Television

‘Pose’: An ode to 1980s New York, diversity, and a time when Donald Trump was just a businessman

The new American television series brings a little-known queer subculture to the mainstream.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.