Assuming Position: The Second Season of Pose
The category for Pose is icon. Its impact cannot be adequately measured even by gushing reviews or spiked ratings. By its second season Pose set a series of milestones including television's largest transgender cast (MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross and Hallie Sahar), the first Black trans woman TV writer/producer Janet Mock, and last night’s historical Emmy win for Billy Porter, the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for and win lead actor in a drama category. It has uploaded an essential narrative from the margins out onto the primetime stage. But the main reason why it will not be forgotten may be because it does such an exceptional job remembering and reimagining. Trans activist Tracee McDaniel, founder of Juxtaposed Center for Transformation has nothing but high praise. “Thats what so bold and audacious about it, it’s telling the absolute truth, you can take it or you can get over it.”
The star of this revolutionary opera is New York's late 80's to early 90's- ball community. Several personas and storylines are drawn from actual ball luminaries and events. The Evangelista house itself is based upon the fabled House of Extravaganza. It is the trans women who run Pose's world. Jon Gabriel Ortiz, activist and Extravaganza member notes the omission of house fathers. “By 1990, house fathers dominated. They are telling the story from a more female perspective.” In Electra's temperament and stylings, Ortiz recognizes traces of founding matriarchs Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey. “Pepper was the shady mother, slayin' in ballrooms, but she would also give you the shirt off her back.”
Set in 1987, the inaugural season focused tightly on the ball scene and the Evangelistas' evolution. The second time around widened the scope introducing an indifferent outside world whose traps and snares threaten to engulf the most resourceful among them. Storylines ripened with strained friendships, tumultuous breakups, drug tailspins, and grisly murder. AIDS itself figured more prominently, as it had in real life by 1990, like an upgraded character given more face time and meatier scenes.
It is 1990 when Madonna's classic “Vogue” resounds as a mantra of promise in the opening episode “Acting Up”. Indefatigable house mother Blanca reads the song's popularity as a prophetic signal of long-awaited acceptance. “We are on the cusp on a revolution”, she beams. True to form, Candy's anti-prophecy keeps it real, “aint shit about to change for our black asses”. As the white-hot spotlight fades prospects for professional dancers Damon and Ricky wither. Reaganesque trickle down success for the original practitioners never materialized for more than a few artists and then only for a very short time.
Never before has any TV show portrayed the early epidemic's blunt force trauma upon Black and Latinx queer people. Rarely since Marlon Riggs' revolutionary filmmaking nearly thirty years ago has the subject been so richly explored in film or television. Pose's second season read like a progressive AIDS history seminar. Intimate day-in-the-life experiences and public protests provide the texts. Blanca and Pray Tell are mutual HIV+ peer supporters who wrestle with their own illness, AZT anxieties, incessant funerals, and commonplace cruelties that dishonor the dead as much as the living. “I’m gonna die,” Ricky concludes from his unexpected HIV diagnosis. Inconsolable he crumbles into Pray Tell's embrace while anxious onlookers in the lobby await their turn. Several scenes reference actual benchmarks as well-earned nods to the early HIV prevention justice movement. Two of the most memorable AIDS demonstrations, ACT UP's St Patrick Cathedral die-in, and Treatment Action Group's condom-covering the house of that most virulent racist homophobe Senator Helms, are reworked as multi-racial organizing efforts through which Pray Tell and avenging Evangelistas join the fightback. This nod to Black and Latinx activism counters the canon of white washed histories perpetrated by many popular AIDS narratives.
While Pose demonstrates transgender women's power through grit and against-the-odds wins, it does not sidestep their imminent mortality. Candy's murder scenario was based on the fate of Venus Extravaganza, the ambitious pixie from Paris Is Burning who was found strangled under a hotel bed during the film's production. While Venus was adored by her mother Angie Extravaganza, Candy is routinely scorned on and off the runway. In the season's most bittersweet episode “Never Knew Love Like This Before” her funeral morphs into a phantasmagoric tribute where she receives the very adulation denied her in life. Thirty years later, Black and Latinx trans women are still routinely slaughtered under cover of night or in broad daylight, then denied justice after death. As with Candy's fantasy homage, our vigil outpourings are too late to support the women we name and too little to protect the living.
Pose's plots lure viewers to consider our own present-day norms. We measure by comparison how much we have changed since then, what we've lost and gained. Pray Tell is reluctant to spill the tea about hooking up with Ricky as he expects to be judged. Several of his committee comrades confirm his assumptions. Even his best judie Blanca throws him out after Damon's “family fucked my husband” disclosure. Next-day reactions to Pray Tell and Ricky's pairing regurgitated stale yet well preserved stereotypes. Pray Tell is a privileged predator taking advantage of the disadvantaged pretty boy. Ricky is in turn a broke but sexy gold digger who upon learning his status decides to prey on the elder in decline.
Most gay men in intergenerational relationships are consenting adults with a myriad of reasons for being together healthy or otherwise. They are no different from same-generation couples. Yet our judgements persist along with our obsession with youthful beauty and our fear of growing old, and dying alone. I once imagined that if enough of us lived through the plague, the feat of survival would have us appreciate the gift of gray hairs. I dreamed that given the blessing of reaching middle age, we might regard growing old as a source of pride rather than another acquired scarlet letter. I was wrong. Even the threat of annihilation did not lead gay men to reframe our disdain for aging.
Thankfully trans women are portrayed as individuals whose concerns are far from identical. Heroine Blanca asserts a rugged will as she struggles to find fulfillment beyond motherhood. When Pray Tell scolds her for maintaining an apparent sexual shut down, she points out that HIV+ trans women face greater rejection that their gay men. Preparing for a girls-only beach getaway, she reveals her worries about skimpy swimwear because she is more easily clocked than they are. Later, she enjoys a rapturous evening with an angelic lifeguard who knows her tea and falls for her. The opening of the season's finale shows her racked with pneumonia bequeathing belongings to her “children”. She later bounces back [as so many of us did], to make a show stopping runway appearance and encounters a couple of future Evangelistas to take in. Her body itself is a site of self-determination under viral siege. She embodies that lineage of poz individuals during the winter years who refused to give up whether they survived or succumbed.
Black and brown queer viewers do not watch Pose simply to be entertained. We watch because we need records of our own traditions as improvisational peoples negotiating plural identities and assembling surrogate families to take in our disowned. From Sanford and Son to the Cosby Show, Noah's Arc to Moonlight, Black TV shows and films have always drawn heightened scrutiny from Black audiences. Pose inherits this burden. We want simply what we deserve and have been long denied, authentic representation. Viewers swiftly checked the show for inserting current buzz phrases in early nineties dialogue. “Nobody said 'bottom-shaming' back then,” Ortiz noted. You wouldn't hear a young gay man say “sero-convert”. Given all that rides on this show, we are watching with care.
I remind myself that Pose is only a TV show and if so, it is so in the way that Archbishop Carl Bean's “Born This Way” is just a song. My hat and scarf are tipped off to creators Ryan Murphy, Steve Canals and producer Janet Mock along with the groundbreaking cast. Pose is a compelling fable that revisits our once upon a time to deliver a timely morale. It compels us to consider what signs of it's time we may aspire to follow. Be it transphobia or femphobia, ageism, or the divides between genders and generations, the corrective takes of this recreated past invite us to assess our present. McDaniels welcomes the universality of Pose's “Love Is The Message” ethos. “We all wanna be loved, we all wanna be successful, we all wanna be able to take care of ourselves, and have a roof over our head.” One doesn't have to ever have walked a runway to get that message.
Craig Washington was born and raised by Anna and Leon Washington in Queens, New York and has lived in Atlanta since 1992. Craig is a writer and community organizer who has written extensively on matters essential to Black LGBTQ communities and HIV+ people for the Huffington Post, The Atlanta Voice, Georgia Voice, POZ.com and various anthologies including Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. He is a current member of the Atlanta Mayor's LGBTQ Advisory Board. He has created and/or led HIV prevention and cultural awareness initiatives through several organizations and is the co-founder of the Bayard Rustin/Audre Lorde Breakfast. Craig has been HIV+ for over 30 years. He can be reached at twitter.com/craigwerks and email@example.com.