If you’re on the hunt for a new show that you can binge, have I got a suggestion for you? Pose. Never heard of it? That’s okay, the FX show aired its eight-episode first season last summer to critical acclaim, and now it’s available for bingeing on Netflix.
Pose was created by Ryan Murphy, of Glee and American Horror Story fame. Taking place in 1987 New York City, much of the story revolves around underground ball culture. Balls consist of primarily Black and Latinx members of the LGBTQ+ community, many who are gay or transgender. Since two of the creators — Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk — are white men, there was a very real fear that the show wouldn’t be representative of the community it portrayed. But thankfully, Murphy and Falchuk brought in Steven Canals, a black, brown queer man as the show’s co-creator. And they assembled a team of crew, writers, and actors who are as diverse as the world they represent on the show.
“There are 140 trans actors and crew members on this show, and 35 L.G.B.T.Q. characters who aren’t trans,” Murphy explained in an interview with The New York Times. One of those people is trans activist Janet Mock, who serves as a producer, writer, and director.
Unlike many previous films and TV shows, trans characters are actually being played by trans actors. Five of the main characters are trans women, and it’s certainly more impactful seeing members of the trans community getting to tell the stories of their own community.
“Every day that I’m on set, I’m reminded of the struggles, the hardships, the deaths and the murders that all of my brothers and sisters have endured and are still enduring,” Hailie Sahar, who plays Lulu Abundance says in an interview with TimeOut New York.
Here’s a brief history lesson on the world of Pose. Described as a “celebration of the life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration,” the show centers around ball culture of the ’80s. The height of self-expression, balls consist of performers who walk (or compete) for trophies. Usually, the performers are apart of a “house,” or a family of your own choosing, consisting of a mother or father and their “children,” usually newer members of the community. House members often come together after being disowned by their biological families because of their gender identity or sexuality. Sometimes children will leave the house to form their own houses, something that the show addresses in the first episode when Blanca leaves the House of Abundance to form her own house, the House of Evangelista.
On the flip side of the underground lifestyle portrayed on the show, we get to see glimpses of mainstream NYC in the late ’80s, when Wall St. and “yuppies” were the ruling class. The show pulls back the curtain on this lifestyle through the character of Stan, a typical white guy from New Jersey who works in Trump Tower and wants a taste of the power that comes from a job in this world.
Naturally, the show focuses on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1987, it was ravaging New York City, especially the LGBTQ community. The reality of the epidemic isn’t sugarcoated in Pose. You can feel the fear pulsing through the veins of characters as they discuss this part of life. The conversations Blanca and Pray Tell have about the disease will grip you.
“We’re not masking it. We’re giving you the truth,” Dominique Jackson, who plays the villainous Elektra Abundance tells TimeOut New York. Blanca, played by MJ Rodriguez is truly the heartbeat of the show. Her HIV diagnosis at the start of the first episode propels the action forward. From forming her own house, to fighting for service in a gay bar, Blanca’s focus is to create a legacy. “I think a lot of women back in the ’80s wanted to fight for the generation that’s going to come, and I think that’s what Blanca is,” Rodriguez explains to TimeOut NY.
It would have been easy to turn Pose into trauma porn, exploiting the struggles of the trans community. But while the struggle is definitely part of the story because it has to be, it is the undercurrent of the action. Angel, the aptly named trans sex worker played by the ethereal Indya Moore understands that her work is a means to an end. But all she really wants is for a man to love her for who she is. But at the same time, she struggles to get a job working in a department store. As we hear stories about transwomen of color being murdered, we realize that as far as things have come for the LGBTQ community, the T part is still largely ignored.
And you can’t talk about the cast without mentioning the tour de force performance of Billy Porter. The character of Pray Tell was literally made for him, though he initially auditioned for another part. Pray Tell is the father figure for many of the characters, but he is carrying a very heavy burden on his shoulders. As an older black, gay man, he is wise beyond his years.
On the yuppie side, Stan is played by Evan Peters. Stan admits he doesn’t know who he is, but he finds himself drawn to Angel after picking her up by the pier. At first you expect it to turn into some sort of Pretty Woman-esque fairy tale, but this is real life. Kate Mara plays his wife, Patty, a woman who finds herself thrown into the deep end of a world she isn’t sure she wants to be a part of. And James Van Der Beek plays Stan’s boss Matt, who is arguably the villain in their story.
Pose is a glimpse into the not-too-distant past. The ball culture is still alive and well, and influencing a lot of our current culture. We wouldn’t have a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race without the people represented by Pose. Things we say — “shade” and “read for filth” are phrases uttered by characters on the show. If you saw coverage of this year’s Met Gala and wondered what “camp” is, it derives from the world of ball culture. To understand where we are now, we must look to the past, and Pose does just that.
The new season of Pose airs on FX starting on June 11th.