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:

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

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

Teaching Indigenous Cultural Resource Management Using a Documentary an Aboriginal Women’s Natural and Cultural Resource Management Conference

Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve

This 10-minute film available on YouTube ( documents the 2012 Aboriginal Women’s Natural and Cultural Resource Management (NCRM) conference held at the Macquarie Marshes Nature Reserve on Weilwan territory in New South Wales, Australia. This film can be used in introductory archaeology and environmental anthropology classes as it calls attention to how women from indigenous communities have important cultural knowledge about the significance of natural resources and their preservation. Coming together for a three-day conference offered an opportunity for these women to learn more about how they can use resources communally while giving anthropology students additional perspectives on the benefits of ensuring NCRM projects prioritize the voices of indigenous women and their communities. Their work underscores how any given location should be considered both a cultural and natural resource in need of conservation methods led by local communities who offer pertinent forms of expertise on conservation.

Harvesting Sedge for Weaving

The idea that a place like the wetlands can be both a natural and cultural resource is also made vivid as they engaged with the land according to traditional notions of community. For example, the women were able to learn how sedge is harvested for weaving and participated in projects where even the most experienced weavers were surprised to learn new traditional techniques. The women also planted native species of sedge to preserve the wetlands for future generations and once again weave together the importance of indigenous knowledges, practices, and aspirations for the future. Cultural tours, planting, and harvesting natural resources like lomandra flax plant used for weaving and trees native to the riparian area became ways of doing and seeing cultural knowledge through community building. These activities reiterated why natural resources like the wetlands should be protected for future generations as well as the need for indigenous women to become more involved in efforts to get their lands returned.

This film additionally provides a concrete example of environmental justice and how indigenous communities are working together to combat forms of environmental racism, such as the inability to own their traditional lands. The politics of natural and cultural resource management are therefore highlighted as workshops, activities, and discussions at the conference also focused on sharing strategies toward the attainment of land titles to protect the cultural heritages inextricable with natural resources like the wetlands. Surrounded by land cultivated for agriculture, the Weilwan people have been able to establish their territory as a protected area through joint management relationships with national parks and the Australian federal government. This film enables students to learn that NCRM can be a political as well as creative process in which activism and artwork can work hand in hand to reaffirm the rightful relationships indigenous groups have with natural resources. In these multifaceted relationships, we also see how indigenous women should have a prioritized voice in the creation and implementation of conservation procedures.

Sharing Weaving Teachniques

Not only is the wetland a sanctuary for native plants and animals, its creation is part of a dreaming story that once again demonstrates how fundamental a natural resource can be to the identities and lives of local communities. By sharing dreaming techniques at the conference, the women reaffirmed their understandings of the spiritual, ecological, and communal values that are inseparable from the wetlands. They also illustrate how applied scientific knowledge about ecologies also requires sociocultural contextualization that considers the deeper relationships local communities have with them. Cultural activities were therefore enacted as a way to remind women of the knowledge and practices that need to be passed along to future generations as well as reiterate the importance of expanding their engagement in decision-making processes from which they have been historically excluded.

Teaching Resource Contributed By: Megan Neal, University of California, Irvine