Throwing shade is all the rage, but where did the term originate? Sarah Botelho explores the term’s draggy history in this week’s Stranger Than Diction.
How do you know when a word is no longer cool? Probably when your mom sends you a link to a TIME definition of the word “bae.” But the thing is, when a word becomes that popular, it’s been removed from its original context and likely lost most of its original value.
So we don’t really care how many episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race your hip, gay-friendly mom has seen; she’s never going to be able to throw shade.
In pop culture, shade has come to mean something along the lines of “talking trash” according to a 2006 Urban Dictionary entry. But the word actually dates back to 1980s drag ball culture, the earliest recorded usage being featured in the documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston.
The film follows the New York City ball culture during mid-to-late 1980s and the African America, latino, gay and transgender communities that were its beating heart. Drag queen Dorian Corey explains how “shade” was really a more nuanced form of the slang term, “reading” which she defines as “gay-to-gay sparring.” Kind of like when two narwhals butt horns.
The reason shade evolved was because once you’re all part of the same group, you have to start picking each other apart based on tiny details. That process became “throwing shade.” Corey defines throwing shade, as “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.”
So throwing shade isn’t actually just insulting someone; it’s more profound than that. It’s the artfully executed indirect (or maybe not so indirect) insult that feeds on obvious insecurities and innuendo. It is to insult without insulting, to dismiss someone without even acknowledging that you’ve dismissed them.
The word spiked in 2009 when RuPaul’s Drag Race featured an episode called “Shade: The Rusical,” which launched memes everywhere. And since then, shade has entered into a wide variety of media, from the world of reality TV to articles on White House Politics.
In 2013, Gawker posted a .gif of Michelle Obama “throwing shade” at John Boehner. But online commenters were quick to dismiss her eye-roll as any true sign of shade, since by doing this she has chosen to publicly interact with him. This debate opened up a huge conversation spiralling endlessly around the question, “Who has the right to throw shade?”
It’s worth noting that the most famous straight throwers of shade – Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama – are all black women, subtly undermining power through dismissal. Shade rose out of a culture that existed in a grey area, where all the fighting went mostly unacknowledged or unnoticed. It was the idea of being “so over it” without showing any aggression, not because you wanted to play it cool, but because you couldn’t show any aggression.
The term may no longer evoke the cultural roots of the 1980s, but it definitely means a lot more than “I literally can’t even right now.” The next time you’re hesitant about using “shade” in conversation, just remember the wise words of RuPaul, “Throwing shade takes a bit of creativity, being a bitch takes none.”
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