“Pose”: Season One
Gender, Race, Sexuality and Class
Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” “gives good face from its opening moments.” Inside the house of Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), the musical beats of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” order a group of queens to strike a pose. The mood is a mix of warmth, sauciness, and narcissism that will make perfect sense to fans of “Paris is Burning”, Jennie Livingston’s documentary about the golden age of New York City’s drag balls.
“Pose” features the largest cast of transgender actors in history for a scripted television series exploring the drag ball scene which is defiant of gender norms and we see the internalized racism—the playing at being white—with apprehension. “Pose” reflects a more confused than confident image of that culture back to audiences.
This is a show about young people of color trying to loudly own their identities during the dawn of AIDS, but it doesn’t even try to pretend that New York City isn’t submerged in a sea of gentrification. Multiple references to Donald Trump—several characters work for his corporation suggest that Murphy may be playing some kind of game: that the aesthetic of the show will be placed in some kind of meta-conversation with the façade of Trump’s existence. The show’s characters are defined by their present conditions—looking forward toward a dream they probably know isn’t realistically within reach. Only Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young black dancer, gets any sort of backstory. He was kicked out of his house for being gay, made his way to New York and is eventually taken in by Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who’s recently estranged from Elektra and is looking to populate her House of Evangelista. Blanca is wise beyond her years announces that “We do not have the luxury of shame,” as she charges into the New School’s dance department, with Damon in tow. By the end of the episode, he’s auditioning for Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard), one of many characters throughout the series who are committed to being mothers to the lost queer boys and girls of the city.
“Pose” is at its best when devoted to advancing its representational politics. In another storyline, Angel (Indya Moore), a sex worker and recent House of Evangelista inductee, begins having an affair with a married businessman, Stan (Evan Peters). In a series dominated by people of color, almost all unknowns, the appearance of Peters and especially James Van Der Beek—playing a broadly drawn real estate hustler—initially feels like a focus-pulling blunder. But Murphy is careful to neither center Stan in the series’ narrative nor talk about his attraction to Angel. In fact, it’s Stan and Angel’s relationship that allows the series to widen its scope as a consideration of gender in relation to matters of race, sexuality, and class.
Stan and Angel’s scenes lay the foundation for our awareness of why characters like Elektra and Angel are so desperately driven to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, which promises them a certain freedom even as it threatens to alienate them from their lovers. There is a scene of Damon kissing Ricky (Ryllon Burnside)—a moment captured with a confrontational tenacity that feels like a rebuke to the melancholic sense of self-pity. It’s a scene that will surely be very important to any queer person of color unaccustomed to seeing their passions depicted on screen so openly and without shame.
Set in the 1980s, “Pose” looks at the juxtaposition of a few fragments of life and society in New York: the ascent of the extravagance Trump-time universe, the downtown social and artistic scene and the ball culture world. Diminishes and Mara star as New Jersey couple Stan and Patty, who get sucked into the fabulousness and interest of New York City back then.