Challenging My Expectations for LBGTQI Pop Culture Representation With Ryan Murphy's Nuanced, Evocative, Joyful 'Pose'
I’m not generally a Ryan Murphy person. I watched Nip/Tuck while it was airing (how did it end only eight years ago?!) but quit after only the third season, when the Carver storyline wrapped up. I thought the show had already gotten too topsy-turvy and too ugly for me by then, and I sat out the next three seasons. I intermittently watched Glee and developed a Darren Criss problem (I still think his version of “Teenage Dream” is one of the best things on that show), but that series also became too haphazard, too involved in itself. (I knew it was time to stop watching when I was more interested in Dianna Agron’s outfits, which at the time were heavily influenced by Anthropologie, than any of the storylines.) And I’ve sat out Scream Queens, 9-1-1, Feud: Bette and Joan, all the American Horror Story seasons, and the two iterations of American Crime Story. Murphy certainly has a TV empire (and is being handsomely rewarded for it by Netflix), but I’ve kept my distance from most of it, with the assumption left over from Nip/Tuck that Murphy’s series often go for shocks and surprises rather than long-term character and narrative development.
Given all that, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Pose, Murphy’s latest show on FX with co-creators Brad Falchuk (the future Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow) and Steven Canals that premiered on June 3 — and I was wrong to be doubtful. Under the guiding influence of writers, producers, and transgender rights activists Janet Mock and Our Lady J, the show has put together the largest transgender cast ever for a scripted series and is putting out beautifully written episodes of television every Sunday. And one of the most impactful things that I think Pose is doing is changing the conversation around LGBTQI stories — and especially those about people of color — morphing them from narratives in which I think people expect predominantly trauma and violence to complex representations that tap into feelings of fear and uncertainty, yes, but also friendship and ambition and love.
I won’t pretend that I’m a voracious consumer of LGBTQI cinema or television. I have a lot to catch up on, from Queer as Folk to The L Word to Looking to Beach Rats and Disobedience. For the most part, I’ve seen John Waters’ stuff, foreign films like the Iranian lesbian love story Circumstance, and the awards-buzzy stuff, the stuff your parents have probably seen, like Battle of the Sexes, A Fantastic Woman, Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, Milk, Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Freeheld, Tangerine, and Dallas Buyers Club, some of the films that Vulture writer E. Alex Jung questioned in this very insightful piece about what is happening to queer cinema. I know there’s a lot that I don’t know about as a cishet woman, and a lot that I won’t ever truly understand. And watching Pose has made me realize my own assumptions developed from those films, and how I’ve been conditioned to expect pain and cruelty from LGBTQI stories. I expect for the very worst thing to happen to the characters — sickness, injustice, ignorance, murder — and I watch these stories with some tension because, with so many of them based on real-life people, I have a certain awareness of how much hardship and struggle this community has experienced.
But Pose is showing me that’s mostly all I know, and that is my own ignorance, too. Most of the movies I’ve watched are about very specific (and often insular, often white) representations, and there is often a narrative focus on the individual characters only and not necessarily on the community overall. Pose, operating in conversation with the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which focused on New York City’s ball culture in the 1980s and which Lena Waithe shouted out in her speech while accepting the Trailblazer Award at Sunday’s MTV Movie and TV Awards, is challenging my and other viewers’ assumptions by offering the beauty, dreams, and diversity of this community, too, broadening on-screen representation for people and characters of varying ethnic, familial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
This is purposeful, of course, from Murphy (who is donating “100 percent of my profits from my new FX show POSE toward trans and LGBTQ charitable organizations,” according to a May 9 tweet), Mock, and Canals, who are regularly tweeting about the show before each new episode on Sundays; it seems like Murphy only recently joined Twitter to help build buzz for the series. Over the weekend, I saw a tweet from Murphy (that I unfortunately can’t find now, dammit!) reassuring fans that their worries about potential physical harm to Pose’s characters are unnecessary. Pose isn’t interested in putting its characters through more pain, Murphy said, and he hopes fans will change their expectations for the program and how it portrays House of Evangelista mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), who is HIV-positive and interested in leaving behind a legacy with her house; New School dance student Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), who Blanca saves from homelessness and who becomes the first member of the House of Evangelista; prostitute Angel (Indya Moore), who falls in love with Trump Tower employee Stan (Evan Peters), who is enthralled by Angel but not willing to leave his wife (Kate Mara); balls emcee Pray Tell (series MVP Billy Porter, who has his own hashtag, #PrayTellEm), who has a close friendship with Blanca and is rooting for the House of Evangelista; and Blanca’s former mother Elektra (Dominique Jackson), head of the House of Abundance, who resents Blanca for leaving but who appreciates her creativity and ingenuity in putting together costumes and themes for the balls. Look at Angel, killing it at the Christmas-themed ball from the June 16 episode:
In its first three episodes — the pilot, “Access,” and “Giving and Receiving” — Pose isn’t interested in presenting scenarios that are exacerbated for impact. This is how Mock put it:
And that is why each episode of Pose feels more revelatory and subversive than the last. When the characters in Pose talk about how as transgender women and gay men of color in New York City, they’re looked down upon by not only heterosexual people but by gay white men, too, it’s a reminder of the intricacies of this community, of the frustrating divisions that exist within it. The show doesn’t shrink away from that, but it also throws itself fully into sequences of romance and triumph. A Christmas gift exchange in which Blanca bestows gifts upon her “children” Damon, Angel, and others, eating Chinese food alongside Pray Tell in their own family gathering. A dance rehearsal in which Damon’s teacher praises his talent. The moment when Stan asks Angel if he can kiss her, fulfilling her dreams of a Prince Charming coming to whisk her away.
I suppose you could call those moments deserving of a fairy tale, but that seems hard-hearted, an assumption that the LGBTQI community has nothing to be joyful about. Pose isn’t sticking its head in the sand: Pray Tell admits to Blanca that he’s afraid of falling in love because of all the friends and boyfriends he’s seen die from HIV/AIDS in such a short amount of time. Stan’s treatment of Angel is, in the best light, possessive, with him objecting to her peep-show job and securing her an apartment but then failing to show up on Christmas, as he promised he would; I’m not sure how this relationship could be equal or healthy. (Although I will say that the first kiss between Peters and Moore was one of the sexiest moments I’ve seen on TV in a while.) And how hard Damon will have to work to be successful as a professional dancer should be familiar to anyone who has ever aimed to make their mark in a creative and competitive field. But that is all balanced with the excitement and verve of the balls, with the tension of heists orchestrated by Elektra to provide for the House of Abundance, and with the family-focused domestic life of the House of Evangelista, whether they’re decorating a Christmas tree together or cheering on Damon.
I’m often reminded of Love, Simon, one of our Pajiba Overlords’ favorite films of 2018 so far, when I’m watching Pose. The teen romance starred the ever-likable Nick Robinson as a suburban high school student falling in love with a classmate and wondering how to come out to his friends and family, who ultimately confidently declares that he deserves his own great love story and adventure. In his Vulture essay, Jung raised interesting questions about whether the film applied a heteronormative formula to a film about a gay teenager, but what I appreciated about Love, Simon was the interiority it gave its titular character, from his relationship with his parents, including his initially confused father (Josh Duhamel in Hot Dad mode!), to his close friendship with best friend Leah (Katherine Langford), to his own conflicting, sometimes hurtful, feelings about Ethan (Clark Moore), an openly gay student at his high school. Simon does things that are unkind to protect himself, but the film gives the character the space to understand his poor decisions, make amends with those he wronged, and still give love a chance. The Ferris wheel kiss between Simon and his crush Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) won Best Kiss at this year’s MTV Movie & TV Awards, one year after Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome won the same award for their beach embrace in Moonlight. (Oh, and to bring up Lena Waithe again — here she is cheering for that Love, Simon win, accepted by Lonsdale.)
That’s the depth I’m seeing in Pose. It’s in the combative yet mutually respectful relationship between Bianca and Elektra; in that speech Stan gives to Angel, when he finally opens up about his feelings for her (“I accumulate. I’m a brand — a middle-class white guy. But you’re who you are, even though the price you pay for it is being disinvited from the rest of the world”); in the first sexual experience between Damon and his boyfriend Ricky (Dyllon Burnside), after Blanca explains to Damon the differences between tops and bottoms and encourages him to use protection. Some of this is coming from the experiences of the writers’ room, and that authenticity is obviously and deeply personal.
There are five episodes left in this season of Pose, and I’m excited for every one of them. Are you watching? I know that Murphy isn’t exactly a Pajiba favorite, but what are your thoughts? Are you also thinking James Van Der Beek is a scene stealer doing his best Patrick Bateman impression?
Meet me in the comments.