Review: Pose

By Denmark Prosser

Pose harkens back to the 1980s New York ball scene.

Pose harkens back to the 1980s New York ball scene.

We have eventually reached the dog days of summer. This period is characterized by barbecues, hanging outside with your peeps, and all sorts of outdoor activities. Given this conventional wisdom, it is also a rather slack time for television viewing. Yet at the same time, it is a period when networks debut new shows to take advantage of a time when competition is more friendly. While many such experiments miss their mark, sometimes viewers strike gold. This is definitely the case with Pose.

The new show (well relatively new, it’s about six episdoes in. My bad, I came [fashionably] late to the party) is featured on FX and is largely the brainchild of Ryan Murphy. Although a White man known for shows such as Nip/Tuck and Scream Queens, he has shown signs of allyship. All of the profits that come from Pose is donated to LGBTQ charities. And although the show has a number of White execs, it also includes producers of color who either belong to or have shown a commitment to the LGBTQ community. This includes New York Times best-selling author Janet Mock and up and coming filmmaker Steven Canals.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, the show is ostensibly about the New York City ball scene in the 1980s. Yet, fittingly this is only a facade that lures viewers to the world inhabited by queer people of color. The characters grapple with the interlocking oppressions of racism and heteronormative patriarchy. These unjust systems are exacerbated in Ronald Reagan’s America where unequal distributions of wealth were unabashedly en vogue enough to give birth to the celebrity of Donald Trump (who is vaguely featured in the show).

While these themes are unmercifully villainous, perhaps the deadliest monster is the specter of AIDS, which was largely allowed to fester because many policymakers saw the disease as doing God or either Charles Darwin’s work. Given these barriers, you would think that the LGBTQ community would find common cause. Yet this community was, and in many ways, still has currents that divide gay men and women, cisgender and transexual, and Black and White.

Whereas people of color in the fractured LGBTQ community have no chance of tasting the overripened fruits of whiteness, they resist, survive, and revel in each other. The show’s lead, Blanca Rodriguez (MJ Rodriguez) forms a “house,” a practice which still occurs today. Houses provide not only tangible shelter that economically marginalized people need, but also refuge and a sense of belonging from all of the oppressive tentacles outlined in the previous paragraphs. The houses also compete against each other in balls where LGBTQ people of color can feel secure, free, and fabulous.

Pose, however, does not mythologize houses or LBGTQ people of color. They, like all people, have their own personality quirks. They are also wrestling with unhealthy ideals produced by White culture regarding colorism, body positivity, materialism, and the ability to pass into mainstream society.

In the throes of this, the viewer gets well developed, multi-layered characters and complex storytelling. The writing is exquisite and will often have you looking for tissue without forcing sentimentality on you. However, you, like me may be moved to anger if the show doesn’t get any Emmy nods, particularly Billy Porter’s masterful portrayal of Pray Tell, a doting patriarch of the ball scene who provides comfort and care to queer New Yorkers of color.

The show has reached the rarefied air of the upper echelon of shows in this current Black television renaissance. It joins such titansas Insecure and Atlanta. Like these shows, Pose also has a bomb soundtrack that will take you back to the 80s, i.e. synth drums and a lot of Janet Jackson, Sheila E., and Whitney Houston. The show reminds us that Vogue culture, which was previously and most prominently seen in the documentary Paris is Burning, grew up right alongside its sibling, hip hop. Pose puts in full relief the aesthetic borrowing of both genres and even popular terms like “read” and “shade” that  mainstream society uses today.

Perhaps even more importantly, Pose shows the strides that LGBTQ people of color have made in just a generation. It also brings to the fore the many mountains that still must be climbed. It loudly and proudly beckons to us that everyone, particularly our most vulnerable, are deserving of nothing less than true, unfettered freedom and the joy that springs from that divinely given right.

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