Published On: Wed, Jun 6th, 2018

Ryan Murphy’s Pose creates a safe space — a bit too safe — for its stars

When certain friends of mine heard that the television-making machine known as Ryan Murphy (Glee, Feud, American Horror Story, American Crime Story) was writing/producing/directing Pose, a new series about the downtown ball scene in New York City circa 1986, they groaned aloud.

Could Hollywood’s most in-demand producer, a privileged, white, married, gay father, who just signed a Netflix deal worth up to $ 300 million (U.S.), even remember what it feels like to be an outsider?

Indya Moore as Angel in a scene from the new series Pose.
Indya Moore as Angel in a scene from the new series Pose.  (JOJO WHILDEN / FX)

The question right now, whether your medium is novels, films or series, is this: Who has the right to tell which story? Murphy’s response is a good one: he crowded his cast, crew and writers’ room with queer and trans people whose stories have never been explored this fully before and asked them to tell their truth. (His writers include Janet Mock, the trans activist and author of the bestseller Redefining Realness; and Our Lady J, who’s also a writer/producer on Transparent.)

The results are poignant. Even at the peak of the AIDS crisis, the trans characters in Pose (which airs on FX) know they’re the bottom rung of the social ladder, the dog that everyone else gets to kick. More than one was thrown out of his or her home by their own parents, but each version we hear of that story stings anew. They fled to crack-addled Manhattan, where they formed new families of their own choosing, and created a form of entertainment where they could be applauded instead of derided.

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In ball culture, teams are called Houses (“Your house is your home” is a repeated refrain) and House leaders are Mothers. That’s heart-tugging in its yearning for love and safety. So is a frequent trope where a character — Angel (Indya Moore), for example, the love object of a cis-male Trump employee (!); or Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), who starts her own House — begins to cry, but summons her dignity and stops herself.

The competitions themselves are exercises in fantasy, but the fantasies are about ordinariness. Contestants vie to be the most “real” (believable) in categories like “weathergirl” or “ordering a drink at the St. Regis” — commonplace occupations or occurrences that many of us wouldn’t think twice about, but which the characters are denied.

Pose’s first three episodes explore its characters’ softer sides to drive home the point that what they long for is universally human. But I lived in New York City in 1986 and it was a nasty, brutish place, tough going for anyone but the superrich and especially hard on anyone fragile. The characters make wry jokes about ending up dead in the gutter, but that risk is all too real.

I can see why Murphy and company are sanding off their heroines’ rough edges and showing us their sweet strength. But the fight for survival can lead people down some dark alleys, both physically and emotionally, and I want to hear those stories, too. I want to see these characters’ whole selves, their true realness.

Johanna Schneller writes weekly about television’s impact on culture. Outside the Box usually appears Thursdays.

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Ryan Murphy’s Pose creates a safe space — a bit too safe — for its stars