Why Pose Is Such An Important Television Breakthrough
For several months friends kept telling me to watch Pose, a television show that centers on the drag ball culture in New York during the eighties. Most of the people who recommended it told me it was a lot like Paris Is Burning, a 1991 documentary that highlighted gay and transgender contestants most often black, and Latino, as they competed against each other in a ballroom setting, wearing extravagant costumes, and walking a runway portraying specific themes chosen for their glamour. Here while they “posed,” they had an opportunity to outshine their competitors and win a trophy for their accomplishments.
I really liked Paris Is Burning, probably because I saw one of these balls, many years ago when I was visiting there, and found myself suspended in the glamour and mystique of the different musical numbers, while the contestants waited for recognition from the panel of judges who presided over the competition.
Pose takes you beyond your safe and settled home and points out how little most of us know of the world beyond out own front door. It’s often over-the-top in dramatic flair and explores the on-going spats between the contestants and the “mothers,” of the various houses, whose “children,” are the performers at these balls.
I postponed watching this show because my latest novel, A Woman Like Me, depicts the life of a transgender woman before and after her sex-transition, and I was afraid that maybe Pose would point out something that I just got totally wrong about my main character, in spite of my research and interviews. I feared it would be some large truth that would glaringly point out how my protagonist was wrongfully portrayed.
Luckily I came away relieved. In the preface to my novel, I wrote the following: “You are never as different as you feel.” I wanted this theme to be the underlying premise of my novel, and I wanted my main character, although clearly an outlaw, and a criminal, sometimes by choice, and sometimes by circumstance, to be driven by the need for family and association. In other words, I wanted her to reflect the values that are present in all of us. Under-privileged, and unloved, my protagonist never fulfilled her need for family and acceptance the way the characters did in Pose when they found extended families in their adopted houses.
Pose, feels so true to life, largely because the parts are played by trans actors, and actresses who represent the way life is lived and how the characters exist within the society, both in and out of the “ball culture.” The show centers around the members of the House of Evangelista, which is headed by a “mother,” a trans woman, named Blanca, who takes in and emotionally supports, a group of younger trans women and gay men. Each episode highlights the on-going struggle of the housemates through the social issues they face in living day to day, and how their central parental figure tries to do her best by each of the characters, as a moral guiding light.
The ballroom sequence competitions give this group of characters, and other like families, an opportunity to gather together to celebrate their lives where there is no other place that welcomes them or their celebration. The balls, and their over-lapping themes of music and sexuality allow the characters to express their inner selves in an environment that supports their often-hidden personas. In one of the episodes it is pointed out that Madonna’s hit song, Vogue, may be just what it takes to be seen and accepted by mainstream society. The characters are ever hopeful for the recognition they need and seek, and that is one reason a television show like this one is so necessary and welcome.
Essentially this is a family drama, and many of the scenes concerning the characters and their struggles, are warm and heart-felt. When the characters are off the ballroom floor, they grapple with the issues of their time, taking HIV tests, losing friends to the disease, and experiencing violence against their chosen gender. It is clear from the onset when you watch Pose, that the family you chose is often much stronger than the family you are born into.