Pose Impressions

This post is about the first season of the FX show Pose, and contains full spoilers within. I recommend watching the show before reading. In addition, it’s worth noting that this show revolves around mainly black, trans and gay characters and as a straight white cis man, I would urge you to look for writings by critics who may have more connections to the issues. I have attached links to some other opinions at the end. 

I hope no one accuses this blog of lacking variety, for as much as I tend to focus on the things I know, occasionally a topic of interest other than Ace Attorney does come my way. I will preface this by saying that although I had heard of Pose before watching it, I didn’t actively seek it out, instead being shown it by a friend who recommended it strongly. In this age of countless TV shows, it’s often difficult to sift through the mediocrity and hard to avoid getting stuck in a bubble of only watching shows with the actors, writers or directors you tend to favour. It’s in many ways one of the most difficult times to be watching TV, because there’s a baseline of quality that means the number of worthwhile shows is so high it becomes difficult to sort the wheat from the… slightly less good wheat.

Pose, which follows the ballroom scene of New York in the late 1980s, is one of those shows. Created by prestige TV golden boy Ryan Murphy, along with black queer writer Steven Canals and written by them, Janet Mock and Our Lady J (the latter two both being transgender) those without an interest in this particular topic might find themselves easily glossing over Pose, whose main hook to draw in viewers is simply that it’s about a topic that hasn’t really been covered in mainstream film or television before. What’s worth hammering home about Pose is that it’s a triumph of on-screen representation. I hope I don’t have to tell the readers of this blog why representation matters, but Pose, with its abundance of black, trans and gay characters and actors is one of the most brilliantly diverse shows I’ve seen in a while (although that might be because I tend to only watch TV about old white men arguing). It’s this representation, however, that’s of particular interest to me, because of the way Murphy and his team approach writing some characters as opposed to others.

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Let’s take a look first at the idea of something that’s always a hot topic – how do men write female characters? This is perhaps too large a topic to handle here, but it’s worth noting that many of criticism’s most popular phrases, such as ‘magical girlfriend’, ‘manic pixie dream girl’ and ‘Mary Sue’ are those which have come to be levied at the way women are written by men. These terms are more often than not used in bad faith – particularly the latter two, which have themselves taken on sexist connotations in their frequent misuse. But the origin points of all of them come from the same place; an idealised, male version of a woman.

The ‘magical girlfriend’, such as Joi from Blade Runner 2049 or Lady Lisa from Pixels, is a woman literally created for the pleasure of a man. The ‘manic pixie dream girl’, such as Ramona in Scott Pilgrim, is used to describe an already perfect woman whose existence in the plot serves only to improve the life of the male protagonist. The most vague term is ‘Mary Sue’; originally coined to criticise self-insert fanfiction Star Trek stories, it has since evolved into a more wide-reaching criticism of female characters in media who are talented and perfect beyond what is perceived as reasonable means. I try to avoid using any of these terms in my own criticism, because I think they’re lazy, and as I mentioned before, often inherently sexist in their deployment. However, at the core of each, there is a kernel of something – that men often write women in the manner of an idealised version that exists only in their head. The male-written Platonic-woman does exist within film, TV and games and is worthy of some discussion.

Does Pose fall into any of these tropes? No, all of its characters are too well-defined to ever become anything like that. However, to my mind, it often skirts slightly too close to comfort in its strive towards representation. I noticed this first when the character of Stan is introduced. Stan is Pose’s token cis white male character, to the extent that it might not even surprise me if he was a later studio demanded addition (the fact that Evan Peters is first in the credits despite his relatively minor role suggests that at the very least the show was sold to the network on his back). This isn’t to say he’s out of place – in fact, the storyline between him and transgender stripper Angel is one of the show’s most interesting and engaging storylines. However, as I was watching, I wondered if a part of the reason Stan’s plot-line seemed to have the most depth was because he was white.

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Stan is an executive working for Donald Trump (you can’t ever accuse this show’s writing of being too subtle), who lives in the suburbs and has a wife and kids, but longs for something outside of it. He visits the docks every day to look at the prostitutes and eventually has the “courage” to hire one of them to come back to a hotel room with him. However, he doesn’t sleep with Angel, although he’s clearly interested in her sexually. Stan’s feelings are conflicted throughout; he doesn’t seem to fit anywhere – his life in Trump Tower is threatened by his psychopathic boss and he feels like his sexual desires aren’t met by his wife and his life in the suburbs, but at the same time he’s not ostracised in the way that he could ever make a place for himself in the world of the Balls. He’s a drifter between the lines of society. It’s a fascinating plot line, but Stan isn’t exactly likable. He’s neglectful to both Angel and his wife he’s cheating on, he’s often controlling of them both and he’s too cowardly to ever properly commit to one walk of life, leaving the people around him unhappy. The obvious flaws in his character don’t make him loveable by any means, but they make him appear extremely human. Stan might not be the most likeable character, but I find myself interested in his struggle more than most. 

The same idea is not extended to many of the black and trans characters in the show, and I think one of the most telling examples of this is Damon. Damon is gay, and at the start of the first season is thrown out of his parents’ house when they realise this. He’s forced to live on the streets until he’s picked up by Blanca Evangelista, the closest thing Pose has to a protagonist. Blanca enrols Damon into dance school, where he immediately excels and starts a relationship with a fellow formally-homeless dancer named Ricky. None of this is in itself a problem in making Damon a good character – there are lots of talented people whose talents go to waste because of the way society treats them; for their sexuality, their race, their gender identity etc. Seeing someone like Damon succeed is cathartic, and battles many of the tropes that often govern LGBT characters in media, such as the infamous “kill your gays” trope (Murphy made the wise choice of ensuring that no LBGT characters would be killed in the show).

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However, a character being gifted or talented in this way doesn’t mean that they can’t also be flawed, and Damon shows little to nothing in that regard. Pose has a nasty habit of confusing bad things happening to characters with character development. As is to be expected for a show about LGBT characters in the 1980s, things do not go well for most of the show’s main characters, and their efforts to carve a nook of happiness within their circumstances is the central thrust of the story. However, by so often throwing unhappiness in the path of the characters, Pose often forgets to give them internal struggles to contend with as well. Damon is occasionally childish, forgoing safe sex with his boyfriend and thinking about choosing a chance at fame over continuing his education, but these internal conflicts are too quickly resolved. A quick talk from Blanca and he always picks the right path in the end. To watch someone talented on the screen is cathartic, but strip them of any human conflicts and the catharsis lessens – they become more like 2D sketches of people, and watching the success of a cardboard cutout is simply less satisfying. 

This is why I said what I did about Stan. Being rich and white, Stan has practically no external conflicts to contend with. There’s some posturing about having to spend money on only things that help him fit into high society, but you have to have empathy levels through the roof to really feel sorry for someone so well-off struggling with what to buy. Because of that, Stan’s conflicts are all internal. Perhaps as a white character in a television landscape full of them, the writers were more confident with making Stan unlikable for interesting reasons, but were more hesitant to do the same with the show’s trans characters. As Willa Paskin writes in her review, this is a problem of scarcity. As the only show on TV focusing this much on trans characters, “[i]t has to reflect well on all members of the cohort… [the characters] are not granted the full range of human experience but only the affirming, the aspirational, the impressive ones.”

Blanca, the trans woman who establishes the ‘House of Evangelista’ where most of the characters live, is maybe the worst of all; she’s the epitome of the perfect mother; stern but kind. Every character looks up to her and goes to her for advice, and she never puts a step wrong or gives stupid advice. Her problems; a diagnosis of HIV and a family that rejects her, are both external and she deals with them in the best way possible. When Pray Tell, one of the show’s best characters (bolstered by a magnificent performance by Billy Porter), is diagnosed positive, the moment is tragic, and the diagnosis, coupled with the death of his boyfriend, sends him into a spiral. It’s an external problem that has internal ramifications and his pain is made easy to relate to. When Blanca is diagnosed, she handles it with the utmost grace and decorum, to the point where it risks lessening the impact of the diagnosis itself. Why should an audience care about this when it seems that she is able to handle it so well? Why worry about the struggles of anyone in Blanca’s house when she’s always ready with the perfect advice? 

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There’s a scene in the episode, Giving and Receiving, where the character that Blanca reminded of me most was a late-season Leslie Knope. It’s easier to track the progression of Knope, because at the start of Parks and Recreation she was an overly zealous public bureaucrat who was often a pain to work with, but had an admirable sincerity. By the end of the series, she was a perfect boss, beloved by her co-workers who she knew so well that she always knew the best present to give them to make them weep, much like Blanca at the Christmas party. In Leslie Knope, the process was one of flanderization, taking the most attractive elements of her character and smoothing out the edges. Blanca seems to have arrived pre-smoothed; too perfect in execution to ever truly understand as human.

It wouldn’t be fair to say all of the show’s trans and black characters are treated in this way, and the best example of this can be seen in Elektra. Elektra starts off as the show’s antagonist, serving up some of the best insults this side of Armando Iannucci. It seems at first that Elektra is nothing more than a shallow shadow of Blanca, meant to emphasise the unsubtle perfection of Blanca’s style of motherhood. Elektra is seemingly interested only in throwing shade and in being able to ‘pass’, with her insults thrown at other trans womens’ masculine features serving as a vision into her internalised transphobia, something that wise Blanca has seemingly managed to avoid (although it’s not clear as to how – had we seen more of Blanca’s journey to this point, her sage-like wisdom might be easier to swallow).

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However, midway through the show, the writers start to fill in Elektra beyond simple caricature (it’s maybe notable that this process starts in the third episode, the first episode written by trans writers). Elektra gets all her wealth from one seedy rich man, who tightens his control on her when he denies her getting gender confirmation surgery. Here, Elektra realises how much of her power is simply dependent on the grace of those in positions of power above her, and she’s slowly drawn kicking and screaming into the arms of Blanca. It’s not a perfect storyline, ending slightly too quickly and neatly in a turnabout for Elektra, but it’s the only example of a trans character in this show who is truly internally challenged – Elektra’s character, both when she’s cruel and when she reforms, is shaped by her positions in society in an understandable and relatable way. Although she’s cartoonishly villainous at the start, the show pulls back the layers to show why, then challenges her to reflect on her own actions. It’s a really great bit of character storytelling, and one that should have been applied to all the characters in the show. 

If it seems I’m being too harsh on Pose, that’s not a reflection on the show’s quality or my own enjoyment of it; it’s an extremely polished and well-made drama whose unique setting gives it a fascinating selling point to those like me who knew nothing of the ballroom scene. I also don’t want to be seen to be dismissing the show’s stellar representation. In my opinion, Pose’s representation is more than worthwhile, and the fact that this is one of the only shows to hire trans actors for trans characters is shocking. Still, I wish some of this was done with a more confident approach. The writers for this show had to contend with not letting their characters become just another LGBT horror story, while also not falling into the traps of writing minority characters that fall into the tropes I mentioned at the beginning of the article. However, I also think that, by being afraid to give some of its main characters human flaws, it risks alienating the audience from some of them. Pose seems often too afraid to balance the catharsis of allowing its characters to be happy with the reality of letting its characters be sad.

Some more worthwhile reading:

https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/06/200893/pose-episode-1-donald-trump-building-references

https://www.mediaversityreviews.com/tv-reviews/2018/7/25/pose

https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/pose-finale-the-fx-series-is-the-queer-full-house.html

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