Merriam-Webster has expanded its ever-growing list of words to include “shade.” The dictionary defines it as “a subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust” that was popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2010.
But someone on the team did their due diligence to reveal the deeper history behind the expression. “Throwing shade” goes far back beyond the reality show to the 1980s ballroom drag scene first documented in the 1990 film, Paris is Burning.
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It notes that one queen named Dorian Corey explained the development of the read in the film: “If I’m a black queen and you’re a black queen, we can’t call each other ‘black queens’ because we’re both black queens. That’s not a read—that’s just a fact. So then we talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. Then reading became a developed form, where it became shade. 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.”
Fast forward to today, and there’s a new film that captures the modern-day ballroom scene called Kiki.
Sara Jordenö’s documentary shows the journey of Black and brown LGBT youth in New York reclaiming their words, expression and agency. The film premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and won the Teddy Award for best documentary/essay film, as well as the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
Jordenö captures the stories of youth involved in the ballroom scene, which has served as a safe haven for decades. Tackling issues of homelessness, HIV/AIDS, homophobia and acceptance, Kiki is being lauded for its authenticity.
“When people step on to the floor, they’re telling you no matter what you think, ‘I’m beautiful’,” says a ballroom leader in the trailer. “It’s this competitive scene to get away from rejection, homophobia… like an acceptance.”
As noted by Shadow and Act, last year (2016), Paris is Burning was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”