The third and final season of POSE is due to be released on Netflix this May. Now more than ever, it is a good time to reflect on the impact that this series has made and the myths it has broken within Hollywood. With five transgender women playing main roles in the series, Ryan Murphy’s trailblazing hit is paving the way for trans actors to tell their stories.
What is POSE?
POSE begins in 1987 and takes us through to the early 1990’s in the New York ballroom scene. It focuses on the specific struggles that LGBTQ+ people of colour faced, and how the ballroom community was established through shared struggle and the need for a home. The ballroom scene is based on music, dance and fashion – through which members of particular groups knows as ‘Houses’, often named after stars of the fashion industry of the time, compete. Additionally, within the backdrop of this time lurks the AIDS epidemic and we see first-hand how it impacts the lives of many characters.
The opening shot of the pilot episode shows the House of Abundance preparing for an upcoming ball. The house is mainly comprised of women, Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), Lulu (Hailie Sahar), Candy (Angelica Ross) and the mother of the house, Elecktra (Dominique Jackson). From the outset the women take prominence. Tensions within the house become immediately clear, as seen in the snide comment of “crossdresser” towards one member of the house, Blanca. This is the first indication to the audience that Blanca is a trans woman.
Layers of the characters’ stories are then revealed to us. We are introduced to young Damon; thrown out of his home upon telling his father he is gay. We are taken into a dreary hospital with Blanca who receives her diagnoses as HIV+; a stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the ball she walked in moments before.
Representation in Creation and Production
One of the standout aspects of POSE is its representative nature. In choosing Janet Mock and Lady J to work as writer-producers, creator Ryan Murphy ensures that the show is written from the unique perspective of those who can highlight the personal struggles that these trans characters face. POSE is authentic, as the stories of the characters are most likely ones experienced within the community of the writing team itself.
The truthfulness in the stories conveyed in POSE flow from the writers through the cast and to the audience. The five women of the aforementioned House of Abundance shape the narrative of the series. We are taken with them on the issues their characters face as trans women in 1980’s/1990’s America. Their situations represent real-life hardships, such as trans women often being fetishised by men – we see Elektra lose her wealthy boyfriend after she fully transitions to being biologically female. It reflects the lack of trust in the system these women have. One storyline (based on a real event) involves Elektra hiding a body after an accidental death, knowing that as a trans woman she would not make it through the prison system (the ‘cadaver in the closet’ episode). Everyday challenges are also shown, as the characters face the constant danger of “being clocked”.
In POSE, these trans women do not have a backstory segment – their past transitions do not need to be included to understand their story. In this, the show reflects real life; we do not receive people’s history before we meet them.
The Importance of Trans Actors Playing Trans Characters
In having trans actors portray trans characters, it becomes all the more clear that it is wrong for cisgender men to portray trans characters. This can particularly apply to the flimsy excuse made in recent times, whereby the justification of a cisgender man portraying a trans character is seen as fine if they are a reputable actor whose name is required in the cast for publicity. Rather than rely on such Hollywood names, POSE opts for telling trans stories by those who have lived them.
There are many issues with cis men playing the roles of trans women. While promoting The Danish Girl Eddie Redmayne described it as a “great privilege” to play Lili Elbe, a pioneering trans woman. However, Redmayne faced backlash against his portrayal as some trans people likened it to a “caricature”. Although trans people were featured in the cast and writing team, the appearance of Redmayne away from the film set as a cisgender man, to some, emboldens the harmful stereotype that transgender women are merely men dressed as women. It erases their everyday struggle and diminishes their journey in identity.
Similarly, Jared Leo faced criticism in his portrayal as trans woman, Rayon, in the critically acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. While the role awarded him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Leto faced critique over tapping into every transgender stereotype and calling his character a “beautiful creature”. Additionally, the director made it clear that he “never” thought of casting a trans actor, questioning if any even existed. This makes it clear that Rayon was not created to portray the struggles that trans women faced at that time and instead was made entirely for publicity.
POSE Season Three
On the eve of the upcoming series, we should reflect on the steps the show has taken to right the wrongs of previous representations of trans characters. In both The Danish Girl and Dallas Buyers Club, trans characters are temporary. The cisgender men who play them can move on and continue their lives as men. Contrast this to the women in POSE, who appear to embody themselves, their sisters, and those gone before them; they reflect the lives they continue to live off-screen.