By Trish Bendix
If you’re going to make a television show about vogue balls, queer black men, and trans women of color, you have to hire them to tell their own stories.
“Paris is Burning,” the famous 1990 documentary about New York City’s late-’80s ball culture, has been the subject of both praise and criticism over the years, the latter coming from the fact that the filmmaker was a cis white woman. Despite Jennie Livingston’s being a part of the greater community (she’s an out lesbian), the ballroom was not her space, and critics argued she benefited off of the film’s success more than her subjects (many Black and Latinx queer and trans individuals who struggled with living below poverty level and homelessness). bell hooks dedicated a chapter of her book Black Looks: Race and Representation to the film, arguing that instead of uplifting those it claims to shine a light on, instead presents an “obsession with an idealized fetishized vision of femininity that is white.”
“For in many ways the film was a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit,” hooks argued, referring to many viewers as “voyeurs of black gay subculture.”
“The ‘we’ evoked here is all of us, black people/people of color, who are daily bombarded by a powerful colonizing whiteness that seduces us away fro m ourselves, that negates that there is beauty to be found in any form of blackness that is not imitation whiteness,” she continued.
In short, Livingston’s portrait is one with a white gaze, bells says, that makes a spectacle of its central characters.
What “Paris is Burning” spawned, though, was not only a mainstreaming of “Vogue” (thanks in part to Madonna), but inspiration for a generation of LGBTQs who could visualize a life of chosen family and community that they otherwise could not imagine. Yet from this some would argue flawed portrait of houses and competitions came a higher visibility of drag (RuPaul often quotes and credits the film), as well as a television show 18 years later that has the scene’s stars not just appearing, but consulting on and directly influencing everything from storylines to the direction a queen might twirl. Those specificities are what will make FX’s upcoming series Pose a successful show — as long as Ryan Murphy gets out of his own way.
Yesterday at the Television Critics Press Tour, reporters were introduced to the stars of “Pose.” The white cis ones are familiar to most households — Evan Peters, Kate Mara, James Van Der Beeks — but the others, the true stars of the show, don’t have a lengthy IMDB page just yet. Ryan Jamaal Swain, Indya Moore, MJ Rodriguez, and Dominique Jackson, all queer and trans actors of color, took the stage next to Murphy and his fellow frequent collaborators Nina Jacobson, Brad Falchuck, and Brad Simpson, as well as ”Pose″ creator Steven Canals and series writer Janet Mock. Murphy sat front and center, with the others placed around him, making it hard to ignore the fact that he is the reason Pose is allowed to exist.
One of Hollywood’s most polarizing writer/director/producers, Murphy has a lengthy history of queering television. In his series “Popular,” “Nip/Tuck,” “The New Normal,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Scream Queens” and the upcoming “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” Murphy has offered a significant amount of LGBTQ characters in his canon, and with great range comes greater criticism. Some of the storylines were ill-conceived (see: Unique on “Glee” being taunted with transphobic jokes from her peers) while others were heroic (such as Sarah Paulson’s Emmy-nominated turn as final girl Lana Winters in “American Horror Story: Asylum”). And because he’s offered more of them than any other producer on modern TV, he’s subject to more discernment, especially because he is a rich white cis gay man. So when it’s announced that he is the one behind a story like Pose, it’s no wonder people are concerned he’s creating “Paris is Burning” 2.0.
“Well, I’ve always loved ‘Paris Is Burning,’” Murphy said. He told critics that he and producing partner Falchuck (a self-professed “token straight white man”) were first interested in doing a televised version of the documentary.
“But the more we talked about it and the more we worked on it, I sort of felt that it was very difficult to take those people that were iconic and make sort of fictionalized versions of their lives,” Murphy said. “So then we put it aside, and then we got Steven’s script that he had written, Pose, which is this story.”
Steven Canals, a self-described “Bronx born and raised, queer, Afro Latino,” first wrote the Pose pilot while attending UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program in 2015.
“I’d spent years in and out of executive offices being told that this script was too niche and that there wasn’t an audience for it, and ‘Where would a show like this live?’” he told critics.
Canals, who has also worked as a research assistant to Milk and When We Rise director Dustin Lance Black, said he felt lucky his script made it to Murphy’s desk.
“During that first meeting with Ryan, he just he got it,” Canals said. “He understood exactly why this story was important. And he had his own very personal reasons for wanting to tell it as well. And so it’s just been a really wonderful experience from the beginning, and to open up the door for this particular cast to be telling this story is pretty amazing.”
Murphy might be the reason FX decided to give Pose, an atypical series compared to their otherwise non-Murphy-related line-up of shows like “Fargo,” “The Americans” or “Louie,” a shot, but the end result would be disastrous were it not for Canals, Mock, and other consultants familiar with their own culture having their hands in the soil of the show.
“I was constantly corrected by these wonderful people that I love,” Murphy said. ”‘We didn’t do it that way.’ And ‘You can’t do that that way. You just can’t do it that way.’ ‘We’re not going to,‘” he quoted his consultants. “So I was thrilled, you know. I don’t have a lot of people who tell me ‘no,’ and I was told no 50,000 times a day, and that’s what I wanted.”
And this time, the ones doing the labor are getting both compensated and credited for their work. Mock shared that while she engaged in very vulnerable and personal conversations in the writers’ room, she found that her stories helped to form storylines and characters that would otherwise be stereotypical or, worse, offensive.
“You see how these courageous conversations and these vulnerable conversations that we’re having with one another then show up in the scripts and on screen and really informs the way that we shape the show,” Mock says. “But then we have these incredible actors and actresses who come in and bring themselves to it, and there’s a whole new life to the way in which Indya plays Angel and Dominique plays Elektra and MJ plays Blanca. It’s a powerful process to see and to witness.”
Jackson, a Tobago-born trans woman who moved to New York in the ’90s and experienced a bout of homelessness before becoming a fashion model and recently appeared on the Oxygen series “Strut,” said working on “Pose” was “an amazing experience for all of us to be actually seen as actors that can portray and actually work professionally.” Having participated in the ballroom scene herself, she speaks to the way it has changed from the pre-“Paris is Burning″ to now.
“Back then, it was more of a fight for family,” she said. “It was more of a fight for unity, and yet there was competition. It was about a group of people that were denied by their families, by society, that said that, ‘We’re going to have our own thing and bring that together.’”
Now, Jackson noted, vogue balls are happening all over the world.
“There are houses that are in Japan. There are houses in London. They have balls all over, even in Italy,” she says. “And people of the ballroom scene are actually employed, flying to these places, being able to speak about and demonstrate what ballroom culture is. And you’re finding more and more that ballroom culture is now really going back to the fact of family, of love, of people accepting you for who you are.”
Indya Moore, a 22-year-old model/actor who tells INTO she just left her group foster home within the last year with the help of her manager, says Pose is particularly personal to her as a trans woman living in New York who is also a member of the House of Xtravaganza.
“There are so many things that are built up against me as a trans woman of color,” Moore tells INTO. “I was struggling with employment which contributed to my housing crisis. It’s very, very expensive to live in New York City.”
Similarly to Mock’s time in the writers’ room, Moore finds her life has informed her character in “Pose.”
“I’m able to pull from those experiences,” she says. “I’m able to utilize my trauma to be able to take on these characters and the things that they go through; the feats. It is very heavy but it’s also, in a way, therapeutic.”
Ryan Murphy might be helming a show about trans and queer people of color, but the TQPOC he’s hired to write, star in, and consult on Pose are ultimately the ones dictating its stories. Moore says she has the support of her House of Xtravaganza family members (“They know I’m going to come up here and represent the way we are, the way we exist.”), and she also speaks candidly about the kinds of things bell hooks first pointed out about “Paris is Burning”’s failures. She hopes that Pose will help inform the world of how colonialism and racism and transphobia are forever intertwined; how the gender binary has hurt not only people of color, trans people, women, and, especially, black trans women, but every single potential “Pose” viewer.
“Our community is still affected by the impositions of post-colonial imperial binary,” she says. “We can’t talk about transphobia without talking about that. We can’t have these conversations about transphobia without talking about colonialism, because colonialism stripped away the gender variance that so many people around the world, so many indigenous cultures have already—people of color, our ancestors. So again, we can’t talk about racism and transphobia especially without talking about how it’s affected gender variant people over time, and the way this binary was pushed onto all cultures all over the world, now we’re still seeing the affects of that today in our own communities.”
Should Pose accurately attempt to take on these notions without, as RuPaul says, fucking it up, it will be a masterclass in how a rich white gay man can utilize his powers for good, without being hailed as a hero so much as he is a catalyst for change.
“It’s about broadening perspective,” Murphy said. “It’s about meeting people and putting yourself in situations that you for our audience, I’m sure that this will, for many of them, be the first time that they see a show about or meet a character who’s involved in the ballroom scene. I just think it’s about being open.”
For Mock, she says that “Pose”’s ability to move beyond trans 101 (characters struggling with their transness and finding ways to come out) and telling stories of fully-realized people who are past the initial struggle of self-realization and instead, having to find their way in a world largely set up against them was the appeal.
“To have these characters in that space,” she said, “with just their bodies and their creativity and their talent, come together and try to figure out what the world means beyond just their transness, I think, is vital and important and exciting about the show.”
For Moore, an added bonus is the ability to prove to her parents that she is not just surviving, but thriving.
“I feel so proud and I can’t wait for the world to see it,” she said. “I can’t wait for my parents to see it. My parents — everyone is always worried about me, you know. I’m trans and being among the most vulnerable groups of people in the world as a trans woman of color, my parents have a lot — they’re very, very concerned about my success and me being able to stay focused and be safe, to live healthfully and happily.”
A happy ending, perhaps, for the “Paris is Burning” set who inspired it all.
Pose will premiere on FX this summer.
Images via Getty