me about this 1991 documentary, Paris Is Burning, about the New York transvestite ball scene from the 1980s. I just watched it, completely fascinating film. It was one of the first successes of the independent studio Miramax, and part of the rebirth of indie cinema in the 1990s.
What the director did was find a fascinating culture, and really get to know its figures and language (the characters explain tranny terms like ‘realness’, ‘shading’, ‘fierce’, ‘house’, and so on). It’s a sort of film version of Tom Wolfe’s anthropological journalism. And the message that comes through, very strongly, is that though this might seem at first sight a ‘deviant’ culture, or a transgressive culture, it’s actually not. The people in the scene have very conventional desires and aspirations – social acceptance, status, fame, luxury, comfort, a stable family. In the balls they go to, they have awards for who can best act straight stereotypes: the investment banker, the country landowner, the rude-boy.
An academic friend of mine, who is very keen on ‘queer politics’ (although he’s a heterosexual) said he liked queer theory because it’s very ‘radical’, because it challenges and subverts bourgeois ideas of conventionality – like monogamy and marriage for example. And another friend of mine (who is homosexual) said he thought that was a very 1970s attitude, and that today young gays don’t want to be deviant outsiders. They want to be insiders. This film makes me feel that even in the 1980s New York transvestite scene, these outsiders wanted to be insiders.