American drama series Pose recreates New York City of the 1980s – a time when ballroom culture, an underground subset of the LGBT movement, was at its peak. Peopled mostly by queer persons of colour, the ball was an eclectic mix of modelling and dancing competitions that promised monetary compensation and bragging rights to the winner.
Participants in the ball belonged to different “houses” – family-sized communities of queer people ruled by a “mother”. Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) is a black trans woman who dreams of starting her own house so that she can be freed of the influence of Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the mother of the Abundance house of which Blanca is a member.
Pose was premiered on FX on June 3. At the beginning of the first episode, Blanca learns that she is HIV positive. The virus, still to make its impact on the LGBT community fully known, returns as an omnipotent threat in other episodes. Determined to strike out on her own, she begins to seek out members for her nascent house. One of these is Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a gay teenager crazy about ballet who has been kicked out by his parents.
Even within the genre of LGBT programming, Pose is different because it focuses on people of colour. In a moving scene, Blanca and a trans friend are asked to leave a gay bar that caters exclusively to white men. Blanca, determined to protest this unfairness, returns repeatedly to claim her place at the bar until she is violently removed from it.
Pose also juxtaposes the underground LGBT scene with the more conventional, demandingly aspirational lifestyle of the 1980s – and in doing so, harks back to a time when Donald Trump was known only as a real estate mogul. This intersection happens through the story of Angel (Indya Moore), a trans woman who makes a living as a sex worker and Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), a manager at the Trump Organisation with a wife and child.
Unsure about his feelings for Angel, Stan both ignores and pines for her, even as he struggles to live the life of a senior executive. In one scene, he denies his wife’s request to buy a dishwasher because they have splurged on a $900 gown that Stan believed she needed to be seen in at an important company dinner.
Ryan Murphy, who headlined American Horror Story and the musical Glee, has said that through Pose, he was keen to bring out an aspect of LGBT culture that has so far remained hidden from mainstream content. This makes Pose a many-themed show, reiterating the mix of serious and flippant that marked LGBT lives.
One instance of this is the importance with which Blanca and Elektra take the Legendary Runway category at the ball, reserved for house mothers. The viewer may find an initial dissonance between the struggle of their private lives and their tendency to fight, cat-like, for a showy title. But look deeper, and the dissonance dissipates. The ball, the house, the adopted families are all communities LGBT people formed by sheer force of will. Disowned by families, torn between their selves and their god, unsure how to love and make love, these men and women teetered on the brink of physical and emotional security. What looks like feline behaviour from the outside is really a way of establishing turf in an intimate world.
When Damon returns from a night out with a date, he finds Blanca waiting up for him. What follows is a jovial but also deeply maternal conversation on safe sex between two people who are related by nothing but their queerness. In so comparing and contrasting the many strands of LGBT lifestyle, Pose offers a messy but also rich portrait of a community struggling to be of some consequence.