Before emerging into public consciousness, the subculture spectacle known as drag ballroom culture can be traced to the 19th century, with Hamilton Lodge curating Harlem's first queer masquerade ball in 1869. In the early 1960s, drag balls began to fragment due to racial tensions; the balls had become white-dominated and despite the multiracial population of participants, only white candidates won, while black participants were expected to look 'white passing' just to compete.
By the 1980s, arising out of the racism and prejudice of the white-dominated drag balls, the first New York 'drag house' known as the ‘House of LaBeija’ was created to give a sense of solidarity for marginalised queer people of colour.
Jennie Livingston's acclaimed documentary, 'Paris Is Burning', captured the vibrant atmosphere of ballroom culture and brought a great deal of mainstream exposure for Livingston. However, despite the film generating around $4 million in the box office and becoming critically acclaimed, the drag queens featured were excluded from its success and not sufficiently compensated for their role in the film— to the extent that Octavia St. Laurent, one of the film's main features, was not even notified of the film's release.
The documentary provided a poignant insight into the social group, but scholars argue that Livingston and audiences of a dominant background act as a voyeur exploiting the harsh realities of these individuals' experiences. This accusation subsists because cultural exploitation is contingent on an unequal power dynamic. In this case, Livingston; an educated white lesbian from a Hollywood family — so evidently from a higher social class than her subjects created a documentary on the lives of African and Latino American queer youth, many of whom were of impoverished spaces and failed to sufficiently compensate their participation.
By: Ade B. ︎