‘Pose’ is a masterful piece of queer historical fiction
What makes Pose honest and authentic is that it is rooted in the history that has molded our culture and communities.
This essay contains spoilers for season two of Pose, as well as discussion of transmisogyny.
by Avery Ware
“On the heels of Pose, so many more folks are aware of ballroom culture and vogue is in vogue again,” says creator, director, and executive producer Steven Canals of FX’s hit series Pose – a drama that explores ball culture and its queer and trans, Black and Brown tenents of the 1980s and 90s. But Pose not only exposes us to the underground ballroom culture. It also exposes the audience to preeminent queer history that is often untaught or altogether erased.
Through its amazing storytelling, Pose provides us with a medium to experience a range of emotions: joy, rage, sadness. It also allows the audience to flourish in an intellectual capacity by incorporating historical facts and narratives into its fictional plot. This is why it’s historical fiction – a literary genre where the plot is set in the past and draws on social conditions and events of the period.
Historical fiction is traditionally referred to when discussing (written) literature, such as novels, but it has also been adopted by other mediums – such as television (although I would argue that television is also a form of literature). Part of what makes Pose honest and authentic is that it is rooted in the history that has molded our culture and communities. The stories of our ancestors that are often forgotten, but that are essential to grasping modern movements and understandings of queerness and Black queerness.
In a recent episode of the show’s second season, “Butterfly/Cocoon,” Elektra (Dominique Jackson) finds herself in a precarious situation when one of her clients has an adverse reaction to a cocktail of drugs, chokes on his own vomit, and dies. Elektra, while not at fault, knows that going to the police will only place her in a further precarious ordeal given that her identity – a Black trans woman – would automatically render her guilty regardless of the truth. A statement to the fact that the prison industrial complex does not protect and serve those of marginalized identities, an actuality that has not improved much from the 1990s, the era in which season two is set, as transwomen continue to mysteriously die in jail cells and ICE custody.
Elektra turns to Candy (Angelica Ross) and Ms. Orlando (Cecilia Gentili), her community, for an alternative solution. The three of them “cocoon” the body – they fold the body into a fetal position into fabric, mask the smell with lye, and tightly sow the body in pleather. They place the body into an old trunk and hide it in the back of Elektra’s closet.
As director Janet Mock stated on her Twitter, Elektra’s unsettling circumstance is rooted in the true event of ballroom legend Dorian Corey. The body of Robert “Bobby” Worley was found in Corey’s closet in 1993, two months after her death. Officials concluded that Worley’s body had been there for at least 20 years prior to the discovery. While there is speculation of the relationship between Corey and Worley – whether they were lovers or Worley attempted to rob Corey’s home – and speculation surrounding if Corey killed Worley and if she did, why – the circumstances ring similar to Elektra’s in that the truth is inconsequential when decentered identities are ostensibly implicated.
Pose not only tells queer history, but it tells queer history from a Black and Brown perspective. Much of queer history, if taught at all, is often sanitized and whitewashed. Pose centers queer and trans Black and Brown narratives, telling a more comprehensive story that in turns gives the audience a more comprehensive understanding of the history.
A prime example of this is in episode one of season two, “Acting Up.” Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard) explains to Blanca that she acquires the expensive AZT – an actual, although controversial drug that some AIDS patients used in an effort to combat the virus – from the “wealthy white queens” who have passed and then gives the drugs to lower income folx, usually POC, so they can have a shot at living as well. It was a small moment in a rather busy episode, but it was significant in its delineation of how the AIDS crisis, albeit altogether tragic, manifests differently based on race, class, and gender identity.
History is nuanced, it’s layered, it’s complex, and it’s often maddening. And queer history is often subverted and suppressed. Pose follows the oral tradition that many Black and non-Black communities of color depend upon to enrich our personal, political, and social frameworks through the historical fiction genre. Whether it’s Elektra Abundance-Evangelista subtly shouting out Crystal LaBeija as the originator of the contemporary Ballroom scene or Pray Tell and Blanca taking the trip to Hart Island to visit a friend’s grave, Pose masterfully integrates historical truths into its fictional mythos and grants audiences a layered viewing experience, with both entertainment and education.
History and education are embedded into the ethos of Pose. To be informed of the past discerns our present and sustains our future. The show is exposing a whole new generation to vital queer history that is necessary for understanding the modern queer cultural landspace. They will not only be able to see themselves reflected, but they will also be armed with knowledge about our past.
Avery is a recent graduate with a masters in American Studies and a focus in Black queer history. He is currently a Higher Education professional with a focus on inclusion and social justice and a freelance writer.