BY Eric Rezsnyak
Almost immediately upon its arrival, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning became a seminal text in queer culture, and pop culture in general. While the film is not without its controversies, the film is as relevant today as it was when it was released 30-plus years ago, shining a spotlight on the incandescent stars of the New York City underground ballroom scene — primarily poor, POC, nonbinary/trans pioneers who created much of the lexicon used today by the queer community (and increasingly adopted — or coopted — by straight culture). If you have ever watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, Legendary, or even the Real Housewives franchises, most of the zippiest quotes were mined from ballroom icons like those featured in Paris Is Burning.
While nearly every line in Paris is Burning is incredible, below find our Top 10 picks for the best lines — or general terms — introduced to pop culture through this film. Did yours not make the cut? Drop it in the comments.
Want more discussion of Paris is Burning? Listen to our Best Queer Film episode by clicking here.
10. “Category Is…”
This is arguably cheating a bit, but the term “Category Is…” is has become thoroughly ingrained in contemporary culture. You’re at brunch? “Category Is…bottomless mimosas!” You’re hungover after a hard night of partying? “Category Is…Pedialyte Realness.” It’s everywhere. But it was in Paris Is Burning first, where ballroom categories shown in the film included “Luscious Body,” “Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness,” “Banjee Girl Realness,” and “Butch Queen First Time in Drags,” among others.
9. “Some of them say that we’re sick, we’re crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth.”
Venus Xtravaganza is one of the tragic figures featured in Paris is Burning, a young trans woman who turned to sex work in order to escape a traumatic upbringing, and achieve her dreams. Venus has multiple iconic quotes, some of them sharper than others. But this one encapsulates the struggle that the trans community continues to live through 30+ years later.
In the ballroom community, “Legendary” has a very specific meaning, relating to very specific ballroom accomplishments. It has become widely used by the modern community to describe everything from pop stars who have recorded one single (looking at you, Normani) to Taco Bell nacho fries. But the fact that it is used at all in pop culture is a testament to Paris is Burning, and the fact that it was the title of HBO Max’s three-season ballroom competition reality series speaks to its enduring legacy.
7. “You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”
Dorian Corey is another quote machine in Paris is Burning, and while this is not as memorable as her iconic monologue found later in this list, it’s a personal favorite of mine. “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you” just drips with condescension, and I live for it.
Pepper Labeija was a legend before some of our parents were even born. Haus of Labeija has its origins dating back at least to the 1960s — the 1960s! Can you imagine the guts it took to be that open queer in the 1960s?! — and by Paris is Burning, Pepper was running the roost. There’s no question as to why. In this one-word takedown, Pepper demonstrates the true art of cutting a bitch with a tongue.
5. “Why you all gagging so? She brings it to you every ball.”
When it’s right, it’s right!
4. The definition of Shade
Many casuals use the terms “throwing shade” and “reading” interchangably. They shouldn’t. Dorian Corey let us all know the difference way back in 1990, and if you get it twisted, you know what they say: Reading is Fundamental DARLING. The quote that inspired literally every Reading Mini-Challenge on Drag Race (and Paris is namechecked — correctly — at each one.)
3. “Touch this skin, honey! Touch ALL of this skin!”
Venus, in one of the stand-out moments of the entire film, goes in on Pedro at the piers when discussing transitioning. While the opening lines to Venus’s monologue are indeed iconic, the entire monologue is pure, unrehearsed perfection. “Are you going through some kind of psychological change in your life? You just can’t take it. You’re like an overgrown orangutan!” FUCKING. ICONIC.
2. “OPULENCE! You OWN everything!”
Emcee Junior Labeija will forever be famous for uttering those 8 letters, followed by the lines that have been said in a million times, in a thousand gay clubs, to countless homosexuals showing us what they’ve got. “You own everything! Everything is yours!” Everything is YOURS, Junior.