Pose and the limits of representation politics

The third and final series of Pose has come a close, the final episode airing on BBC Two last night. The show was a landmark moment for trans television representation, but ultimately, its obsession with being "seen" obstructed meaningful storytelling.

Fuck Hollywood… Does this make you uncomfortable? It should. It should make you fucking shake in your motherfucking boots. This is speaking [the] truth. This is what Pose is…”

At a glittering, well-attended industry party for the American premiere of Poses third and final season in April, its executive producer and director, Janet Mock, took to the podium to give a wild, scattergun, 15-minute speech that left attendees clutching their pearls in shell shocked silence. Her infamous takedown about the behind-the-scenes, inner workings of what once promised to be a halcyon age for trans television representation begged the question: Just how did Pose end up here?

The answer is a fable, a cautionary tale about the hard limits of projects for which the ostensibly progressive politics of representation act as a stand-in for authenticity and quality. It’s a demonstration that the forces and politics that precipitate and prioritise the breaking of glass ceilings and the trumpeting of firsts”, do not lay the foundation nor offer the tools to continue to build steady and skyward.

Littered among the messy, interpersonal contents of her taboo yet deliciously frank speech were a number of noteworthy moments. Mock publicly criticised the poor quality of the show’s writing, particularly that of the male writers, directly confronting the show’s creator, fellow EP and homosexual Hollywood bigwig, Ryan Murphy (Ratched, American Horror Story, Glee), saying that he had to bring the girls in” after episode two to try and salvage it. Mock was effectively saying what we all knew – that the show’s writing had been shaky from the get-go and, if it had ever been good, it certainly was not now. Criticisms of the show’s writing have often largely been tempered by what was perceived to be its higher function of representation”. And with the largest cast of trans actors in TV history, Pose did indeed make a mark. But even then, it is undeniable that the dialogue, plots and character development were often, at best, hamfisted and naive, and at worst, amateurish.

The show seemed far more concerned with making memorable television than it did good television – and it succeeded at that. Every ballroom scene vibrated with life, all opulent costumes and hot, camp breathless spectacle. Ballroom descendants of the legendary New York houses were cast in these scenes, lofting and voguing alongside the main ensemble, lending them a genuine authenticity and magic. Many of the show’s other memorable vignettes came courtesy of Dominique Jacksons show-stealing performance as house mother, fashion icon and unrepentant narcissist, Elektra Abundance, her reads and proclamations usually delivered to melodramatic perfection.

But the show struggled to deliver nuance in its quieter and more contemplative moments. Yes, Pose tackled tough issues and important themes: foremost, an HIV pandemic that at its peak irrevocably devastated our community, loneliness, isolation, racist and transmisogynistic violence, drug addiction and death. But many of the show’s characters and the conversations they had were often visibly strained to be didactic. Dialogue felt stifled and forced, like a school assembly designed to inspire, rather than tell the complex stories and truths of long marginalised peoples. It was so concerned with the biggest picture, the biggest questions – of the symbolic, of the history being made – that smaller things like acting and plot fell into neglect. It sometimes felt like characters were simply deployed to ventriloquise issues and discourse, as vulgar shorthand for opposing political and moral positions in imagined debates, rather than living, breathing humans with depth.

Poses sins and its subsequent decline and fall are not unique. Kerry Washington as Scandals Olivia Pope was the first African-American woman since 1974 to headline a network TV drama and, as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis became the first woman of colour to win the Emmy for best actress in a drama series. Both Scandal and HTGAWM were two shows that saw hype and conversations about their boundary-breaking representation ultimately end up taking primacy over the sense and quality of the plot.

Pose spent much of its second season, set in the early 90s, attempting to dissect the politics and ethics of Madonnas Vogue – namely, questions about ownership of the aesthetics, language and success of vogue and ballroom culture, now mainstreamed by her hit single and video. It attempted to deal with what happens when a community is seen and appropriated into the cultural lexicon, while its innovators are alienated from material benefit and fruits of their cultural labour; the failure of justice served to the people on whose backs, lives and experiences this diluted cultural event was made.

The irony is that Pose is the natural conclusion of an industry and a society that believes representation and visibility are material substitutes for justice, proper remuneration and safety. In series two, episode three, Candy tells beloved ballroom MC, Praytell (played by Billy Porter, who won a historic Emmy for the role), It’s our time, our time to be seen.” Pose was a show obsessed with the liberal idea of being seen” as a singular, transcendent affirmation of life, yet one that often failed to make the explicit connection between sight – increased visibility – and violence.

It’s a show, but it means so much to everyone to ensure that we enable black and brown trans women to make it’ because that sounds good,” Mock said in her speech. It makes you comfortable to talk like that because then I don’t scare you into facing the fucking truth. You all have stomped on us.”

This is not to suggest representation politics are fruitless and without any liberatory function. Representation is a source of joy and possibility models. As a lens through which our endless and mercurial potentials might be revealed to us, it is a valid and useful thing.

But quality in the art that represents us is not an unreasonable demand to make of television executives, actors and self-appointed storytellers. Representation without justice and authenticity is voyeurism. It is not enough that film and television which seeks to break taboos, boundaries and longstanding erasures of minorities merely represent” us. We can, and should, demand it be good. The promises and truths of our lives, our bodies, our dreams – which have so long been denied to us by those in power – deserve to be made good on.

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