‘Pose’ and the Continuing Influence of ‘Paris is Burning’

Pose (FX)

Pose is a TV drama depicting the Ballroom competitions in New York during the 1980s at the height of the AIDs epidemic. The Ballroom scene was typified by its transgender, gay and drag performers usually of Hispanic or African American descent. Each week, its competitors are required to dress according to a changing theme, winning points on “realness” and “passing” in the chosen category.  Dance, music and theatrical performances are key to possessing a heralded trophy. Pose’s use of contemporary music is to great effect with particular emphasis on the song  “Love is the Message ” by MFSB which is poignantly used to depict the memory of life before AIDs—the underlying and sometimes overt struggle our characters face.

Pose follows the exploits of Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), a HIV positive trans-woman. Blanca discovers early on in the series she is HIV positive but vows to leave a lasting impression on her world with the House of Evangelista. Blanca becomes Mother and leader of the house— a  family unit that performs together each week. She wants to be remembered. Indeed, memory is a recurring theme throughout the series. The creation of her house forms Pose’s impetus through Blanca’s collection of rejected misfits and their attempt to avoid poverty, disease and unfulfilled dreams.

Pose (FX)

Blanca’s ambition, drive and heart leads her to success within the community as the House of Evangelista makes a name for itself in direct competition with her former “family” the House of Abundance. This continuation of Houses demonstrates the culture’s existence on a historical continuum and its reproductions to the present day. The Ballroom’s influence on popular modern culture is tangible. The dance style of “voguing” was popularised in the mainstream by Madonna whilst the essence of these balls have formed the basis of TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race.

To understand how Ballroom came to the more bourgeois’ attention, it would be remiss to not discuss Paris is Burning. Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary, filmed over several years, explored different “Families” that participated in the Ballroom competition in the late 1980s alongside the struggles and prejudices they faced due to gender identity, sexuality, poverty and race. It was hugely successful and is an obvious influence on Pose. Indeed, Livingstone acted as a consultant/episodic director, with much of Pose’s style and characters influenced by or directly lifted from real life.

Paris is Burning (Off White Productions)

On rewatching Paris is Burning it is striking how much slang is now commonplace on the internet with many people on Twitter or Instagram throwing around words like “sis,” or “shade.” The use of these terms have been co-opted by the mainstream with little knowledge of their history in ball culture. This brings to the forefront an underlying issue with both Pose and Paris is Burning. It is representing the lives of Black and Hispanic members of the LGBTQ+ community but these narratives are communicated through the lens of a white person. Jennie Livingstone who directed the original documentary is a white middle class lesbian woman who won multiple awards for Paris. Most—if not all, of the participants in the documentary did not receive the same renown or any financial gain. As if to highlight this, Venus Xtravaganza (a ballroom performer and trans-woman) was tragically murdered whilst the documentary was still being filmed. By comparison, Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, The People vs OJ Simpson) is a hugely successful award winning TV writer and director. 

Feminist scholar bell hooks (whose pen name is de-capitalised) questioned whether Livingstone’s documentary was exploitative. Did she act as a voyeur of a culture that wasn’t hers to share?  Whilst hook praises drag as a way of challenging  or questioning “gender norms,” her same criticism of Paris can be applied to Pose. It is a difficult question to answer especially by me as cis heterosexual white woman. But, it is important to acknowledge that perhaps we have been presented with a sanitised view of history repurposed for a white audience and our privilege in being able to act as a voyeur of this community without facing its conflicts and tragedies in our own lives. This is by no means to the detriment of the performances within the show. They are an outstanding cast across the board. Pose also has the largest ever transgender cast in a television series— truly an achievement for diversity and accurate storytelling.

Paris is Burning (Off White Productions)

Something Pose should also be praised for is its recreation of the fear, dread and expectation of the AIDs epidemic. Pose’s devastating depiction of the virus shows its impact on the victims, their loved ones, its presence in forming new relationships, its perception as a punishment contributing to well-established homophobia and how little was done to help. The question hangs in the air in almost every scene: “are you positive?” Pray Tell, a Ballroom MC brilliantly played by Billy Porter, suggests no cure could be found whilst the President at the time (Ronald Reagan) refuses to even say the virus’ name aloud. Victims were sidelined and expected to die. If people who were HIV positive were not being acknowledged in their lives, how could they expect to be medically treated or even remembered after. Murphy’s depiction of an AIDs hospital ward is bleak, with patients waiting in unforgivable conditions and nurses leaving food outside their rooms. Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard), one of the few positive portrayals of a medical professional, asks Pray Tell what she is supposed to do to improve a ward where none of the patients get better. This was their fate at the time. The expectation of death by the establishment made it inevitable. Pose shows how life continued despite this, and the resilience of a community refusing to be forgotten.

The Queens, Mothers and family units they formed were not accepted in the mainstream. Pose demonstrates how the sidelined and mistreated were able to create a queer space where they were accepted and more so, gain recognition and purpose. No person should have to complete impossible achievements in order to be worthy of remembrance, but life can often force us to feel this way— especially when our own immortality becomes apparent. Murphy’s Pose shows us the subjectivity of these dreams worthy of remembrance.  In recreating this history further gains are made for the LGBTQ+ community. Pray Tell laments in another scene, “our kind could be just a memory.” Pose positions this community front and centre of our present, living not just in memory.

Pose is available to watch on BBC iPlayer (Seasons 1&2) and on Netflix (Season 1). Paris is Burning is currently available to watch in full on Youtube

by Catherine McNaughton

Catherine is currently studying at the University of Manchester. Inspired by feminism and Debbie Harry. Her favourite films include AmelieBefore Sunset and Moonlight. You can find her on twitter: @__CatherineMac

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