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Shade - A History and How to Throw It

Have you ever wondered why the art of the subtle insult comes so easily to some people? Ever wished you could sharpen your tongue? You need a lesson on throwing shade! We’ve got tips galore on throwing shade, but before that, you have to learn and respect its history and watch some masters from both fiction and real-life in action. Here’s our Take on where Shade comes from, what it memes, and how to throw it so it lands.

TRANSCRIPT

Have you ever wondered why the art of the subtle insult comes so easily to some people? Ever wished you could sharpen your tongue? You need a lesson on throwing shade! We’ve got tips galore on throwing shade, but before that, you have to learn and respect its history and watch some masters from both fiction and real-life in action. Here’s our Take on where Shade comes from, what it memes — and how to throw it so it lands.

Where Shade Comes From

We can find the term “throwing a shade” as far back as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in 1814, but lexicographer Grant Barrett has tracked the regular use of the verb ‘to shade’ as a synonym for ‘to insult’ to the 1920s when it was often used by members of Black communities. The way we understand throwing shade today is largely derived from drag ballroom culture, which also began in earnest in the ‘20s, in New York City. To shade is an essential tenet of drag culture, having been used to describe a particular type of insult by the Black and Latino drag communities.

By the time the iconic ballroom documentary Paris is Burning was released in 1990, the term had taken on its new, more particular meaning, related to the concept of “reading.” In the drag community, to read someone is to insult them, and according to veteran queen and Paris is Burning star Dorian Corey:

Dorian Corey: “You’ve found a flaw and exaggerate it, then you’ve got a good read going. Then reading became a developed form, where it became shade.” - Paris is Burning

Shade is less literal than reading; it can be veiled as a compliment, take the shape of a look, or even manifest in a dance.

The art of throwing shade is a finetuned one, and less can be more. It’s as much about what you’re not saying as what you are. As Professor E. Patrick Johnson told The New York Times: “If someone walks into a room with a hideous dress, but you don’t want to say it’s hideous, you might say, ‘Oooh … look at you!’’” John Paul Brammer writes that ‘Shade is all the more biting because it makes the subject wonder, “Did that person just insult me?”’

Academic Seth E. Davis writes that throwing shade is “representative of a larger literacy, specific to these [queer, Black] communities… heavily informed by context.” He calls shade “a practice of survival and self-defense” for a community. When you consider the context — of being part of an intersectional community that has been systematically abused — it makes sense that an indirect, no-contact form of retaliation emerged.

Elektra: “Your uniform of ill-fitting J.Crew culottes, fake pearls, and 50-cent scrunchies cannot conceal the fact that you do not know who you are.” - POSE 2x09

Nowadays, no one is exempt from shade — or being accused of throwing it. This has, in turn, opened up conversations about cultural appropriation and the ways in which gay and drag culture — particularly those aspects informed by Black and Latino communities — are mined by more privileged people. As we trace the anatomy of ‘throwing shade’ as a popularly used phrase, we can also gain insight into how important the linguistic contributions of black, gay, and drag communities are.

How to throw shade

And now, here are The Take’s top tips for throwing stellar shade:

Shade Tip #1: Know the her-story

Throwing shade is pretty much part of our makeup as humans; it’s believed we’re programmed to respond with facial expressions, with the ‘nose scrunch’ (a particularly shady facial expression) notifying others of your disgust. But the assimilation of AAVE into mainstream language is part of the wider problem of cultural appropriation; so if you’re going to talk about throwing shade, it’s important to know the term’s etymology first and to pay respect to the Black and Latino LGBTQ communities who created it and gave it meaning.

Some members of the community don’t think the term shade should be allowed to leave it; one participant in Seth E. Davis’ study said, “I do feel like if the white community or other communities get a hold of shade, they definitely change the idea of what we see shade as.”

At the same time, it is also impossible to stop linguistic appropriation, as words and phrases inevitably get picked up and spread by countless speakers. Far more than half of English words are assimilated from other languages, with over 10,000 words coming from French after the Norman Conquest. And already in a 1994 interview, beloved Paris is Burning cast member and master of voguing Willi Ninja talked about throwing shade in scenarios outside the drag community, saying that it’s “like watching Joan Collins going against Linda Evans on Dynasty... Or when George Bush ran against Bill Clinton, they were throwing shade. Who got the bigger shade? Bush did because Clinton won.”

Bill Clinton: “Thank goodness the networks have a fact check so I don’t have to go blue in the face anymore.” - 1992 Second Presidential Debate

It still stands that if you’re unaware of where shade comes from, you owe it to the term’s originators to take the time to educate yourself. And if you don’t, things can get a little embarrassing

Shade Tip #2: Be smart

Famously shady queen Bianca Del Rio says you have to be smart about throwing shade. Del Rio claims it’s not something you can learn; either you’re great at throwing shade, or you’re not. And it’s true that some people just have a knack for using alacrity and wit that leaves their opponents spinning; take Parks and Recreation’s Donna Meagle, whose way with words can leave people scrambling to work out if they just got a compliment or an insult the key is to be observant and quick.

Brandon Maxwell: “I cannot see Karlie wearing it anywhere, honestly.”

Tyler Neasloney: “Not even to dinner with the Kushners?” - Project Runway 18x04

TV writer Ira Madison III says that “shade is like a tennis match.”

Another top tip is to be creative, not just cruel. As RuPaul says, “throwing shade takes a bit of creativity; being a bitch takes none.” Shade isn’t about being unkind for the sake of it; it takes some artistry and imagination to keep it funny. One of Davis’ study participants says, “If you’re gonna throw shade, it’s important to know the boundaries between shade and disrespect. It’s right there on the cusp.” The tension between throwing great shade and just being mean is articulated regularly in POSE. Take this scene, when the House of Ferocity comes over to throw shade at the House of Evangelista:

Candy: “Why don’t you all just go home, and save yourselves from the humiliation of defeat, huh? Oh! I cut myself on Blanca’s stubble.” - POSE 1x08

This shade doesn’t land, and the complex political setting of the show explains why. Blanca is an HIV-positive trans woman living through the height of the HIV epidemic. As a character, she is regularly experiencing transphobia in the wider world, so she refuses to accept hateful comments from people within her community.

Shade Tip #4: Get your body language down

As Willi Ninja says, the dance style voguing is a form of shade-throwing. Physicality plays a huge part in the art. A stare; a glare, a hand gesture, or a flick of the hair; using your body language can be absolutely key, and your facial expressions are an important way of showing how you feel.

It’s also always worth working with your surroundings; the way that Lucille Bluth slowly closes the door on her son Gob is super shady, for example. Likewise, if you have a prop — a mirror, a fan, or, like the ladies from Dynasty, a glass of champagne — you can use it to throw shade, too. If you’re feeling particularly extra, take a leaf out of Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Kenya Moore’s book and bring a fan with you if the forecast says shade.

Shade Tip #5: Speak the truth

As Dorian Corey says, when you’re reading someone, you have to make sure what you’re saying is truthful, because that’s what cuts the deepest.

Lily: “Sometimes, when you read to me, I pretend to fall asleep so you’ll go.” - Modern Family 5x04

Drag queen Manila Luzon says that shade should be both funny and true. One easy way to throw shade is by seeking out a weakness — something the other person may be self-conscious about.

Examples of this can be found in the strangest places; such as an episode of Bridgerton, where Madame Delacroix is careful not to out-and-out insult the Featheringtons, but says just enough to make them squirm, or this scene from Frozen: After the Duke of Weselton casts aspersions on Elsa’s character early in the movie, she doesn’t forget it. She cuts off trade with Weselton, but she adds insult to injury by sending a servant to throw shade at him (something that triggers his low self-esteem), and she goes one further, by getting the servant to play on the other weakness she knows the Duke has: his anxiety about the mispronunciation of his principality. A perfect lesson in shade from an ice queen.

Who throws the best shade?

There are some characters — both real and fictional! — who are incredible at the art of shade, using a look or a word to convey devastating amounts of meaning. Studying our favorite shade-throwing fictional characters and real-life masters, we can learn from the best

Lucille Bluth: “I’m here to support you. You’re the one who’s all alone and likely to stay that way.” - Arrested Development 1x04

Take Naomi Campbell. She’s incredibly adept at saying almost nothing while imbuing what she does say with serious shade. She uses her body language, too, flashing a false smile to signal that what she’s saying may not be true, and throw shade on someone else. What’s especially clever about this is that she isn’t actually saying anything bad; it’s all implied, and that makes it really difficult for the people she’s throwing shade on to complain.

On the other hand, shade comes so naturally to some people that everything they say seems a little bit cutting. Schitt’s Creek’s Moira Rose doesn’t necessarily mean to be shady, yet she delivers healthy doses of shade in every episode, from getting her son’s boyfriend’s name wrong to the show-stealing high camp outfit she wears to their wedding. She throws shade at her own kids, bringing up irrelevant subjects to have a little dig at David, and questioning her husband’s reasons for hugging them.

Johnny Rose: “I was just hugging my kids.”

Moira Rose: “Why?” - Schitt’s Creek 2x09

However, it’s possible that some of Moira’s barbs stem from the fact that her life has been turned upside down, and throwing shade makes her feel powerful. Shade is an extension of Ruthie from Shrill’s personality, too. Her double-edged compliments fit right in with the traditional definition of shade: highlighting others’ deepest anxieties while seemingly saying something nice about them.

Elsewhere, How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating is one shady lady, as show creator Shonda Rhimes has stated Annalise can make her students feel small, but she never does so unnecessarily. A lot of the time, when she’s throwing shade, it’s to drive home a point.

Perhaps the best current onscreen examples of shade — closest to how Dorian Corey described it in Paris is Burning, over 30 years ago — arrive courtesy of ballroom drama POSE. In this scene, while Elektra reads a transphobic woman in a restaurant —

Elektra: “God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, and a boyfriend named Jake and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch.” - POSE 2x09

— her friends Lulu and Angel click their fingers and embody their disgust. Once she has finished, Elektra shoos the woman away. In another scene, where Blanca goes head to head with Frederica, the landlord of her nail salon, we see how she employs shade to give her power in the situation, which links back to the idea of shade as a form of armor. Earlier in the episode, Frederica tells her:

Frederica: “By the year 2000, there won’t be a neighborhood in this city where a normal person feels uncomfortable walking.” - POSE 2x02

Then, when Frederica tries to evict her, Blanca does an impersonation of Frederica. Frederica isn’t used to being spoken to like this, and despite being deeply prejudiced against Blanca, she’s kind of impressed.

The characters in POSE are the whole package: smart, quick-witted, and well-versed culturally, and they’re also bold enough to speak out — against fellow ball-attendees who cross them, or wider structural problems. The show gives a great grounding, not only in throwing shade, but in why the concept exists in the first place.

CONCLUSION

The act of throwing shade is an inherent human response to conflict, but the terminology belongs to a culture that has been systemically abused, so it’s important to respect and acknowledge its roots while you use our top shade-throwing tips. In a world that’s often cruel, it’s good to have a recourse that repackages negative energy in a fun way. And when the time comes that you have to take shade? You have two options. Throw it straight back, or smile, and don’t let it touch you. Remember what POSE’s Candy said:

Candy: “You can’t shade something that’s shining so bright.” - POSE 1x08

SOURCES

Barrett, Grant. “No Tea, No Shade.” A Way With Words, Episode 1447, 20 May 2016.

Brammer, John Paul. “The Difference Between Appreciating and Appropriating Queer Culture.” The Oprah Magazine, 2 Oct. 2018, www.oprahmag.com/life/a23601818/queer-cultural-appropriation-definition/.

“A Brief History of Voguing.” National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian, 26 July 2019, nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/brief-history-voguing.

Davis, Seth E. “Shade: Literacy Narratives at Black Gay Pride.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 6 Dec. 2019, pp. 56–89., https://licsjournal.org/index.php/LiCS/article/view/710.

“Is English Really A Germanic Language?” Prolingo, 27 Sept. 2016, www.prolingo.com/blog/is-english-really-a-germanic-language/.

Madison, Ira. “18 Steps To Deliver Perfect Shade From A 1984 Episode Of ‘Dynasty.’” BuzzFeed, 29 Mar. 2015, www.buzzfeed.com/iramadison/ciao-for-now.

Nicolaou, Elena. “Already Obsessed With Pose? Here’s A History Of New York’s Ball Scene.” Refinery29, 4 June 2018, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/06/200854/ball-culture-history-pose-fx.

Pochedly, Joseph P, et al. “What Emotion Does the ‘Facial Expression of Disgust’ Express?” Emotion, vol. 12, no. 6, 16 Apr. 2012, doi:10.1037/a0027998.

Rose, Tricia. “An Interview With Wili Ninja.” Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture, edited by Tricia Rose and Andrew Ross, Routledge, 1994, p. 174.

San Francisco State University. “Facial Expressions Of Emotion Are Innate, Not Learned.” ScienceDaily. 30 Dec. 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081229080859.htm.

ThoughtCo. “Terms of Enrichment: How French Has Influenced English.” ThoughtCo, 4 Nov. 2019, www.thoughtco.com/how-french-has-influenced-english-1371255.

Tremeer, Eleanor. “Is It Cultural Appropriation To Use Drag Slang And AAVE?” Babbel Magazine, Lesson 9, 8 Jan. 2019, www.babbel.com/en/magazine/cultural-appropriation-drag-slang-aave.

Turner, Kyle. “Pretty Much Everything We Say Comes From the World of Drag Queens.” Mic, 29 June 2015, www.mic.com/articles/121464/rupauls-drag-race-shade-yaaasss-vocabulary.