Though at times it felt like a dash to the finish line, by the close of its two-hour-long series-finale episode, it was obvious that the LGBTQ drama series Pose had completed everything it desired, on its own terms. Those terms included reframing iconic cultural moments from the 1980s and 1990s to center Black, Brown, queer, and transgender people whose contributions to society have too often been ignored, if not outright erased.
It was all part of the groundbreaking vision put forward by series co-creator, writer, and co-executive producer Stephen Canals and star head writer and director Janet Mock, both of whom revealed that they were telling the stories of people who looked and loved like them. Early highlights of their approach included the opening episodes of seasons one and two.
Reclaiming Queer History
In the series pilot, we watched housemother Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and her children boost historic royal garments from the Museum of Fashion and Design for a majestic battle that gave viewers everything that Madonna’s hot single “Vogue” was missing: authenticity. Though Canals has previously credited Madonna with bringing “ballroom to the mainstream,” Pose’s presentation of “who gets to be the queen” served audiences the genuine delirium of what ballroom means.
In season two’s opener, “Acting Up,” the show reenacted a Dec. 11, 1989 protest that was led by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. On that occasion, 111 protestors collapsed to the floor as part of a die-in during a heavily attended mass, while others spoke out against the Catholic Church’s shameful opposition to HIV/AIDS education.
Though faithful to the energy and staging of that action, Pose reframed the experience so audiences saw it through the eyes of Angel (Indya Moore), Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Pray Tell (Billy Porter), and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain)—two Afro-Latina trans women and two Black queer men.
This reclamation of queer history to include Black, Brown, and queer faces says nothing of the show’s ravishing sexual exploration and candid conversations about desire that previously had been a signature of widely celebrated shows like Sex and the City. A hallmark of Pose is that its characters got to grind in their delectable juices without stigma, shame, or hesitation.
After so Much Whitewashing of Queer Lives
Even among queer-focused works—from How to Survive a Plague to Will & Grace, Ellen, Queer as Folk, The L Word, Nip/Tuck, and most recently It’s a Sin—viewers have rarely been offered this glimpse of what it is like to be Black, Brown, queer, trans, and fighting for our beautiful lives with the same agency that is automatically granted to white characters. Yes, there was the Black gay romantic dramedy, Noah’s Arc, which ran for two seasons 15 years ago, but Black and Brown lives deserve more than that too-brief blip in the sun.
That’s what made Pose’s third and final season so life-affirming, and, now that it’s over, painful. Though it was packed with enough material for at least two seasons, viewers came away from each episode aware that Mock, Canals, and crew were giving not only Black and Brown people, but trans women, all of the flowers that they deserved in a cornucopia of joy worthy of the most decadent balls.
The Ecstasy of Representation
For this viewer, what came to mind while imbibing the constant punch of transcendental joy was a phrase proclaimed by many a ballroom emcee who has been left drunk and gagging on runway realness: “Opulence! You own everything!” And by everything, that meant queering many of the classic storylines that are assigned to cishet, white actors by default.
For example, season three’s third episode, “The Trunk, ” made grand use of Elektra’s infamous possession as a narrative device for exploring her toxic origin story. In doing so, the show upgraded what could have been a simple kitchen-sink drama—as we watched her stare down her abusive mother with major “I Am What I Am” vibes—and used that trauma to re-educate audiences about what is possible for motherless trans people.
Elektra may have been forced to steal back her own stolen possession, but in doing so, she also claimed control of the narrative. More than a poor little girl who has no other option but to be the villain, she emerged as the empress of glamorous pettiness that we know and love. With “The Trunk,” we made the connection between Elektra’s choice to run the world as she sees fit with her compulsion to become the mother she never had—while storing every slight or insult in a decades-old trunk that also housed a picture of the innocent child she used to be.
By airing things out (and disposing of that decomposing body), Pose, once again, subverted the “Trans people are glitzy handbags or tragic jokes” caricatures while illustrating why they are just as Emmy, Oscar, and SAG award-worthy as anyone else.
In episode five, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” that trend continued with a now wealthy and mafia-associated Elektra paying for the wedding of Angel’s dreams. More than a ballroom fantasy, for the first time in this viewer’s memory, audiences were offered an onscreen vision of what it could mean for a trans woman to say “yes to the dress.” The episode positioned Angel, Blanca, Elektra, and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) as the fabulous foursome of Sex and the City, brunching, dishing it up, and exploring what it means to have everything—like a white woman—and claiming that series’ iconic walk for themselves.
The episode also acknowledged that even in a country ruled by capitalism, money falls to the wayside in the face of pervasive racism and transphobia. After finding her gown, Angel learns that the wedding dress store owner will not sell it to her. Instead of allowing the fairytale to be deflated, Elektra taps her mafia friends to, in her own classic fashion, steal back the very dream that others have repeatedly stolen from her and her loved ones. The episode’s final tableau is the manifestation of Angel and Papi’s (Angel Bismark Curiel) “American Dream,” with their house family members replacing the birth relatives who’d rejected them long ago.
A Feast of Realness Mixed With Tributes to Real Life
In the face of criticism that it was perhaps too much, it is important to acknowledge that our community’s representation is not promised. Knowing that we could go another few years before seeing Black and Brown trans and queer people living their lives like they’re golden, Pose made sure that we had more than enough to get us through any drought.
With the series finale, we were left with many gems, but what stood out most for me was the revelation that Pray Tell had been giving his experimental, though lifesaving, HIV medication to his partner, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside). Following a gorgeous performance and Glenn Close–inspired sequence of removing his makeup, we discover that Pray Tell has died. In tandem with feeling sadness at his passing, this viewer was immediately reminded how common it has been for those living with HIV to sacrifice themselves for their family. Former senior editor of TheBody Kenyon Farrow pointed out in a tweet:
Farrow speaks the truth. Five years ago, after I was finally given insurance from the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) to pay for my antiretroviral medication—which costs $3,000 to $4,000 a month—I had to wait another week before receiving my meds because my prescription had expired and there was no doctor available to write a new one for me—not even at the emergency room.
I was dying at that point. When I left the ER, I collapsed to my feet and did not know how I was going to get home. A friend, who is also living with HIV, called me at that moment, concerned, and immediately brought me a month’s supply of his medication. Luckily, my future medication matched his, though at that point, I would have taken those or any pills even if they hadn’t.
Since then, I have also shared my medication with people who have been stabbed by the failures of ADAP’s arbitrary recertification process. Pray Tell is a fictional character, and yet his story belongs to tens of thousands of us. It’s a sign of how far we have come and how much further we need to go before the lives of people who are living with HIV are given the respect that they deserve, particularly when they are Black and Brown.
And that is precisely the point that Pose made with every delicious read, catfight, or ballroom battle: Its characters weren’t just fighting for their lives, they were fighting for ours.
People around the world learned as much last month after Billy Porter disclosed that he is living with HIV, which he had previously avoided doing due to fear of stigma and rejection. In speaking their truth as Black, Brown, queer, trans, and HIV-positive people, the actors of Pose have kicked through a cultural barrier to our onscreen representation.
The final visual reclamation in the series presented ACT UP's dispersal of the cremated remains of friends, lovers, and family members who were killed by AIDS onto the White House lawn in Washington D.C.—but transplanted to the mayoral residence of NYC. By inserting our previously disappeared community into that scene, Pose took us through the fire and showed us that our lives can have the same relevance that we finally saw on screen.
With Pride season upon us, let’s take that big dick, tits, pussy, and ass energy with us as we run through the streets and remind the world how beautiful, messy, and deserving we are and have always been.