When I want to explain exactly what shade (as in "throwing shade") is, I refer back to the expert words of Dorian Corey in Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning: "Shade is, ‘I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly.' And that's shade."
More and more I have turned to that excerpt because more and more the term "throwing shade" has been popping up. It exploded in popularity in the past year. Gawker has helped. As it typically happens with popularity, there has been a backlash in response by those who claim that the term "throwing shade" has become a blanket term for bitchiness. This attitude is typified by Jared Keller's recent Tumblr post "You're All Using the Term Throwing Shade Wrong," which also cites Dorian Corey's words above as its negating source.
It's a case of judging who's really down with a term rooted in gay culture, a term that rose to prominence as a result of being defined in Livingston's increasingly iconic documentary. I detect an air of disdain for appropriation, even though the gayest of us are appropriating, too.
The reason that I check in with Dorian Corey, primarily, is that while I am a gay man who lives in New York, the culture depicted in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary is not mine. I can relate to things the film discusses about interfacing with society — always operating on at least two levels, regularly checking my behavior against masculine ideals — but I primarily view this movie like virtually everyone else who has seen it: as a wide-eyed observer peering into an alien world. And unless you were on the NYC ball scene in the late ‘80s, so do you. The richness of gay culture makes for frequent simultaneous insider/outsider dynamics – yet more levels to operate within. The vast majority of us are dining out on culture when it comes to appreciating, referencing and appropriating the trove of cultural treasures Paris Is Burning has to offer.
The subtle shade that Corey speaks of is a rarity. The only recent by-the-book example of it that I can think of in pop culture is Nicki Minaj's "Stupid Hoe" video (without invoking Paris Is Burning, Mike Barthel made this point on the Village Voice's Sound of the City blog last year). Subtlety is a dying art, which you understand if you've ever been misunderstood on the Internet. Shade is a form of expression, and expression must shift to accommodate modern media. The form and understanding of it was bound to water down.
Today, the shade defined by Dorian Corey is an ideal that, by virtue of its nature, is rarely realized. Instead, we get attempts and perhaps sometimes misinterpretations. But then, so does Paris Is Burning, in which not every reference to "shade" is as deeply understood as Corey's. Check one queen's response to the classic male/female fox coat debate ("It buttons on the right side!"): "Oooh, they're shady! They throwing shade at him, I can't believe this!" In fact, the announcer is doing nothing but openly stating his beef and insulting the competing queen for wearing the wrong garment. This has none of the nuance that Corey rhapsodized.
That is to say that misinterpreting "shade" (as defined by Corey who is probably the most articulate person on the subject, but whom we've also subjectively decided is the final word in this malleable oral tradition) has a history within Paris Is Burning as well. This is how language, particularly slang, works. It often mutates and manifests differently on its way up to the mainstream. "Faggot" used to mean cigarette (still does in some places). "Gay" used to mean happy. "Ball" used to be a heterosexual mating ritual. "Sissy that walk," something RuPaul, shade expert, commanded a queen to do on this week's Drag Race season premiere, is something that I heard a parent shout at a child beauty pageant – the flamboyant way she honked out those words (and that they were preceded by "You betta…") suggested she herself was familiar with gay and/or drag culture. Linguistic mutation can come from insane loops.
To "run hurdles" is to make small leaps over portable barriers. If you miss several, you do not cease runing hurdles, you just suck. Voguing, as defined in Paris Is Burning by Willi Ninja, an absolute master of the art, is "the same thing as taking two knives and gutting each other up, but through dance form…voguing came from shade because it is a dance that two people did because they didn't like each other…whoever was throwing the best moves was throwing the best shade, basically."
When Madonna introduced this dance to mainstream world with an egalitarian message and as a refuge from the "heartache" and "pain of life," she divorced voguging from this context, and yet her voguging was no less pronounced. What was lost in nuance was made up for in subversion that brought an underground gay dance all the way to the likes of Stephanie Tanner on family television. That's a nice consolation prize, I think, in the game of accuracy.
What I love about "Vogue" is what I love about the proliferation of "throwing shade" and the canonization of Paris Is Burning as a cultural reference (it is required viewing for its primary purveyors, the queens on RuPaul's Drag Race, or at least it was a few seasons ago when I discussed their PIB literacy with them). The mainstreaming of these terms, is a sign of pure acceptance of a supremely faggoty facet of gay culture that doesn't demand that gays be "masc."
It's also a beautiful post script for the queens of Paris Is Burning, so many of them now dead. The movie focuses on their aspirations to celebrity. Willi Ninja talked about taking vouging "not just to [the] Paris is Burning [ball], but I want to take it to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn." Octavia St. Laurent wanted to be a household name. Dorian Corey, in the movie's final, poignant scene, is as quotable as ever, discussing how hope for legacy diminishes over time: "You've left a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name…You don't have to bend the whole world…If you shoot [an] arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you."
We remember the queens of Paris Is Burning; we remember how they lived and most of us do so in admiration. The proliferation of "throwing shade" is a small victory for them, a happy ending of sorts for people who thought a lot about the mark they were leaving, a realization of what was once all a dream. When we use it, we are saying "hooray for them," and we are serious, no tea no shade.
Image by Jim Cooke.