When we think of the 1980s, images of Madonna, huge curly hair, leg warmers and movies like “Back to the Future” are what we normally conjure up. However, in the midst of synth pop hits and happy-go-lucky family sitcoms, there existed hardships experienced by an entire population of silenced voices, voices that thankfully have been brought to life by FX’s new series “Pose“. “Pose”’s core story surrounds the formation of a chosen family of homeless queer youth in 1987 New York, a family that provides unconditional love and support. At the helm of that family is the series’ primary protagonist, Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez). As a new house mother who has been diagnosed with HIV, a death sentence in the late ‘80s, Blanca is determined to set the best example she can for the family she forms.
For those who have seen Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary “Paris is Burning”, “Pose’”s setting will be familiar. The drag balls in NYC in the late 1980s provide the backdrop to its story, and as they did in real life, play host majorly to black or Latinx gay and transgender people living in poverty after facing rejection from the families they grew up with. These balls were one of the truest reflections of a central idea in the LGBTQ+ community of a “chosen family”, where if you were kicked out of your biological home because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you could still find refuge, safety and happiness with those facing this same discrimination. The balls were a coalescence of these LGBTQ+ people; as designated houses with a “mother” at its head to be responsible for her “children”, competitions were held to see who could achieve “realness” in each of the competitive categories. Realness is, at its most basic definition, seen as passing, as trans women passing as cisgendered women, as gay people passing for straight people, and in doing so gaining the freedoms of the straight, white, cis, wealthy, mainstream world. The balls were manifestations of fantasies, of the most disenfranchised, marginalized population of people giving themselves a space to feel like they too could participate in the success and safety shared by those with greater privilege.
The thing is, with such a heavy emphasis on having a family that you choose and that chooses you back no matter what, “Pose” makes you want to join the House of Evangelista. I want Blanca as my mother, a mother who takes no shit from her kids and can be harsh on them, but only because she cares so deeply and harbors such belief in their ability to succeed. And that’s what also makes “Pose” so unique: in a world of “edgy” and often tragic queer stories, these characters are allowed to succeed, to make mistakes and have their hearts broken and find themselves at rock bottom, but to also rise out of that place and realize their own greatness. This greatness, and these character’s versions of success, are found at these balls, a hidden world that “Pose” generously unearths for us viewers.
The balls themselves are magical and otherworldly; there’s at least one scene set there every episode, and being transported to that place of glitter, high fashion, humor and cutthroat rivalry never loses its wonder. The costumes are spectacular, and the desolation of the character’s home lives and the New York they inhabit is dimmed in contrast with the fabulousness of the fashion on display at the balls. The actors themselves are the same, as the show has prominently placed five beautifully talented transgender women of color at the forefront of the series. Blanca leads at the helm as a passionate, powerhouse mother, but she is not to be outdone by the glamour of competing diva Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson). Though Elektra is sometimes one of the weaker spots in terms of her camp, over-the-top dialogue delivery, she carries out one of the most compelling character arcs of the series, beautifully balancing her roles as the one you love to hate and the one you can’t help but root for.
The quietly and mysteriously gorgeous Angel (Indya Moore) provides an inspiring subplot of her own for viewers to consider. In the process of falling in love with Stan (Evan Peters), a married, up-and-coming businessman trying to climb the ladder of success at Trump Tower, Angel slowly but surely discovers her own self-worth. Despite Stan’s repeated acts of abandonment, Angel’s family is always there for her without fail and her place among them is solidified when she is finally able to accept that she can be successful without Stan. In the political climate we currently inhabit, there is hardly anything more powerful than seeing a queer woman decide that her own well-being and place in her family is more important than the whims of a greedy white man trying to make a name for himself under Trump’s influence. Angel visibly holds a great amount of sadness within her, but seeing her triumph over that sadness in such a well-executed emotional journey was one of the most empowering aspects to watch over the course of this season.
At the end of it all, “Pose” is a queer version of every feel-good family show out there. The stakes are different: the conflicts surround issues of identity, illness and self-worth rather than light-hearted, “Full House”-esque escapades, and nearly everyone is queer and non-white. But, in watching “Pose”, I couldn’t help but feel so full of love and warmth for the members of the House of Evangelista, and for the concept of the balls themselves. These communities rose up from the ashes on the fringes of society to give respite to people who had nowhere to go in a world that viewed them as dispensable. Watching Blanca do right by her kids and help them achieve a better life for themselves is a joyous thing to watch unfold, so much so that the finale’s happy ending had me shocked at how well things turned out for them all. “Pose” offers a glimpse into a lesser-known period of American history filled with losses and triumphs, glamour and destitution, a breath of hopeful fresh air in the tumultuous times we live in. It leaves viewers with the undeniable knowledge that queer people of color deserve to be happy as they are, and that there are stories that exist where they are without having to change a thing.