Television

Pose Told the Hilarious, Absurd Truth About Trans Life

Although set at the AIDS epidemic’s peak, the FX series never wallowed in sadness.

MJ Rodriguez and Billy Porter in Pose.
MJ Rodriguez and Billy Porter in Pose. Eric Liebowitz/FX

On Sunday night, Pose, the FX series following the lives of Black trans women and gay men during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York, will come to an end. The show made visible the lives of one of the most marginalized groups in America, but at its best it was about the big dreams of little people struggling to get by. Whether the dream is a curvy behind, a ballroom trophy, or a world-touring career in modeling or dance, Pose connects to the universal human impulse to strive, despair at setbacks, and work to overcome them. The show is also laced throughout with the certainty that, in the end, we all inevitably lose whatever we achieve, but it never wallows in sadness or loss.

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There’s a mirrored quality to how Pose lands with cisgender and transgender audiences. For mainstream viewers, the show humanizes the type of people who have been robbed of their humanity, allowing cisgender people the epiphany that, ah yes, these to are recognizable human beings with human foibles, failings, sorrows, and strivings. For trans viewers who already knew that we were human beings, it elevates our lives, showing us that our struggles and triumphs too are worthy of being on screen.

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This affirming feeling comes through the strongest with the more flawed and imperfect characters, which is why the second season is the high point of the series, and the final season represents somewhat of a diminishment from those heights, even if it’s satisfying to see the characters we’ve grown to love find happiness, wealth, and/or love. On Pose, an irresponsible crack-smoking stripper (Hailie Sahar’s Lulu) can aspire to go back to school and become an accountant, instead of being just a cautionary tale or a punchline. It rings true to trans people’s lives, which are full of weird juxtapositions, seeming contradictions, and fatal (or near-fatal) flaws in our plans.

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The absurd and hilarious is another inescapable aspect of trans life that in Pose is given its due, especially in the scenes and subplots that revolve around ballroom culture. The series opens with my favorite of these: A daring museum heist, conceived by Dominique Jackson’s iconic Elektra Abundance, gains the House of Abundance a set of particularly extravagant costumes in the theme of royalty, but their triumph in the ball ends with handcuffs after the police track them down. There are many Pose set pieces that bring this same sense of fantastical over-the-top fun, which is why it always feels like it’s doing the show a disservice to tell people it’s about queer people of color in during the AIDS epidemic. While the presence of AIDS is felt throughout, the times and places where the characters are most effectively running and hiding from it are the ones where they’re the most vibrant and alive.

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HIV isn’t the death sentence it was in the 1980s, but trans life continues to be lived on the margins. Prejudice against trans people continues to result in high rates of family rejection, homelessness, unemployment, violence, poor health, and premature death. Perhaps that’s why, in the season finale, the understandable impulse on the part of the show’s creators to showcase the positive and joyous sides of trans life are overindulged. Several characters who struggled with addiction have sudden redemptive arcs that felt a bit unearned, and at times the dialogue blows past earnestness and into ’80s movie-of-the-week style preachiness. While it felt good to leave well-loved characters on a high note, it felt less good to feel them rushed towards happy endings at breakneck speed.

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If the show had had a bit more time it doubtless would have avoided this, but the unfortunate result is that the final season of Pose was the weakest of the three, with too much wish-fulfillment and not enough mess. But the series as a whole stands as an incredible accomplishment. It’s highly specific while remaining accessible to the mainstream. It’s uplifting and aspirational while allowing its characters to struggle and fail. It’s fun and over the top and fantastical but also very human and real. It humanizes poor people living with, and sometimes dying from, AIDS while never being more about disease and death than it is about living life. Its villains are fashionable and fun and given humanizing moments, its heroes are flawed—with the exception of Blanca, played by MJ Rodriguez, whose saintliness is at least pointed out and poked fun at. While its focus is on trans women of color there are characters from other backgrounds and experiences who are given room to breathe, making the world the characters inhabit feel fully populated. It’s been wonderful to have a show that allowed a varied cast of transgender women to take the spotlight—here’s hoping it’s just the first of many shows to depict trans life in all its various modes.

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