I went to see Paris Is Burning at the ICA with my friend Taey. Paris is Burning is a documentary about the ballroom culture of the New York gay and transgender community. The documentary covered the history of balls, a gathering poor, usually black working-class gays, from a procession of drag queens aping showgirls and stars from the golden age of cinema. It then evolved with the mass media to copy popular soaps and the super model phenomena.
You could watch it four times and still see new material that you could be written about. The three things that stuck out at me from this showing:
Advertising does work
Anybody who doubts the power of traditional advertising cannot help but be swayed by the way that fashion magazine print advertisements were fetishcised and copied by ball attendees.
Television: the drug of the nation
I was amazed by how powerful soap operas were in creating an image of what these poor people thought was an ordinary life. I am not talking about EastEnders, but Dallas and Dynasty. They got their rules from watching Dynasty, they knew that a woman always take bags out with them when they are gong to dinner.
Cargo cults come West
The 1980s were all about materialism and money, but I was really struck by the ritualisation of consumer patterns with a gay man acting out a print Ralph Lauren ad, complete with riding hat, jodphurs and a tweed jacket reminded me of the Cargo Cults, just substitute Prince Phillip for Ralph Lauren or Christian Dior and the jungles of Papua New Guinea for tenements and project high-rise blocks in Harlem.
It wasn’t just adverts that were replicated at the ball, but high profile jobs like a suitcase-totting executives or a soldier.
The ritualism combined with the aspirations of the balls participants to get out of their current situation and become wealthy and famous sealed my image of the balls as a cargo cult.
Their aspirations also mirrored the aspirations of Big Brother and Pop Idol participants, making me reexamine the current cult of celebrity in the same way.