“Pose delivers a fabulous look at 80s ball culture while breaking ground for trans women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community as a whole.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Ryan Murphy 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Brad Falchuk 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Steven Canals 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈
Writers: Steven Canals 👨🏾🇺🇸🌈 (5 eps), Ryan Murphy 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (4 eps), Brad Falchuk 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Janet Mock 👩🏽🇺🇸🌈 (3 eps), and Our Lady J 👩🏼👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (2 eps)
Reviewed by Andrew 👨🏻🇺🇸🌈
By now, the hype surrounding FX’s Pose among certain corners of the internet have reached their crescendo (see here, here, and here). Set in the ballroom culture of Harlem in the late 1980s, during the twilight of the Reagan era and the height of the AIDS crisis, Pose tells the story of Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez), a trans woman who finds out in that she is HIV-positive. The sobering news inspires her to leave the storied House of Abundance so she can start crafting the legacy she will leave behind. To her, the only way to do this is to establish her own legendary house—the House of Evangelista—and to outshine her fabulous, if dictatorial, “mother”, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson).
Blanca quickly unites Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a talented teenage dancer run out of his parents’ home for being gay, Angel (Indya Moore), a fellow trans ball walker, and street-smart hustlers Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) and Ricky (Dyllón Burnside). The oppressive, greed-addled world of 1980s New York City looms over them all, as the two houses make power plays and settle scores on their own terms—at the balls, presided over by emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter).
Nothing could bring this period show to life better than its soundtrack, which is thankfully on Spotify to listen to (on repeat). From disco hits by Donna Summer and Sylvester, a pioneering gay recording artist, to 80s dance and R&B classics which have become drag standards like Klymaxx’s “Meeting in the Ladies Room” and Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent,” Pose’s soundtrack heightens the exuberance of the glitter-filled competitions and provides emotional depth to the show's more heart-wrenching moments.
In fact, Pose pulls at the heartstrings in ways that Murphy’s most recent production, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, never quite achieves. While both deal with LGBTQ issues, American Crime Story uses stilted dialogue to express Cunanan’s struggle with his homosexuality and place in life. In contrast, Pose handles these conversations with earnestness and a sense of full-bodied reality that could only come from lived experience. Indeed, much of this is undoubtedly due to the work of prominent trans voices, Janet Mock and Our Lady J, as well as to the guidance of co-creator Steven Canals, who grew up in New York City as a gay person of color in this time period.
In short, the hype is well deserved. Beyond its credentials as a groundbreaking show that focuses on trans characters and casts them authentically, Pose is beautifully shot, well-paced, and well-written. It suffers only from a few scenes that drag for a bit, and a smattering of lines that feel a touch melodramatic. Nevertheless, Pose takes viewers from raw emotion to joyful, irreverent ballroom scenes, episode after episode without skipping a beat.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The three main plot drivers of Pose, Blanca, Elektra, and Angel, are trans women who emerge as fully developed characters. We see them in all their complexities—in moments of empowerment, strength, despair, and fragility alike as they tackle intimate issues like gender confirmation surgery or the AIDS epidemic.
In addition to drawing complex women, Pose also sheds light on a topic seldom explored on television: the divide between cisgender and trans worlds. The conversation between Angel and Patty (Kate Mara), the wife of Angel’s boyfriend Stan (Evan Peters), provides an excellent example. Patty is unaware of Angel’s identity as a trans woman at first and approaches her calmly, standing almost in solidarity with Angel. Rather than blaming her for Stan’s indiscretions, she clearly blames her husband. Once Angel reveals herself to be trans, however, Patty’s demeanor immediately changes to puzzled curiosity at best and disgusted horror at worst. How Angel handles Patty’s request to see her genitals, as if seeing it will tell her more about who Angel really is, is one of the most memorable scenes of the season.
Other relationships between cis and trans women bear more positive fruit. Blanca’s friendship with Damon’s dance teacher, Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard), provides Blanca with a mentor on de facto motherhood—Helena as a teacher, and Blanca as the mother of a house. The fact that Pose can fit such complicated relationships between women of such varied backgrounds is truly impressive.
With the exception of Stan, Patty, and Stan’s boss Matt Bromley (James Van Der Beek), characters of color inhabit this show. As the Harlem ballroom scene in the 80s was nearly entirely black and Latinx, this is as it should be. Trans drag star Jiggly Caliente, who is Filipina American, even appears in two episodes. As mentioned earlier, the behind-the-scenes work of Janet Mock and Steven Canals, as well as Ryan Murphy’s dedication to “getting it right” by giving them the wheel, has allowed Pose to hit all the right notes.
The show’s treatment of race goes beyond simple representation. Pose shows how the ball community used and played with the concept of race. The concept of “realness”, appearing as something that you are not, is central to drag and to ball culture. For many of the marquee categories like model realness or femme queen, one is not only supposed to look like a gorgeous woman, but (thanks to Western-normative standards of beauty) a gorgeous white woman.
Elektra uses her realness to her advantage. She believes deeply in its ability to give her power and access to places that other black women, especially trans black women, would not normally have. When Blanca reveals she’s leaving the House of Abundance, for example, Elektra reads her by pointing out how she, unlike Blanca, can go to any expensive store on 5th Avenue and get waited on “like any other white woman.”
Contrast this to Angel’s experience of applying for a job at a high-end cosmetics store. When Angel is sent away in humiliation by the white saleslady at the counter, who lies and tells her that they are not hiring despite their want ad, it isn’t because she is trans; it’s because she is a woman of color in an exclusively white space.
Unsurprisingly, Pose scores perfectly on LGBTQ representation. Aside from portraying realistic transgender characters, the show also provides a multifaceted look at gay men of color during this time period. Homages are paid to historic sites like the now-demolished St. Vincent’s Medical Center, which established the first AIDS ward on the East Coast, to scenes of playful voguing on the Christopher Street Pier, which was a crucial safe haven for homeless LGBTQ youth that established itself as early as World War I, when it was a popular cruising spot for gay men.
Queer romances weave in and out of the show as naturally as its other storylines. Specifically, two same-sex relationships enjoy longer arcs: the almost too-innocent puppy love between Damon and Ricky, and the heartbreaking plot of Pray Tell caring for his boyfriend Costas (Johnny Sibilly), who is dying from AIDS. In both relationships, Pose avoids clichés about gay relationships being purely physical or promiscuous.
Neither does it paint an overly rosy picture of inter-LGBTQ community relations. The show wisely takes on anti-trans sentiment among gay men. In the second episode, Blanca is thrown out of a gay bar (filmed at the venerable Julius’ Bar) simply for trying to have a celebratory drink. The bigoted response of the cis-male gay patrons and staff toward Blanca is initially hard to believe, but any time spent reading the comments section of a Drag Race-related article will make it clear that transphobia remains widespread among cis gay men today. Blanca’s final appeal to the one gay man of color at the bar, and his rebuff telling her that she doesn’t belong there, further drives the point home that inter-LGBTQ solidarity is all-too-often disappointingly shallow.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.94/5
Pose lives up to its promise of a fabulous look at 80s ball culture in New York City. Thanks to an impressive and diverse team, both in front of and behind camera, voices that have spent too long on the margins finally find themselves centered, sympathetic, and nuanced.
As the show heads into its second season, let’s hope that it keeps breaking ground and breaking down barriers for trans people, people of color, and the LGBTQ community as a whole.