“You ain't dead yet,” the drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) chides crying House mother Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) in the first episode of Pose, the latest FX series from the prolific House of Ryan Murphy. “There is nothing more tragic than a sad queen," Tell adds. His distaste for the cliché of the unhappy queer also captures the show’s flavor, as it centers marginalized (queer, brown) people without resorting to sentimental tropes about suffering.
Pose, billed as a “dance musical,” has attracted a lot of attention in the lead-up to its June 3 premiere, with much of the coverage emphasizing its unprecedentedly large cast of trans-identified actors and its setting in the legendary Harlem drag ball scene of ‘80s New York. That ball scene gained mainstream visibility in the early ‘90s through filmmaker Jennie Livingston’s 1990 art house documentary Paris Is Burning, and the dance style that Madonna co-opted onto the stage of MTV through her hit single “Vogue.” And it has continued to bubble up across pop culture, as terms like “shade” and “reading” became central to reality television and helped make RuPaul’s Drag Race a phenomenon.
The over-the-top glamour of the ball scenes in the trailer and promotion for Pose has helped spark interest in the show. But that history and culture primarily serves as a backdrop for telling stories from a specifically queer — and, more specifically, queer of color — perspective. Perhaps for the first time since Logo’s 2005 dramedy Noah’s Arc, we're seeing gay men of color, now along with trans women characters, in an ensemble cast (and in a fun, soapy mode) rather than restricted to occasional roles in prestige TV dramas or PSA moments in sitcoms.
Previous House of Murphy projects like Feud: Bette and Joan and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace lacked some subtlety in their attempts to find the politics (of misogyny and anti-gay sentiment, respectively) in the spectacle of tabloid stories. Pose, which was cocreated with Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, including episodes written by Janet Mock, channels Murphy’s pedagogical impulses in more inventive ways.
By centering negotiations of identity and oppression — as well as love and desire — between queer characters of color, the show allows for thoughtful exploration of intra-community hierarchies and conflicts. There are some limitations to this woke soap approach, but the show stands out in a television landscape dominated by straight stories “about race” and white stories “about queerness.” In telling a kind of intersectional fairy tale of queer brown lives, the show highlights just how limited the scope of most TV creators' imaginations still is.
Pose’s story — as laid out in the first four episodes made available to critics — is ostensibly organized around a battle between two warring ball houses: the House of Abundance, mothered by Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson) and their upstart rivals, the House of Evangelista, led by former Abundance daughter Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez). The show uses the House structures and the ball setting to dramatize the stories of the gay men and trans women of color who were — and are — the real-life protagonists of those settings, in service of Murphy’s usual goal of turning characters who might be written elsewhere as sidekicks into stars.
The script for Pose began its life as a Murphy project when he optioned the rights to the now-iconic Paris Is Burning; the show owes a debt, in scenes and themes, to the documentary — and, perhaps more importantly, to the lives and insights of its protagonists. You can see echoes of it in the close-up shots of the emcee Pray Tell, the juxtaposition of the glamour of the balls against the wealth of high-rise Manhattan, and even hear it in some of the characters’ lines. (“A ball is to us as close to reality as we’re gonna get to all of that fame, fortune, stardom, and spotlight,” one character explains in Paris Is Burning. “We not gonna be walking the red carpets at the Oscars, but it's our moment to become a star,” is the way Blanca explains the ball’s appeal in Pose.) Murphy included the documentary’s filmmaker, Livingston, as a paid adviser and developed the show in collaboration with his usual cowriter, Falchuk, from a screenplay by the black and Puerto Rican screenwriter Steve Canals, who wrote the script as a kind of queer brown response to shows he’d grown up with, like Queer as Folk and Will & Grace.
Because it centers an entire universe of queer of color characters, Pose avoids tokenization, and is able to offer understandings of power and identity that move beyond stereotypes. The inequalities between cis gay men and trans women, for example, are a recurring theme. One episode features Blanca, who is Afro-Latina, insistently returning to a white gay bar at which she is refused service. She turns to a preppy, straight-passing black patron at the bar for support, only to have him distance himself from her, and she’s eventually arrested.
Through this clash, the show dramatizes the complexities of oppression. It shows, on the one hand, the way that trans women of color have long been shut out of white gay spaces — and criminalized — for reasons of race, gender, and class. But at the same time, competing House mother Elektra is unimpressed with Blanca’s framing of her actions as political. “You're a regular transvestite, Norma Rae,” she quips. “You're not Rosa Parks sitting up front of the bus; you're a tired old queen looking to sip a margarita with some white boy in Sergio Valente jeans." Elektra offers an internal critique of Blanca’s potentially problematic desire, rather than framing her as a saint.
Indeed, the relationship and antagonism between Elektra and Blanca is both a campy, Dynasty-style clash of divas — pitting Elektra’s dramatic wit against Blanca’s warmer, more earnest style — but also an exploration of generational, and stylistic, differences in approaching power and politics. "When it comes to the life we lead,” Elektra tells Blanca, “there comes a time when you must accept disappointment." This statement isn’t played for facile sentimentality, but as a fact gleaned from experience. It flies against Blanca’s optimism, and also — in a wider cultural context — against the condescending, reigning assimilationism of “it gets better” campaigns.
There have been other recent TV series, like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, that feature trans and queer of color characters in sophisticated, thoughtful ways that mix comedy with dramatic realism. But even those shows haven’t been able to consistently provide this level of political nuance, because those characters are so often isolated from larger queer communities or settings. This also makes it difficult to create ongoing, complex storylines about romance and identity. On the other end of the queer TV spectrum, a show like HBO’s Looking did focus on the love lives and friendships of gay men, but within the scope of a primarily white and privileged community.
Pose’s representations of queer love and desire are as nuanced as its explorations of societal oppression, though in some ways the portraits of the gay men in its broad cast of characters are, so far, more fully realized than those of the trans women. One of the most prominently featured children of the houses, early in the season, is Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a femme gay black teenager who is kicked out of his home for his sexuality, spurring his move to New York City to pursue a career in modern dance.
Damon’s developing, sweetly depicted relationship with butch gay black teen Ricky, who is part of the circle at the piers — another queer space highlighted in Burning — is a rare representation of the uncertainties and interests of queer adolescence. Exiled from home, where he was surveilled by his dad for his gender-dissident interest in dance, Damon doesn’t know whether he’s a top or bottom, for instance, or how to kiss. During a date with Ricky, the detail of which pop diva they argue about (Janet Jackson, as opposed to, say, Madonna, who’s often centered as a symbol of ‘80s pop culture) is also a subtle sign of black queer specificity.
There’s a freshness to Damon’s storyline, especially in its representation of love between two men of color, that’s less present in two plotlines involving trans women of color paired with straight, white men. Evangelista House member Angel (Indya Moore), a Puerto Rican trans sex worker, begins an affair with one of her white clients, Stan (Evan Peters). Stan is in a conventional, heterosexual suburban marriage, and Angel is suspicious of his motives for wanting to be with her. Most men coming to the piers, Angel explains, are either “straight and can't ask wives for a finger up their butt, or gay and they can't admit it to themselves.” Echoing Venus Xtravaganza from Burning, Angel wants to be desired as just another woman and kept by a husband like a proper lady, and the writing gives her agency as she refuses to be fetishized by Stan’s confusion about his own identity.
Elektra Abundance’s storyline is remarkably similar, as she considers going forward with her confirmation surgery and how to pay for it. Her longtime boyfriend Dick — perfectly played by butch daddy Chris Meloni, gay-famous thanks to his oft-ass-bearing stint on the prison drama Oz — “keeps” her, but refuses to pay for Elektra’s surgery because he wants her as she is. When she notes that he barely touches her penis, he retorts, “Don't you paint me as a lazy lay, you're the one who's always had a hang-up about it."
On the one hand, these storylines are nuanced — and, in Elektra’s case, funny — in a way that sets Pose apart from most TV series, where even one romance featuring a trans character would be unusual. But on the other hand, their similarity is also a reminder that there is still room for a wider array of perspectives on gender and sexuality on TV, like Janet Mock’s suggestion of a show about a “trans Felicity.”
Even though Pose is set in the past, Murphy made a nod to the contemporary zeitgeist by adding a fictional character from Donald Trump’s organization to contrast with the world of the balls: Stan’s boss, Matt, played by James Van Der Beek, who has already garnered attention for the role — part of his new specialty in playing against his nice-boy archetype. Even in its casting, Pose flips the usual formula by deploying familiar straight white guys as quirky, relatively minor characters and unknown, queer people of color as the stars.
In some ways, the writers’ attempt to speak to class and politics through Van Der Beek’s character comes off as cartoonish (in one scene, Matt snorts cocaine while proclaiming “God bless Ronald Reagan”). And the program’s inherent focus on personal stories, although some of them do deal with larger problems like the AIDS crisis and anti-queer prejudice, means that it doesn’t directly address the kind of systemic societal issues that required the creation of “Houses” in the first place. (Unlike the balls, which can be traced back to the 1920s, the Houses were more of an ‘80s phenomenon resulting from rising black and Latinx unemployment and the diminishing welfare state, including decreased funding for group homes and social services for homeless youth, and they were part of a crisis that continues today.) But Pose is not a documentary or a PSA — and that is part of its unique appeal.
Ultimately, Pose is a queer fantasy, and a savvy take on the importance of fantasy for subjects marginalized through race, gender, and sexuality. “How lucky are we?” a house daughter says to Elektra at one point. “We create ourselves. Shit, we are the real dream girls.” And in the glossy world of Pose, they finally are. ●