Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

Photograph: Trans performer, model, and AIDS educator, Octavia St. Laurent walking in a ball in Miramax film, Paris is Burning. 


I’ve used clips from the ethnographic documentary Paris is Burning (1990) in undergraduate anthropology courses, as well as a graduate-level linguistic anthropology course, to teach linguistic concepts of speech acts and speech communities. The film presents an intimate portrayal of drag “ball” culture in New York in the 1980s. In one scene, drag performer Dorian Corey explains the nuanced difference between “reading” and “shade.” Reading is the art of playful insult, considered somewhat of an art form in this community. Shade, on the other hand, is considered to be the nonverbal counterpart to reading; it includes alluding to flaws with gestures or ignoring a person altogether. The way these forms of speech are portrayed in the film can not only be used to discuss Bauman’s speech acts, but also how language can illuminate or build speech communities.

Here’s a link to the specific clip I’ve used: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnVSklVO-t4

There is also potential for it to be used to teach gender and kinship, and it would be a brilliant addition to an undergraduate cultural anthropology course syllabus. The drag performers in the film are frequently working to enact an authentic gender performance on stage, which they dub “realness” (as in “butch queen realness,” or the performance by gay men of male heterosexuality). The film simultaneously portrays the daily struggles of gay men of color and trans women of color to perform gender off stage. It is through these struggles, along with the shared experiences of homophobia, transphobia, racism, HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, that this community is able to fashion forms of alternative kinship and intentional families. Various individuals in the film discuss these topics outright, providing ample scaffolding for students to get a basic sense of these ideas before discussing them more in depth.

The film is 78 minutes long. If used in class to discuss language, I would recommend finding relevant clips online (like the one posted above), providing some background on the film, its cast of characters, and the significance before showing them. If used in class to discuss gender performance and alternative kinship, I think it’s worthy of being shown in full.

As of 09/21/18 Paris is Burning is available to watch on Netflix and on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/199274267.

Other resources (specifically for graduate-level courses):

  1. If you’re planning on teaching Paris is Burning at the graduate level, I’d recommend pairing it with chapters from this book which provides further context, analysis, and critique.
  2. For a critique of the film from multiple angles (e.g., the position of the documentarian, drag in the film as misogynistic), see:
    • hooks, bell. 1992. “Is Paris Burning?.” Black looks: Race and representation. 145-156.
  3. For an exploration of authenticity in gender performance, see:
    • Butler, Judith. 1997. “Gender is burning: Questions of appropriation and subversion.”  Cultural Politics 11:381-395.

Teaching Resource Contributed by: Evan P. Conaway, University of California, Irvine

Evan P. Conaway is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Irvine. His dissertation work examines how computer servers shape the way gamers experience place, memory, and law. With funding from an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, he is exploring the experiences of gamers, companies, and museums who are using servers to preserve, memorialize, and resurrect online game worlds. He is also a Contributing Editor at Platypus, the official blog of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing

Third Gender Film: Muxe

Third Gender Film: Muxe

Photograph by Mario Patinho. Lukas avendaño. Muxhe, Muxe Contemporary performer.


A short film that I like to use in my introductory cultural anthropology courses to introduce units on gender is an innovative new documentary film entitled Muxes, commissioned by the Guardian in collaboration with The Filmmaker Fund. The film highlights the experiences of a third gender group unique to indigenous Zapotec communities in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The videography of the film is beautiful and the subject matter is portrayed respectfully and from multiple perspectives. As one participant states in the film: “It’s not being gay. It’s not being homosexual. It’s nothing more than being Muxe. Being Muxe is just being Muxe”. At 12 minutes, Muxe is short enough to be paired with vignettes of other third gender groups from around the world in a single class period.

Quick Tip: Fusion TV put together a beautiful website that I sometimes use in online classes to supplement the video.

Link to the Muxe film: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/27/muxes-documentary-gender-fluid-lives-in-a-small-mexican-town


Teaching Resource Contributed By: Katie Nelson, PhD, Inver Hills Community College