A show about black trans women and queer men living through the AIDS crisis in ‘80s New York, set against the backdrop of ball culture no less, sounds implausible at this point in human history. Despite the obvious and intense pushback from the artists of America to the Trump administration, sentiments surrounding transness, race, and the ever-present wounds of the Reagan era-policy on AIDs still feel too fresh for any major media network to breach. Pose, the latest offering from Ryan Murphy on FX (home to his more controversial offerings), feels like an unexpected war cry from a man mostly notable for his heavily debated offerings to the gay culture buffet. Shade, maybe—but the story of Ryan Murphy from the failed Popular to the critically acclaimed American Crime Story anthology is a tale told across countless networks, genres, and Senate majorities. The world has radically changed since 1999, and Pose is proof that above all, Ryan Murphy has changed with it.
So we begin.
Pose features five trans women, countless queer and gay men, and definitely the least white rendering of New York City in recent memory. It starts not with a bang, or even a shout. Our portal into the world of 1987 is a disco ball. As the camera pulls out we’re treated to the sight of trans women celebrating themselves and each other. Lashes are curled and hair is teased and nails are painted and bodies move to the sounds of Madonna. This is a visual trope that Pose relishes in (and ushers the audience into frequently throughout its initial run of episodes). As a trans woman with a community of sisters, this opening scene felt like coming home. The ease in which these actresses shaded, laughed with, and danced among each other spoke volumes to the power of self-expression. Our media landscape is fraught with representations of transness from people so far removed from any sense of community or identity that the characters they embody feel cold—isolating even. Pose, conversely, is an architectural masterpiece with craftswomen clearly fueled by Estradiol and Spironolactone.
We’re also treated to another genetic trait of Ryan Murphy in these opening scenes—a huge ensemble cast spanning all flavors of personhood. A standout is house mother Elektra Abundance, played by the incisive and striking Dominique Jackson. You wouldn’t know this is her first starring role when she spits what I’m already calling to be the iconic opening lines: “Why are you conversing on matters so benign… It is time we remind the world who we are.” It’s a clear callback to the Alexis Carrington’s of TV that betrays a lineage of complicated, amoral women at the center of all of Murphy’s productions. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder where Jackson was for the last few Jessica Lange roles on AHS. But she’s just one in a cast bursting with charisma, uniqueness, nerve...and, well, talent! Mj Rodriguez plays the familiar Blanca—scorned by her house mother for wanting to stake her own claim in the ballroom world in the wake of an HIV+ diagnosis. Angel, another House of Abundance cast-off who joins Blanca in her new adventure, is played by the infectious Indya Moore. Previously a model for the likes of Dior and Gucci, her on-screen persona is practically radioactive with a career spent modeling couture.
Other standouts include Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay dancer kicked out of his home who finds himself in Blanca’s new house. And my personal favorite, the magnanimous Pray Tell, played by a charismatic Billy Porter. Pray Tell operates as a sort of fairy-like Greek chorus to the lives of our ensemble. He emcees the balls, designs the clothes for their debuts, narrates the banality of existence in ‘80s NYC, and above all, welcomes the audience at least twice an episode into the legendary ballrooms once walked by the houses of Ebony, Pendavis, St. Laurent, Ninja, Extravaganza, and many more. These ballroom sequences are where this show truly shines. The women and men who compete from their respective houses are practically celebrated by the camera. Each one is allowed a screen time previously denied to queer people on television. My notes for Pose’s initial episodes frequently include passages on the magnetic quality of the queerness onscreen. It’s almost as if the cameramen broke from their pre-designed shot lists to fixate on the bodies in motion because their presence was too revelatory to cut away from.
And what better way to revel in this further than have almost half your cast commit a radical act of class warfare and steal priceless jewelry and royal garb from an undisclosed Manhattan museum? The deliciousness of these trans women robbing from the architects of colonialism was almost too much to handle (but I shouted with joy and laughter nonetheless).
Halfway through the first episode, Pray Tell summons a callback to an iconic ballroom staple that shocked me, even if it should’ve been expected in a show purporting to be as true to life as this. “YOU OWN EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING IS YOURS!” It fit nicely in the themes of royalty and familial lineage that ran through much of the show’s early plotlines.
Further, the frequent use of mirrors as reflections and mediums for conversation were a nice aesthetic touch to the ever-present duality that decorates each episode. Elektra, in both her opening monologue and the scene in which she banishes Blanca, uses the mirror she’s getting ready in to magnify her power and emotions. Reflections in windows also arise frequently—Evan Peters looking down on Manhattan from Trump Tower and Blanca looking down at the streets of NYC from her new apartment. Mirrors also magnify the costumes these characters wear: Elektra in her couture, Angel in the fur she walks the streets in, Stan in his business attire, and Pray Tell in his colorful suits and capes. Pose reminds us that each of us go through life in drag, regardless of its form.
As mentioned previously, Trump casts a long shadow in the artistic mediums of the present. Fittingly, Murphy has written Pose in a way that allows Trump Tower to loom over much of the early plot. Stan Bowes, played by a shockingly grown up Evan Peters, is a new executive at the Trump Organization. Despite the eye-rolling accuracy of his buttoned-up wife (Kate Mara) and family life, he still finds himself trolling the piers for sex workers. Here he meets Angel in one of the more expected plot lines. “Straight” men sleeping with trans women has been an experience since the dawn of time, and it should come as no surprise that such a storyline is bundled in this revelatory new series. While their first scene in bed together induced a few eye rolls amongst me and my sisters, I appreciated Angel’s body being treated as any other on television. More frequently than not, trans women are subjected to narratives that sensationalize our bodies and sexual experiences. For all intents and purposes, Angel stripping to her lingerie for Stan was one of the more regular sexual encounters I’ve witnessed on television. Of all of Pose’s various narrative threads, the interior lives of Stan and his wife were the least interesting. Necessary, maybe, for contrast. But why spend ten minutes watching them eat lobster at an exclusive high-rise restaurant when there are balls down below filled with lights, colors, and the sounds of Janet Jackson?
More than anything, Pose is a show about trans women and queer people celebrating and supporting one another in the face of a world that has cast them aside. The most heartwarming and tear-inducing of these moments comes when Blanca advocates for her newfound son Damon. Having missed the deadline to apply for The New School of Dance, she practically kicks the door down to get him an audition. One of the most memorable lines of the premiere came from Blanca, responding to Damon’s embarrassment at her barging into the Dean’s office. “We don’t have the luxury of shame.” It speaks to the greater implications of each character’s life: what does one do when the entire world has turned itself against you?
The joy on Ms. St. Roger’s (Charlayne Woodard) face when Damon bursts into his audition backed by Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” shook me in ways television hasn’t in quite some time. Again, Pray Tell hits it right on the money with his proverb to Blanca’s new House of Evangelista: “Houses are homes for the little boys and girls that never had one.” Pose, in it’s own way, feels like a house. And all of us still living through the grind of transmisogyny, racism, homophobia—we all get to come home, Sunday after Sunday, to the ballrooms of Pose.
Joan Summers is a filmmaker and writer from, born, and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more on her acclaimed podcast “EATING FOR FREE,” visit eatingforfree.com. Keep up with Joan on Twitter and Instagram.