Ryan Murphy’s Pose, set in 1987 New York City, focuses on gay and transgender people of color at a time when AIDS was a death sentence and when ball culture, the competitive dance-offs where vogueing originated, was thriving downtown. But while the show is set in the past, it’s a model for on-screen representation in the present. It has the largest cast of transgender actors ever assembled, and LGBTQ people fill out the cast, crew, writing staff, and production team. Pose—which premieres Sunday on FX—is a vibrant celebration of trans and gay creativity, but it’s also a show on a mission, not only to showcase LBGTQ life, but to demonstrate how that life can be put on-screen respectfully and appropriately. It’s a TV show from one of the most canny creators working today, yet as a viewing experience it can feel like an object lesson.
As the series begins, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a trans woman who is a member of the House of Abundance, strikes out on her own. “Houses” are surrogate families that provided safety, shelter, food and connection for gay and transgender young people who had often been abandoned by their own parents. As chronicled in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, which is almost mandatory supplementary material for Pose, houses competed at the balls in categories like “Executive Realness” and “High Fashion Winter Sportswear: The Poconos vs. The Catskills.” These were then subjectively scored by a panel of judges, looking for, among other things, the aforementioned “realness,” the ability to pass as that which one is dressing up as with style, flair, and confidence. Winners received trophies, but of the Little League variety, a ticky-tackyness that underscored what the real prize was: recognition, respect, fame, insular as it may have been.
Blanca wants to make her mark on the world and the ball scene by starting her own house. She swiftly recruits Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a 17-year-old gay dancer who has been sleeping on park benches after being beaten and thrown out of his house. Joining them is Angel (Indya Moore), a trans woman who strikes up a long-term relationship with Stan (Evan Peters), a married up-and-comer in Donald Trump’s business organization. Stan works for a slimy cokehead played by James Van Der Beek, but these rich white men stay, largely, at the fringes of the show. The series is set primarily in and around Blanca’s house and the balls, which are populated by a large number of recurring characters, including the witty Pray Tell (Billy Porter) the balls’ emcee, and Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson): sharp-tongued narcissist, ball legend, and the glamorous mother of the House of Abundance.
In a recent New Yorker profile of Murphy by Emily Nussbaum, Murphy said that Elektra was his favorite part—“the one he acted out in the writers’ room”—and it’s no wonder. Elektra is, in fact, the only character who is reliably allowed to be obnoxious, mean-spirited, and petty. I looked forward to her bitingly bitchy appearances, the only thing that could draw out the same in the otherwise tough and saintly Blanca. “You’re a regular transvestite Norma Rae,” Elektra says, a breath of fresh, insulting air about Blanca’s commitment to getting a gay bar, frequented only by white men, to serve her. Blanca, a devoted and thoughtful house mother, wants to show her charges that they can change the world and address injustice. She puts a premium on education and safe sex. She forbids stealing and drugs. She insists that Damon try out for an esteemed dance program and then, after he blows a deadline, movingly talks him into an audition. She gives perfect Christmas presents and learns the harrowing results of AIDS tests with gumption and spirit and no wallowing. Blanca, like almost all of the LBGTQ characters on the show, is admirable, resourceful, strong, and well-meaning. But instead of being humanizing, it feels cardboard-izing: She does not seem quite like a real person.
In shows like Glee, Nip/Tuck, and American Horror Story, Murphy juxtaposed glitzy, Technicolor, big-hearted earnestness with funny banter and nasty behavior. Typically, in a Ryan Murphy series, the show “reads” its characters—that’s a term straight out of ball culture used to describe sizing someone up and telling them the honest, unvarnished, awful truth about themselves. It can be jarring, as it was on Glee when the show kept calling its male lead fat. But Pose goes to the other, gentler extreme. The world is cruel to its characters, so the show refuses to be. Thus, Pose finds itself in the odd position of being the least catty, least sharp-eyed of Ryan Murphy shows, even as it’s set in a demimonde that values these qualities above all else.
There are many moments in Pose that are wonderfully moving as well as being real steps forward in on-screen LBGTQ representation. I’m thinking particularly of Damon’s decision to lose his virginity, which is given the sweet first-love treatment, as well as the conversations about sex that take place between Angel and Stan and Electra and her long-term lover, which present sexuality as so much more than just binary. But there is through the first four episodes a kind of ahistorical gentleness, a cheerleading quality that is apparent even in the show’s aesthetic. Set in gritty 1980s New York around what is supposed to be the derelict Christopher Street piers, the show barely looks gritty at all. It doesn’t have to be The Deuce, but in the ball scenes, no one even sweats.
Jill Soloway’s Transparent, with which Pose shares at last one writer, Lady J, is an instructive comparison. Transparent’s progressive bona fides are in nowhere near as good order as Pose’s. It’s a show largely about affluent white people that starred a cis man in the titular trans role—one who harassed trans actors, and who will not appear in its next season. But Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura, like all the other characters on Transparent, was not some aspirational role model, though she may have been inspirational. Maura was a brave and funny narcissist with a horrible temper: fascinatingly, infuriatingly, and movingly imperfect.* Transparent was a watershed for representation, but it feels less constrained by duty, by a teaching instinct than Pose.
So far, Pose is walking right into the “strong female character” trap, a difficulty that arises from scarcity. When there are not enough juicy, prominent parts for an entire group of people, each role must do too much work: It has to reflect well on all members of the cohort. Thus, the call for “strong female roles,” in which women are not granted the full range of human experience but only the affirming, the aspirational, the impressive ones. So many of the people on Pose are strong women, trans paragons, and this comes at the expense of them being recognizably flawed human beings.
*Correction, May 31, 2018: This article originally misidentified a character on Transparent as Moira. The character’s name is Maura.