Radical, Fierce, Empowering: Why Mr Ryan Murphy’s Pose Rewrites The Rules
Mr Billy Porter in Pose, Season 3, Episode 3 (2021). Photograph by Mr Eric Liebowitz/FX.
Nip/Tuck. American Horror Story. The Assassination Of Gianni Versace. Glee. Chances are, if you’ve been watching television in the past 20 years, you’ll have been watching one of Mr Ryan Murphy’s shows. “The most powerful man in television”, according to The New Yorker, Murphy’s 2019 $300m development deal with Netflix is the largest in small-screen history. It means that Murphy can do what he wants on TV, and what he wants to do is bright, brash and inclusive storytelling that brings marginalised voices to the masses in a major way.
It’s a vision that runs through all of this gay, Indianapolis-born showrunner’s work and most successfully realised in Pose, his LGBTQIA+ drama, which reaches its crescendo on US screens this month, coinciding with the start of the community’s annual Pride celebrations. The drama, the third and final season of which is currently airing on FX, follows a group of African-American and Latino LGBTQIA+ people in the underground ballroom scene in 1980s New York. Balls were – and remain – gladiatorial style arenas in which competitors show off legendary looks, walks and dance moves to be marked out of 10 by the judges, potentially win trophies, praise from the MC and the respect of their teammates, or “houses”.
Needless to say, Pose is super fun, as contestants walk to a soundtrack of Ms Donna Summer and scathing critiques from the MC Pray Tell, played by Mr Billy Porter. But what gives the show its substance is the ballroom world. The houses, centred around a mother figure, are chosen families for queer kids who have not found acceptance at home. Pose’s maternal figure is Blanca (played by Ms MJ Rodriguez), who creates a home and a safe space for a gaggle of young gay men and trans women. She gives shelter to her “children” and helps them find employment, healthcare and, sometimes, happiness, in a world that they have to fight to survive in.
Ms MJ Rodriguez, Mr Billy Porter and Mr Angel Bismark in Pose, Season 3, Episode 1 (2021). Photograph by Mr Eric Liebowitz/FX.
Until Pose, the representation of trans women on television had been marginalised; they were either punchline or victim at a crime scene. They rarely had any lines, in either scenario. Murphy’s project gives them voice and centres their stories in groundbreaking ways on screen and off. In front of camera, trans women of colour are given unprecedented screen time to tell their stories and the show features the largest trans cast in television history. Behind the scenes, Ms Janet Mock became the first trans woman of colour to write and direct a television episode. She has since signed a multi-million-dollar deal at Netflix.
Pose has set the agenda in style, too, in large part through the sterling work of Mr Billy Porter on red carpets everywhere. Porter’s awards-season looks have included, but are in no way limited to: a custom Baja East crystal ensemble and a motorised curtains hat, worn to the Grammys; for the 2019 Oscars, a black velvet Christian Siriano ball gown and matching tuxedo jacket; and at the Met Gala the same year, a glittering gold bodysuit with wings. Oh, and he was carried aloft unto the red carpet by a group of shirtless gold-coloured men.
These red-carpet extravaganzas mirror fantasies that the characters of Pose play out in the ballroom. The competitions celebrate and satirise wealth and glamour in categories such as “Executive Realness”, a nod to the excesses of Wall Street and lives to which these LGBTQ+ people of colour did not have access to. Instead, they faced discrimination in employment, housing and healthcare, issues compounded by the Aids crisis, which took a hold on the community in late 1980s New York.
It’s no spoiler to say that Pose’s third and final season (airing in the UK on BBC in the summer, then streaming on Netflix) will see the epidemic make its way into the ballroom scene to devastating effect. Like Mr Russell T Davies’ UK set Aids drama It’s A Sin, Murphy’s show has opened up a dialogue about Aids and what it means to live with HIV now. Pose has been radical in this respect, too; ahead of the final season, Billy Porter came out as HIV-positive, a status he’d kept secret for 14 years.
Porter is set to star in his own documentary about his life and work with Murphy – who has used his golden handshake with Netflix to greenlight a plethora of LGBTQIA+ dramas and documentaries. Mock, meanwhile, also plans to adapt her memoir of her journey as a young trans person. Cast members such as MJ Rodriguez had been given a platform rarely offered to trans persons in the creative industries. It all means that LGBTQIA+ people of colour’s stories continue to be told, in ways that before Murphy’s show, would have been unimaginable. That’s the power of Pose.