A masterpiece reconstructing from the archive a moment of trauma in the Black British lived experience.
Reflecting on the fabulosity of the seminal series, Pose
By Nou Ra
In 1987, I was a naive fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in a Muslim household in a village in Surrey, the whitest, most conservative place in the whole country, it seemed. The outrageous lives of the vulnerable youngsters of the same period, but several thousand miles away, across the Atlantic, who are depicted in the TV series, Pose, would have been a shock to me. I began watching Pose when it launched in 2018 and was transfixed by its sensitive depiction of those on the margins of mainstream society. I watched and re-watched; it so resonated with me.
Pose opens in 1987, New York, in ‘The House of Abundance’, giving us an insight into the New York Black and Latino LGBTQ+ life, specifically that of transgender women, the ‘houses’ they arrange themselves in, and their participation in the opulent, decadent and supremely creative ballroom scene. The show’s three seasons explore the themes of acceptance, family, resilience and fabulosity.
Photo courtesy Eric Liebowitz:BBC:FX
We witness Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a new house mother, build her house and adopt her children: Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a talented dancer, kicked out of home by his homophobic father, and Angel (Indya Moore), a sex worker who plies the piers of New York where the homeless sleep and the hookers trade.
So, what is a house? Blanca asserts that, ‘A house is a family you get to choose’. House mothers literally take these young people into their homes, so a house is a physical place but it’s also a spiritual home. Inspired by the names of fashion houses, Blanca names her house after the supermodel Linda Evangelista.
When Damon questions Blanca about the exact nature of a ball, Blanca answers that ‘Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else, [they’re] a celebration of life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.’
Blanca’s mother, the sharp-tongued, statuesque Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), creates a Marie Antoinette homage, complete with a guillotine and a working carousel built into her regal skirt. The MC of the balls, and surrogate house father, Pray Tell (Billie Porter), hosts the balls and calls out the categories for participants to strut their stuff and vogue on the catwalk. Categories include ‘Royalty’, ‘Executive Realness’ (think suits and briefcases), ‘Weather Girl Realness’ (think thick-framed glasses and a pointer,) ‘House V House’ and ‘Mother of the Year’, among others.
Photo courtesy of JoJo Whilden: FX
The dark times of the AIDS epidemic are highlighted in the show, with many characters finding themselves tragically affected. Whilst talking with Pray Tell, Nurse Judy, a white lesbian ally played by bisexual icon Sandra Bernhard, declares she’s on her 452nd memorial. The amount of time we spend in AIDS wards and funeral homes with these characters gives a terrifying insight into what life was like for these women and men.
There’s denial in mainstream culture. Pray Tell cogently explains: ‘[President] Ronald Reagan will not even use the word AIDS, health insurance will not cover any treatments, the world wants us dead. They don’t think it’s a plague, they think it’s some sort of divine justice or Darwin’s answer for sodomy.’ It’s an assessment that gives us a profound sense of the fear and dread that the LGBTQ+ community was living under at this time.
However, AIDS was far from the sole threat. Trans women are subject to a much higher murder rate than any other demographic, a fact illuminated in the show when Candy Abundance is murdered by a john. Through the eyes of these women, we’re given an intimate portrait of their fears and insecurities. The sad revelation of their lack of safety and its emotional impact is skillfully woven into the series by a team of LGBTQ+ producers, writers and directors, ensuring that this story is told in an authentic way.
Theirs is a life of constant jeopardy, on amber alert. The simple question is asked: ‘Is it safe to take a walk on the beach with a man you just met?’. Angel Evangelista, Blanca’s daughter, highlights the risks. It’s only May and yet already, she says, ‘eleven girls have died this year.’
Pose’s three season structure gives space for full exploration of the main characters’ storylines. By season 3, we’re in 1994 and Elektra finds her abundance in a manner that seemed destined. She raised herself up from the streets, where she worked as a prostitute, to become a madam in a BDSM ‘dungeon’, the eponymous ‘Hellfire Club’. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani forced sex shops to shut down, Elektra started her own sex phone-line and, with a little input from the mafia, became everything she had ever wanted to be, with her fineries and furs.
The emotion ratchets up in this third season. Angel and Lil Papi’s love story made me cry. After so many funerals, we all needed a wedding, and their wedding, paid for by the House of Abundance, was so romantic and musical, if a little cheesy. By now, all of Blanca’s children are doing well. Blanca sits down to dinner with her extended family and announces with great humility and pride, ‘Look at us, a mogul, a model, a future accountant and a nurse’.
Pose is a beautiful and inspiring exploration of love, community and family. These women face their fears of ‘being clocked’ (failing to pass as cis-gender), raped or murdered, with unbending strength and resilience.
Don’t just stand there, let’s get to it, strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.
Pose is available on BBC iPlayer, Netflix and FX.