POSE is beautiful because it exists.
The latest from the prolific producing team of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, POSE came to the table with some fairly high expectations from all corners. Murphy and Falchuk are on a creative streak, drag and other forms of queer gender expression are more mainstream-popular than at any other time in history, and transgender history, equality, and representation is at the forefront of the current LGBTQ social movement. Cast and staffed with transgender and queer performers and writers, the show immediately positioned itself not only as a much anticipated form of entertainment, but also a strong political and social statement.
Here would probably be the best part to reveal that literally seconds before the show aired, T turned to Lo and said “I should admit that I’m expecting this to disappoint me,” upon which Lo immediately replied with relief, “Oh my God, me too.” Not that we were rooting for it to fail. We were worried that Murphy’s former tendency to go extremely broad, especially when depicting lives outside his experience as a cisgender white man, would rear its head. Glee, American Horror Story, Feud: Bette & Joan and even The People vs. O.J. Simpson were shows that played in the realms of queer identity, race and gender – and each of them occasionally succumbed to Murphy’s broadness and predilection toward camp (a word he apparently loathes), which didn’t always serve them well. Since drag culture is essentially what happens when camp is encouraged to metastasize and mutate in order to form an entire community around it, there was some trepidation on our parts that Murphy & Co. might not be able to give the subjects of this story the respect they deserved.
Based in part on the seminal 1990 documentary on New York City drag balls Paris is Burning and influenced (whether it admits it or not) by the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race, POSE promised a rich, colorful, true-to-life examination of what was once a fiercely obscure (if not outright ignored) corner of LGBTQ life: the ball culture of New York City. Populated almost exclusively by black and LatinX men and women representing pretty much every hue on the rainbow of gender and sexual identity, ball culture celebrated beauty, ambition, wealth, glamour and above all, dignity for people who were considered worthy of none of those things by the world outside their houses and the safe (if not always loving) embrace of their “mothers.”
Set in 1987, at the height of the Reagan Era and a time when AIDS was decimating an entire generation of queer men and women and crack was decimating entire communities of color; a time when living your life openly as a queer or transgender person of color was an astonishing act of bravery, POSE doesn’t necessarily shy away from the darker parts of queer existence back then (as we feared it might), but it also clearly wants to present something life-affirming, forward-looking and – strangely enough – conventional.
The first 15 minutes or so are a little rough and left us wondering if our fears were about to be proven true, especially when the script cycled through about a half-dozen very popular drag memes (“You own everything!” “Tens across the board!” “The shade of it all!”) before the first ad break. And while the “diagnosis” and “Get out of my house” scenes felt almost perfunctory in their staleness, they managed to set up the central themes of the show and the driving agendas of several of its characters. It wasn’t the writing that won us over; not at first. It wasn’t even the characters, most of whom are drawn fairly broadly at this point. It was the cast, which shocked us with its (you’ll pardon us) charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent.
Murphy & Co. cast several largely unknown queer and transgender performers, but clearly, none of them were stunt-cast because most of them can really act. More important, their own lives and experiences allow them to bring these characters to full life and depth. MJ Rodriguez as Blanca Evangelista, the nascent mother with a dream to make her mark on the world before she leaves it, is raw, warm, angry, passionate, and hungry beyond belief. Dominique Jackson as Electra Abundance tears up every scene she’s in, reading everyone for filth while soaking up every bit of the spotlight and all of the oxygen. Indya Moore as Angel is beautiful, dreamy and heartbreaking in her bone-deep need for love. Billy Porter as Pray Tell, the closest thing the community has to a father figure, is loud, flamboyant, funny, defiant, wise and a little wounded. And Ryan Jamaan Swain as Damon is sweet, hopeful, insecure and endearing; a classic dreamer and a potential breakout artist. It’s a quality Blanca saw in him immediately (along with is aching vulnerability) and something that erupted – tentatively at first, then explosively – during his dance audition; a scene that the entire pilot built to like the climax of a film, and one that paid off its emotional setups beautifully.
Does POSE sand off the rough edges of life on the streets for the various societal discards of the ball community? Are the living spaces and gathering spaces just a little too art-directed? Are the clothes just a little too 2018-stylish and the players all TV-pretty? Does it occasionally gloss over or ignore the rougher parts of this life and this world at the time? Yes. But does any of that really matter? Would a hard-edged look at the ball scene in 1987 even get made? Over three decades after the setting of this series, queer and transgender youth are routinely at risk for harassment by the law, yet the opening scenes of POSE depicted an entire house more or less getting away with a major crime and laughingly walking into the waiting arms of the police, with virtually no repercussions to be seen anywhere. Is that true to the lives and times depicted? Almost certainly not. Is it making a point about the beliefs and even the mythologies that surrounded ball culture; the idea that fucking the man over and laughing it off was a life goal, even if life didn’t always present that opportunity without serious repercussions? Yes, and that’s where it won us over completely. POSE doesn’t have to be a raw and honest depiction of this world. The people who lived it? They’ve had enough rawness and honesty to last them an eternity. But Murphy didn’t take things too far into the realm of fantasy either. Instead, he did something we never would have expected him to do. He crafted a more or less standard and conventional workplace/home life drama, hitting on most of the major themes you’d expect from such a show.
What Murphy has done is pay homage to the beliefs, fears, dreams and ambitions that swirled around the ’80s ball scene while rendering them in broad enough terms to be relatable to anyone. Rather than glossing over the realities of this culture at this time, Murphy is showing the people in it to be the same, deep down, as everyone else. The lives of queer, transgender, black and brown, runaways and hookers and virus-bearers; the outcasts and discards, the ignored and reviled; POSE starts on the assumption that these lives are essentially about family, self-worth, the search for love and the struggle to stay alive. It sanctifies differences by exploring and centering those parts that are universal and human.
POSE is a victory because it exists.
[Photo Credit: FX via Tom and Lorenzo]