The first episode of Pose FX opens on a disco ball; we see a New York apartment filled with gorgeous guys and girls. While Pose is indeed a show filled with fun and glamour, it also deals with heavy themes. All the girls in the apartment are trans women and are either Black or Afro-Latina. Our protagonist is Afro-Latina Blanca, who discovers she is HIV positive. Pose, inspired by documentary Paris is Burning, explores the ballroom scene of the 80s. Blanca leaves the house of her dramatic antagonist Elektra Wintour to form her own house; the first member is Black and gay Damon, who was kicked out of his family home because of his sexuality.
I find it interesting how Pose explores intersectionality by contrasting the experiences of the trans women and the cisgender gay men in the ballroom community. Damon, at first, construes the ballroom scene as a place for drag queens and later apologises to Blanca. She highlights that she is the only minority group below him on a structural level. In a later episode, Blanca is treated as an outsider in a gay bar that caters to white men. Pray Tell, the gay emcee of the ball and Blanca’s best friend, is a mostly benevolent character who has many great quips, but nonetheless, even he imposes pressures upon his trans friends by having “Realness” competitions where curvy, “passing” women win. He often mocks trans women who don’t fit heteronormative, curvy body image. Therefore, while Pose shows the tribulations of the Black, gay men of the show during the AIDS epidemic, it stresses that trans women have added stressors of transmisogyny.
Regardless, the women of Pose experience greater transmisogyny under white, cis and often wealthy men. Elektra and Angel mirror each other in their relationships with these men. Elektra is the sugar baby of a man who is adamant that she doesn’t undergo sex reassignment surgery. Angel is a sex worker who crosses paths with married Wall Street worker Stan (played by Evan Peters). While Stan is a complex character with internal struggles around identity, it is made clear that he does fetishise Angel for being a pre-op trans woman. Both are intensely risky relationships, not only due to their taboo nature for the time, but also due to the financial control these men have over the women. The second series delves deeper into violence against trans women, particularly sex workers. I obviously won’t spoil, but they are difficult scenes to digest. Nonetheless, they are tragically important to pay attention to, as even though 30 years have passed, not much has changed.
Pose isn’t always an easy watch, especially with the prescient nature of the AIDS epidemic and the violence against trans women of colour. Despite this, it is also an incredibly funny and hopeful show, which makes it so much easier to digest. While all the characters are flawed, the show highlights the importance of family. Despite the progress that is slowly happening, I still cannot believe that a show like this exists today. It’s so beautiful and essential that actual trans actors play trans characters in the show. As the documentary Disclosure suggests, I believe misconceptions about trans women are partly due to films like The Danish Girl having cis men playing trans women. Remember, the Black Lives Matter movement also includes anybody who is LGBTQ!