Spoiler/Content Warning: This article discusses major plot points in the second season of “Pose” and includes material related to sexual assault, transphobia and murder.
Who hasn’t wanted to be truly seen? On the first episode of the second season of “Pose,” that question weighs heavily on the mind of Angel (Indya Moore) as she gears up for a modeling photoshoot. As a Latina transgender woman living in 1990s New York City, Angel knows that the opportunity to be seen as beautiful—and the opportunity for financial stability—is dependent on her ability to pass as a femme cisgender woman. So, when a photographer idolizes her with sweet words, she jumps at the chance to be photographed, despite not having the cash to pay for it. In that moment, being seen is more important than whatever it might cost her.
What follows in “Pose” is utterly fabulous: a montage set to Roxette’s “She’s Got the Look,” complete with ’80s-influenced makeup, dramatic shots of Angel against the New York skyline, and a face beat for the gods. But as the rest of the wardrobe crew files out, the photographer begins Angel’s “private sitting,” payback for the money that she owes. He guides Angel to take off her clothes, and, despite her protests, she is eventually left in her underwear. “Pose” treats the scene sensitively, never letting the camera violate Angel’s body even as she is being violated; we only ever get to see close-ups of Angel’s face.
“Touch it,” the photographer finally says, and we see Angel close her eyes in shame. While Angel could revel in the joy of finally being seen as valuable and attractive during her photoshoot, this joy has so quickly and violently turned into objectification. Visibility is a vulnerability, too, as this scene seems to suggest. As Angel tries to disappear, or at least feel invisible, the flash of the camera cuts the viewer into another scene.
If the tonal whiplash from cheesy ’80s movie photoshoot to sexual assault seems extreme, that’s because transgender women of color so often are forced to live in extremes as a matter of survival. Watching the show, I could feel “Pose” struggling with how to portray the weight of an assault against a transgender woman without explicitly recreating it for its viewers.
Whatever choice the filmmakers make—to show or not to show the assault—that choice has both powerful and dangerous implications. “Pose” is negotiating what performance studies theorist and Wesleyan alumnus Tavia Nyong’o ’95 calls “the perils and possibilities of exposure.” The fact that the “Pose” team has to constantly negotiate choices of how to properly represent transgender women of color in one of their few mainstream representations makes “Pose” feel like the most dangerous show on television. Under the intense light of a camera, every choice counts.
The first season of “Pose” debuted on FX in the summer of 2018, but the show has only grown in popularity since it began streaming on Netflix. The first season, set in 1987 New York City, was a crash course in the world of ballroom culture, a competition in which primarily Black and Latinx members of the LGBTQ community runway-walk categories (e.g. butch realness, royalty) to bring glory to their Houses (self-created families of fellow LGBT people). Season 1 followed the newly formed House of Evangelista, led by young and caring transgender woman Blanca (MJ Rodriguez). Their ranks included Angel, two Black gay dancers Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), and the Latino Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel). Accompanied by the assistance of the paternal figure Pray Tell (a dazzling Billy Porter) and the catty remarks of Elektra (Dominique Jackson), “Pose” highlighted a resilient community struggling with the AIDS epidemic, their attraction to an unattainable upper class lifestyle, and the daily struggles of gay and transgender life.
With the largest transgender cast ever assembled for television, and the transgender writers and directors Our Lady J and Janet Mock speaking to their own experiences, Season 1 of “Pose” was undoubtedly trailblazing television. And people started to take notice: The show won a Peabody Award, and cast member Billy Porter became a red carpet staple for his outrageous and gender-defying outfits. Along with the cast of the now-Emmy juggernaut “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” there have never been so many LGBTQ people of color on television.
But as with Angel, there’s a price for this level of celebrity: an unshakable fear of misrepresenting the ballroom community that it’s trying so hard to render visible. The second season of “Pose” jumps ahead to 1990, just as Madonna’s “Vogue” is becoming a cultural phenomenon, dragging the insular world of ballroom culture into the national consciousness.
“We are on the cusp of a revolution,” Blanca states, a little too enthusiastically. “We’ve been doing those dance moves in that video for years. That’s our culture on MTV. We about to go mainstream.” Pray Tell is less convinced, reminding Blanca that “Y.M.C.A.,” disco, and Studio 54 have all come and gone without much staying power.
“Every generation thinks that they’re gonna be the ones finally invited to the party,” Pray Tell states, exasperated. “Put your glass slippers away, Trans-erella. It ain’t never gonna happen!”
The possibility of mainstream success is what guides all of the storylines of the second season of “Pose,” and it almost serves as a reflection on its own slow breach into the mainstream of what the characters so often call “the real world.” Damon and Ricky, now suddenly in demand for their comprehensive knowledge on the voguing “trend,” start auditioning for television shows and musicians’ world tours. Blanca starts her own manicure business called “Vogue Nails,” before running into trouble with her feminist yet transphobic white landlord Frederica (Patti Lupone). And Angel’s assault by her photoshoot photographer ends up being only a stumble in her journey towards becoming a “real” model. After revealing the incident to Blanca and Lil Papi, they all break into the photographer’s house, beat him up, and steal the photography prints. Angel applies to a modeling competition the next day and advances to the next round, eventually becoming the cover girl for a makeup line.
It’s the relative ease with which Angel managed to avoid the damaging effects of her assault that concerns me. “Pose” has always played fast and loose with the level of “realism” that it wants to achieve. While the show wants to authentically represent a community, it’s goal more than anything is to entertain. This approach means that monologue-length reads, didactic education lessons, epic dance numbers, sparkling pieces of musical theater, and triumphant journeys of institutional success are staples of every episode. This season even adds in some “Angels in America”–style dream sequences. While these techniques certainly capture a queer sensibility, they also rely a little heavily on diva worship, especially of white women. Having Patti Lupone sing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” on the show is iconic, but what is it doing in a cabaret devoted to AIDS victims? Even more frustrating is the fact that none of the ballroom members are calling out Madonna for what she’s really doing: appropriation.
The impulse driving these fantastical creative choices is still honorable: Mock has stated that she wanted to make an “aspirational” story that provides a model for young members of the LGBT community to follow. And what makes “Pose” stand out from other representations of the same culture is its insistence not to reduce Black and transgender life to tragedy; even the seminal ballroom documentary “Paris is Burning” ended with the death of Venus Xtravaganza. The characters of “Pose” are, instead, sincerely and achingly alive. But the creation of an “aspirational” story has troubling implications, primarily in creating a fantasy of constant wish-fulfillment for the audience. If something as deeply disturbing as a sexual assault can be so easily written off within the same episode in which it occurs, are there really any stakes to putting it in the story? Not every show needs “Big Little Lies”–style flashbacks to trauma. But shouldn’t we feel the unresolvable, complex interiority of assault before moving so quickly onto the next ballroom sequence? Is there a danger in making the pain of transgender women abstracted to the point of simplification?
My first instinct is to say yes: We actually need to see oppression with our eyes in order to understand it. But simply by watching a Latina trans woman on-screen, viewers automatically fear the worst for her. Her mere existence provides narrative stakes, since quite frankly we haven’t seen stories of people who look like her who aren’t portrayed as undergoing continuous brutality. The atmosphere that surrounds “Pose” is one of constant fear and anxiety for the characters; co-creator Stephen Canals even had to reassure audiences that Angel would not be raped by her white lover in Season 1. And death manifests itself in different ways throughout the season. The HIV-positive Pray Tell and Blanca have health scares, Elektra’s job as a dominatrix leads her patron to an accidental drug overdose, and characters like Euphoria (played by Drag Race star Peppermint) reveal heart-breaking stories of their experiences in prison. These are, importantly, all based on real life stories, with each episode ending with a quote from LGBTQ people like Octavia St. Laurent and Dorian Corey. In short, the way “Pose” is shot and written emphasizes these trans characters’ humanity over their oppression. But after I found myself holding my breath watching these characters simply try to navigate the world, I realized that I didn’t need to physically see these characters’ trauma in order to understand it.
This is especially true when our automatic worst fears about transgender characters are actually, and rarely, realized within “Pose.” When the minor character Candy (Angelica Ross) mysteriously goes missing after a late night in a motel, I secretly hoped that the episode would become a search and rescue mission—the show had dabbled in dark comedy before. But I knew the reality of the situation even before it was shown on screen: Candy had been murdered during her sex work. Although we don’t see the murder, the sight of her bloodied corpse is briefly shown, and even that is almost too much to bear. Like Angel, Candy was briefly idolized, sexualized, and then discarded. But unlike Angel’s storyline, we saw the true effects that this experience could have on someone.
The rest of the episode is devoted to the funeral and memorial service, as the ballroom members struggle to properly mourn Candy—with the recognition that this could have happened to any of them. If you thought “Pose” was only fantastic or fabulously inconsequential up to this point, this episode was a sobering reminder of what actually happens to many Black transgender women, even in 2019. Portraying this trauma was a creative choice that also had dangerous consequences for the audience—we were being asked to witness an atrocity in the middle of a relatively upbeat show.
But something strange, simultaneously real and abstract, happens within the last few minutes of the episode. As pallbearers move to take Candy’s coffin away, the curtain behind her slides open to reveal the ballroom. Candy, resurrected in a stunning red dress, rises out of the coffin and begins lip-syncing to “Never Knew Love Like This Before” by Stephanie Mills. As she moves around the stage, people applaud and dance with her, the judges giving her tens across the board. In this complete fantasy, we see her achieve what she never got in real life: awards, recognition, community. It was in this moment that the perils of transgender exposure fell away and instead revealed the possibilities of theatrical fantasy.
“Pose” up to that point had felt dangerous because it seemed to have to make a choice: either portray the cruelty of oppression, or don’t portray it at all. But seeing Candy perform, I realized that the choice didn’t need to be binary. I could openly acknowledge that what I was watching wasn’t actually happening but that it deserved to be onscreen anyway. Similarly to Candy, I didn’t know that this kind of positive visibility was possible. But “Pose” showed me that even though fantastical exposure feels dangerous, perhaps it deserves to be seen more than the “real world.”
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.