Pose had written itself into the history books well before a single second of footage had ever aired.
When FX announced casting on the series created by Ryan Murphy alongside Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, still in the pilot stage at that point, we learned that the prolific and progressive producer had assembled the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles ever for a scripted series. The six-month nationwide search to find and cast MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross in the series alongside cisgender actors like Billy Porter, Kate Mara and Evan Peters, signaled that things would be different on Pose. Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent this was not.
Not only would the series, set in New York City’s queer ballroom scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s—a world that’s exerted an immeasurable amount of influence over pop culture while hardly ever getting the credit it deserved—shine a much-needed spotlight on the stories of LGBTQ people of color in general, but black trans women, specifically, at a time when their average life expectancy sits at a heartbreaking 35 years, but it would endeavor to carve out paths of opportunity for LGBTQ talent behind the camera as well, with Our Lady J and Janet Mock enlisted as writers and producers.
“We are thrilled that Pose pushes the narrative forward by centering on the unique and under-told experiences of trans women and gay people of color,” Canals said at the time. “Ryan has assembled a strong team of storytellers and innovators to collaborate on telling this important narrative. As a Bronx-bred queer writer of color, I’m honored to aid in ushering this groundbreaking show into homes.”
It was the promise of something truly revolutionary.
But a lot can happen as a show makes its way through development and onto the air. And none of it would matter if the thing arrived on TV with a resounding thud. But when Pose debuted on June 3, 2018, weeks after Murphy announced that he would be donating all his profits from the series to non-profit charitable organizations that work with LGBTQ+ people, including the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, the scores from the judges (aka critics and the general audience) were, in true ballroom fashion, 10s across the board.
Over the course of two seasons, with the second season finale airing on Tuesday, Aug. 20, Pose has upended the idea of what a TV show can look like and how it should be made. It employed two trans directors in its first season, with Mock becoming the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of television, the first season’s emotional “Love Is the Message.” Between seasons, the show dropped all of its white, cisgender characters, allowing it to focus more fully on the underrepresented stories it was championing. In its second season, its turned a necessary spotlight on the violence the trans community faces by sacrificing the fan-favorite Candy Ferocity (played by Ross), while also introducing an inter-generational queer love story among two black men living with HIV complete with a steamy love scene between Porter and his co-star, Dyllon Burnside.
It was in that moment that Porter, a veteran of the stage who’s only just now becoming a star of the screen thanks to his work as Pray Tell, the boisterous MC and elder of the ballroom, sees as a sort of culmination in the way Pose has redefined what it means to be a leading man in Hollywood.
“When we have these moments where we can create a space that shows African American men trying to figure out how to love each other as opposed to trying to kill each other … I am so grateful to be a part of something that I see as a change, as a change in the narrative, as a reclamation of our power,” he said during a recent conversation alongside Murphy at New York’s 92Y, held in celebration of his historic Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination, the first for an openly gay black man.
Murphy added that the love scene had an unexpected reaction from the intimacy coordinator helping out on set. “We were shooting Billy’s scene, which is a first, I think, for network TV in its vision and its boldness and its beauty. But at one point, the intimacy coordinator was very quiet, and a producer walked up to her and said, ‘Are you OK?'” he told the actor. “And she burst out into tears. And she said, ‘I cannot believe for the first time that I’m seeing these images.’ It was so beautiful, and you did that. Congratulations.”
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Porter, who’s also become a favorite on the red carpet thanks to his gender-fluid approach to fashion—we lived for his Christian Siriano tuxedo gown at the 2019 Oscars, honey—is far from the only cast member who has pushed the industry forward simply by existing as their authentic selves. Breakout star Moore, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, has not only scored high-profile campaigns with Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein, mirroring their character Angel’s ascension in the modeling world this season, but they became the first transgender person to grace the cover of Elle this June.
After Murphy made the tough decision to kill off Ross’ Candy, he made the actress the first trans actor to secure two series regular roles by creating a role for her in the upcoming American Horror Story: 1984, noting the responsibility he felt to keep her working in an industry that’s not entirely ripe with opportunity for her. “I am very aware of the limitations and obstacles for the actresses who are on the show, and I really want to make sure that they know I love them,” he told Vox last month.
And behind the scenes, Mock, following in Murphy’s footsteps, signed her own landmark overall deal with Netflix in June, making her the first out transgender creator to do such a thing with a major media company. Under her three-year deal, she joins Murphy’s upcoming series Hollywood as both director and executive producer, while also creating shows and films of her own.
While Pose has been a major game-changer for its cast and crew, it’s also had an effect on the industry as a whole. Look no further than its groundbreaking Outstanding Drama Series nomination at this year’s Emmys, making Canals the first Latinx producer to be nominated in the category, as proof of that.
“On one end, it’s such an honor to have your work be recognized by the Television Academy, but then it’s also a little shocking that I’m the first,” the producer, who wrote his first draft of Pose in 2014, told The Hollywood Reporter this month. “I hope that this is the beginning, though, and that there are other young, black, Latinx and LGBTQ people out there who are dying to tell a story, who have a fire to work in this industry and are energized to go out there and make their dreams happen by seeing someone like me nominated.”
It doesn’t stop there, though. As Mock argued during the show’s panel at this summer’s TCA Press Tour, “It opens up conversations about gender expression and presentation.” Explaining that, at the first season premiere, all the men wore suits, she revealed that during the second, “almost every man wears a train.”
“It’s the evolution of the show’s influence,” she continued.
At a time when debate still rages on over who has the right to tell certain stories, with prominent cisgender actors taking on transgender roles (and usually dropping out when the outrage grows to loud), Pose stands as a reminder of what can happen when we make space for underrepresented narratives and the authentic people behind them.
As Angel Bismark Curiel, who plays Lil Papi on the series, noted during the show’s panel, entitled “Televised Revolution: The Beings of Pose,” at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard‘s Pride Summit this month, “It’s time to start unlearning the scripts that were passed down to us.”
With Pose leading the way, we just might.
The season two finale of Pose airs on Tuesday, Aug. 20 at 10 p.m. on FX. Season three arrives in 2020.
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