FX recently debuted a new tv series by Ryan Murphy, and I’m really enjoying it, so I’m going to post about it, even though it’s only on its first season and I’ve only seen the first four episodes, which are all that’s been broadcast.
Pose is Murphy’s effort to present the ball culture of Harlem in the 1980s to modern Americans. The show serves as an examination of the lives of gay and trans black people in that period, the AIDS Crisis, and the whole ‘Greed is Good” era, all at once. Its four main characters are Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a latina transwoman; Angel (Indya Moore), a latina transwoman; Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay black man; and Stan (Evan Peters), a white stock broker who works in Trump Tower.
Ball Culture has its roots as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when an annual drag ball was an important social occasion in the black community. Modern Ball Culture was founded around 1968 when a black drag queen, Crystal LaBeija, became frustrated with the racism of mainstream drag pageants and chose to found her own pageant for black drag queens, the House of LaBeija Ball. By 1987, when the show opens, Ball Culture was flourishing within the Harlem gay and trans community (and it still continues today).
In this culture, a Ball is a combination fashion show and dance competition. Competitors participate in various categories such as Military, Royalty, Femme Queen Realness, or Butch Queen in Pumps. Competitors were judged on their costuming, their appearance and attitude, and their dance skills. There are two somewhat contradictory goals that need to be achieved in order to score well. First, the competitor had to demonstrate ‘realness’, roughly defined as the ability to pass as a member of the category within the boundaries of straight white culture. Second, the competitor had to demonstrate an ability to call attention to themselves in a dramatic way, particularly with the extremely flamboyant style of improv dancing known as Voguing (made famous in 1990 by Madonna’s Vogue video), which makes use of elements like catwalking, duckwalking, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.
Ball Culture was (and still is) an expression of the complex social needs of black and latinx gay and trans people. Since these people tended to be rather poor, the balls gave them a fantasy of being well-off and ‘respectable’, while at the same time poking fun at a majority culture they couldn’t easily participate in. But it also showcased an important skill that many blacks and gays have to learn within a wider white heterosexual majority culture, namely the ability to pass as whiter, wealthier, and straighter than they actually are. The ability to pass as straight and middle class, for example, might enable a poor black woman to successfully navigate an encounter with a hostile bureaucrat or enable a gay man to avoid getting beaten up or denied a job. So while the balls were extremely playful, they were also a sort of training ground in which those who can figure out how to pass were rewarded by winning trophies while those who cannot pull off the intended look are scorned with poor judges’ scores and snide comments. While a majority of the contestants were gay or trans, there were categories, such as Military or Business Suit, where straight black men might compete in demonstrations of traditional masculinity, and black women had similar opportunities to showcase traditional femininity.
Because such a large portion of the Ball Culture were social outcasts due to their homosexuality or their improper gender identity, Ball Culture developed the idea of the House. Houses acted as alternative families whose members supported each other and often lived together. Houses were typically led by older or more successful members known as Mothers or Fathers who provided guidance, training in key skills, moral and social support, and perhaps economic assistance to their ‘children’. Members of a House usually adopted the last name used by their Mother or Father. For example, Crystal LaBeija’s ‘family’ were the House of LaBeija, and when Crystal died in 1982, another member, Pepper LaBeija, became the new Mother. Since Pepper’s death, the current Mother of the House is Kia LaBeija.
Ball Culture is the background to Pose. In the first episode, Blanca is a rather frustrated member of House Abundance, whose mother Elektra (Dominque Jackson) is both acid-tongued and ‘legendary’, meaning that she and her children have won a lot of ball trophies. She’s a tough, bitter transwoman who has a keen understanding of both how to make a splash at a ball and how harshly life can treat transwomen. She takes out her frustrations on Blanca and in the pilot she steals Blanca’s idea for a Royalty walk and then literally leads her children on a stealing spree from a museum. Later in the episode, Blanca gets the news that she’s HIV positive and this, coupled with her irritation with Elektra, goads her to strike out on her own and form the House of Evangelista. She recruits Angel, Damon, and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) into her house and moves them into a spacious but decaying apartment that she can somehow afford on her income as a nail technician.
In addition to its look into the world of Ball Culture, what I like most about Pose is its willingness to explore the tough lives and choices that gay and trans black people had in the 1980s. Damon, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, is thrown out of his house by his parents because he’s gay, and he spends time homeless before Blanca invites him into her apartment and her House. Angel, like too many transwomen, is a prostitute and stripper at a peep show, at least until she meets Stan. Lil Papi is dealing drugs, despite Blanca’s ban on it. The show generally makes clear that its characters are poor and living a hardscrabble life, although it occasionally gets into a certain amount of fantasy about what’s possible; for example Damon’s homeless boyfriend somehow manages to keep his gorgeous jacket in pristine condition despite life on the street. But most of the characters engage in ‘mopping’ (shoplifting) to find items to wear in the balls.
The show is also particularly honest about its trans characters and the struggles they face. The show set a record for the highest number of trans actors in leading or recurring roles (five); Blanca, Elektra, and Angel are all played by trans actresses. These three characters all offer distinct viewpoints on the trans experience. Angel, despite being a prostitute, has a somewhat naïve longing for a traditional romantic life and when she meets Stan, she agrees to let him set her up in her own apartment and be a kept woman. Despite knowing that Stan is married with kids, she tries to engineer a semblance of a normal life with him, but cannot help but worry about his wife. She struggles to understand how a man who says he’s not gay can be attracted to a woman with a penis.
Elektra is also a kept woman, but she has years of bitter experience that have made her hard; she has a keen sense of the limitations that transwomen of color face and her prescription for climbing the ladder is to accept those limits and learn to game them. At one point, she uses her ability to pass as a woman of means to sweet-talk a police officer into releasing Blanca after the latter is arrested. At the same time, while she looks down on many of the transwomen in the show, she is not above resorting to criminal behavior to achieve her goals. She longs to have what the show refers to as “transsexualism surgery”, but her man warns her that if she goes through with it, he’ll end the relationship.
Blanca, however, sees a better world, a promised land for transwomen where they can at least be fully accepted in the gay community; early on she stages a defiant protest of a gay bar that caters to butch gay men and refuses to serve transwomen. This is a particularly nice touch. As gay culture has been presented in the mainstream media, gay men are generally depicted to being fully accepting of transwomen (if transwomen are depicted at all). In reality, transwomen have occupied a complex place in gay society. While queens and effeminate men were the driving force behind the Stonewall Riots, the more butch elements of the gay community have often been unwilling to fully accept them; draq queens and transwomen are celebrated as entertainers but often rejected as sexual partners and scorned for being too effeminate. (On contemporary gay dating sites and apps, it’s common for men to describe themselves as ‘straight-acting’ or to say ‘no fems’.) So it’s good for a show to explore that tension a little bit.
The show also explores the realities of the AIDS Crisis. Blanca’s realization that she doesn’t have a long life ahead of her spurs her to try to build up something that will last, namely a House that will become legendary but will also take better care of its children than Elektra does hers. In the fourth episode, Damon gets sick and Angel discusses the symptoms of seroconversion with him, one of the more frank discussions of HIV I’ve seen on television. The emcee for the balls, Pray Tell (the stand-out Billy Porter), has a boyfriend Costas who is dying of AIDS, and apparently he’s had more than one, as so many gay men in the 80s and 90s did. When he visits the hospital, he discovers that the nurse on duty has refused to bring Costas’ food into his room, and has just left it out in the hallway. That sort of callous, fear-driven treatment of AIDS patients was sadly common in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, and it highlights the need for chosen family of the sort that Houses provided. Thousands of gay men died abandoned by families and medical practitioners, often having to be nursed at home by a lover or gay friend because they either couldn’t afford medical treatment or because hospitals treated them so poorly. At one point Pray Tell discusses how the AIDS Crisis weighs on him and his sex life, and says “I’m scared.” Blanca replies “What is scared to people like us? It’s like water to a fish.” That’s probably the best one-sentence summary of gay life in the late 80s I’ve ever heard.
Refreshingly, the show avoids stigmatizing its characters’ sexual choices. Angel’s life as a sex worker is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, without any shaming of her for it. There’s no indication of how Blanca got infected; was it from a boyfriend, or did she, like Angel have to turn tricks at some point? Damon’s decision to give up his virginity to his boyfriend is explored as a serious choice, the same way it would have been with a straight white teen character, and Blanca gives him a very frank lecture about the realities of gay sex, even explaining that in gay sex there are ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. Lil Papi admits to have allowing guys to give him blow jobs for money. Stan is shown using a condom when he has sex with Angel.
Meanwhile, Stan struggles with the suffocating materialism of 1980s corporate culture. He’s trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, keep his wife happy, and earn the bonuses that are a measure of status in his social group, and Angel seems like his lifeline to something real and genuine and only for him. James van der Beek plays his Gordon Gecko-like boss with crass enthusiasm; apparently Dawson grew up and sold his soul. The contrast between Stan’s wealth and the other characters’ poverty offers an implicit criticism of Reagan-era economics.
Overall, I really applaud Pose for its choice to focus on such an under-represented segment of society and for its efforts to be relatively honest about the challenges this community had to deal with. Thus far, the show has focused on its characters as sexual minorities and has not really looked at them as racial minorities. I hope it does, because understanding the layered nature of their minority status is key to understanding them. They are not just a sexual minority, they are also racial minorities and in several cases gender minorities as well. The gay community has not fully reckoned with the degree to which white privilege permeates its lobbying efforts, and Pose could help address that problem. Give the show a look.
Want to Know More?
Pose is on FX. The best introduction to Ball Culture is Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning. It’s an excellent introduction to the major elements of the culture, told primarily through interviews. It is also a good window into the lives of black and latinx gays and transwomen, who discuss their dreams and aspirations.