And the Category is….80’s Realness
It’s been said that Trans is the New Black. Transgender people have always been part of our community and have often been in the forefront in the struggle for equal rights, from the Stonewall Riots onwards. The last few years have seen an emergence of trans visibility and awareness, if not acceptance. Transgender people still face discrimination and prejudice from not only broader society as a whole, but also from within the LGBT community itself. Trans stories in film and television are not a new phenomenon: The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry, Transamerica, Orange is the New Black are some that come to mind. But never has there been a depiction where trans people take centre stage and are portrayed by trans actors until the arrival of Pose, Ryan Murphy’s spectacular new series. The show features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles ever, as well as the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever for a scripted series.
Taking its cue from Jennie Livingstone’s ground-breaking 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning which chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it, Pose explores the guts and glamour of New York’s ballroom scene, as well as tackling other issues such as AIDS, homophobia, closetry, and homelessness.
The action begins in New York City in 1987, incidentally the same year as Paris is Burning is set. AIDS is devastating the gay community and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Reaganomics is taking its toll on marginalised communities. Homophobia is rife. Pose juxtaposes the ball culture world, the rise of the luxury Trump-era universe, and essentially tells the story of a marginalised community where people are ostracised from their families and society in general.
The balls along with the houses that competed in them are a survival mechanism, an escape from the harsh realities of life. They are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else; they are a place where you can be who you want to be.
The Houses that compete in the balls are led by a Mother. They are not solely about the competition, they are alternative families and the “children” are often refugees from their biological families who have disowned them for being gay or non-gender conforming .A house is a family you get to choose. The action in Pose centres around the rivalry between Blanca (played by Mj Rodriguez) of the House of Extravaganza, and her former house mother Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson). Damon is a homeless dancer who joins Blanca’s house. Together, they compete in the balls — where house members challenge each other in various categories (such as Butch Queen; Executive Realness; Town and Country) and are judged on their outfits, attitude, or dance skills. Billy Porter plays Pray Tell, the MC and Godfather to the children who compete in the balls. Angel (Indya Moore) is a streetwalker who gets involved with a new client, Stan (Evan Peters) a sexually confused married man from suburbia. James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek fame co-stars as Stan’s boss from the Trump Organisation
Ryan Murphy has created an incredibly engaging story of creativity, courage, compassion, love and family at a pivotal time in American culture. He consulted with people involved in the Ballroom scene of thirty years ago, to the extent that the ball judges in the series are in fact all famous figures from the era. Murphy explains: “The first thing that I did is meet with three of the survivors of Paris Is Burning, who are judges in every episode of Pose. They’re always there. I just wanted to meet them and let them know that I wanted to not take their story but make them a part of the show”. They gave him some of the show’s best details lending authenticity to the series. The stories they told Murphy were often stranger than fiction. For example: “The museum heist that opens the pilot, that’s a true story,” Murphy said.
AIDS looms large in Pose. A lot of the younger generation does not realise how devastating AIDS was and Murphy says: “We have very little history. All of the men who would probably be our mentors were taken away at the prime of their life. … What I’m trying to do with a lot of my work is leave a living history and educate people,” Murphy said. Characters like Pray Tell, whose lover dies of the plague, and who tests positive for HIV, reminisces about the post-Stonewall euphoria of gay life before AIDS. He gives a speech about how the younger generation of gay men would never know what it was like to not live in fear of AIDS — but to know what it was like to have freedom and then take it away, what was worse?
But Pose is by no means dark or depressing. It is often sad, but ultimately it is about choosing celebration against all the darkest of odds. Thanks to television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, (and RuPaul freely admits that he was heavily influenced by the Ballroom scene), much of the ballroom gayle has become pretty mainstream, in gay culture at least. Phrases such as “sashay”, “chantay” and “throwing shade” come to mind. Madonna appropriated her song Voguefrom the ballroom culture, although some say that Malcolm McLaren’s Deep in Vogue does it better. Pose is a gorgeous production with some unforgettable characters and performances. Elektra Abundance, the epitome of 80s glamour and bitchiness, comes to mind. She is Alexis Carrington, Dominique Deveraux and Wilhelmina Slater rolled into one giant shoulder pad.
Let Ryan Murphy have the final word. “What I’ve been trying do is show this community in the way that I see them: beauty and glamour and lights and music. That’s how we as gay people and trans people have gotten through our pain.”
Pose can be viewed in South Africa on Netflix.
Paris is Burning is also currently streaming on Netflix.