Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
It doesn’t matter where you look, nostalgia is everywhere. From Stranger Things and GLOW on Netflix to reboots of everything from Jurassic Park to Jumanji hitting the box office, the eighties and nineties have never been more fashionable. However, while most media of this type seeks to remind people of the stories they loved back then, Pose attempts to showcase the kind of narratives that are only now being allowed screen time.
This FX series, spearheaded by co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, affords viewers an intimate look at the New York ball scene of the eighties, as well as the personal and professional struggles of those who are a part of it. Predominantly queer, black and low income, the characters at the show’s heart are people often passed over when it comes to on-screen representation, let alone portrayals that are honest, nuanced, and multi-faceted.
Much of the series’ strength comes from the authenticity of the world it has built, and that is down to the key players both in front of and behind the camera. Not only is it the first American show to include so many trans characters in its core cast, but those characters are played by trans actresses. Not only that, but Murphy handed over much of the reigns to Janet Mock and Our Lady J, two trans women already established as television writers, producers and directors. It is always uncomfortably obvious when a program attempts to tackle issues completely alien to those sitting in the writers room but Pose never feels anything but entirely honest.
Of course, it is not the first piece of mainstream media to deal with the Reagan Era and the AIDs crises, and it’s not even the first to explore ball culture. Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Ru Paul’s Drag Race with be familiar with both the verbal and physical language being spoken, whether that’s reading, voguing, “Miss Thing” or “tens across the board”. Angels In America, which has both a star-studded HBO series and a 2018 Broadway revival, stormed the theatre scene with its depiction of the AIDs crisis and the Reagan Administration’s indifference to it, and is perhaps one of the most famous American plays in history. Those a little more versed in queer history may even have seen the formative documentary Paris Is Burning, and recognise some of the iconic house names, like Evangelista, Xtravangza and Pendavis, that are peppered throughout the ball scenes.
However, Pose is not reality TV or documentary, it’s not even entirely a drama. Its arcs are appropriate to its setting but entirely imagined and, while its characters would not be out of place walking the balls with the legendary mothers whose names we know, it is important to remember that they didn’t. Pose is a fictionalisation and an optimistic one at that, and so while it does not shy away from the harsh realities of life as a marginalised person in that era, its outlook is allowed to be far less bleak. This is seen everywhere, from the lightness of the dialogue to the whimsical way it shoots the city, but it is most obvious in Murphy and Mock’s reluctance to kill off core characters refusing to succumb to the “Bury Your Gays” trope even in a story where it would be both historically accurate and appropriate.
This lack of focus on tragedy leaves more room for the show to tackle its true central theme, one that is far more universal than you might expect. At its core, Pose is an exploration of families, and the unlikely ways we find and create them for ourselves. From bitter rivals helping each other out when the stakes get too high to handle alone, to strangers agreeing to open their hearts on the basis of shared experience alone, it’s a glowing testament to the fact that our chosen families can be just as valuable of a support system as those given to us by blood, maybe more so. That’s a moral many queer people will no doubt have had to become familiar with, but also the kind that can ring true in any sphere. Everyone can relate to the euphoria of finding their tribe, and the feeling of invincibility that comes with it.
If that sounds mushy or idealistic then that’s because it is, but Pose isn’t all tearful hugs and earnest conversations. It is also feisty, fast-paced and fiercely funny, with the drama that plays out on the ballroom floor as complex, tense and occasionally cut-throat as any episode of Game Of Thrones. Watching two people battle it out, whether through dance, posing or just walking, is as adrenaline-fueled and edge-of-your-seat as any action scene I can think of, with the added bonus of fabulous outfits, hilarious put downs, and moves you’ll want to try out in your living room as soon as the episode is over. Best of all, each fight is grounded in the knowledge that, if it truly came down to it, any member of any house, no matter how petty of vindictive, would be there to pull their worst enemy out of the gutter in a heartbeat.