Pose(r): Ryan Murphy, Trans and Queer of Color Labor, and the Politics of Representation
By Alfred L. Martin Jr.August 2, 2018
Discussing representation can be tricky. Within a number of identity categories, mediated representation – literally the image we see on screens – is a central framework for examining the ways television portrays individuals who do not identify as white, cis-gendered and heterosexual. Within such a framework, Ryan Murphy’s Pose was deemed important very simply because it sought to represent black gay men and trans people of color. Certainly, Pose is not the first time black gay men have been represented on television. From short-lived 1970s series like Sanford Arms and 1990s post-network television series like Moesha to “quality” series like The Wire and more contemporary series like Brooklyn Nine Nine, black queerness has bubbled up within television discourse, although not in the same ways afforded white gay men – in other words, the media industries continue to treat identity categories as discrete rather than intersectional. Conversely, while there have been trans characters on television series including the short-lived Dirty Sexy Money and “quality” series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black, such characters are infrequently characters of color. In this way, then, representationally, Pose might very well be an important series for those identity groups.
However, within television, audiences matter – a lot. In particular, the imagination of audiences matters because demographics determine which advertisers might be interested in shilling their wares in the spaces between the narrative. (A friend who works in TV once told me that an executive came to the show on which he was working and told the writing staff that the show was simply what they did between Tide commercials.) Audiences deemed most valuable to advertisers are deemed “quality,” because they can generally be described as white, between the ages of 18 and 34 with income (or credit) they are willing to spend on consumer goods. Networks and television production companies who create programming are principally concerned with delivering consumers to advertisers at a profit, and as such, tend to imagine that those who watch their shows are part of this “quality” demographic. After all, Ryan Murphy’s televisual output is often subsumed into quality television discourses (which always already implies that they are watched by “quality” audiences) as judged by the networks on which the series from his production company tend to appear and that they are often nominated for (and win) Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Like many so-called “quality TV” series, Pose debuted with a relatively small audience of 688,000 viewers. However, because the majority of its viewers were in the “quality” demographic, the series was renewed for a second season with John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks and FX Productions, proclaiming the series as “an incredibly engaging story of creativity, courage, compassion, love and family at a pivotal time in our culture. […] earning a place in television history for its infectiously inclusive spirit.” Landgraf’s invocation of inclusivity is important here because the nebulous marketing speak he uses elides that the show is about queer people of color, not just queer people, who have been welcomed into the homes of white, socially liberal, urban-minded professional (SLUMPY) audiences since the Gay 90s, espousing a neoliberal logic that equates social progress and visibility politics. The imagination of these white SLUMPY viewers is important as networks like FX and series like Pose attempt to, as Todd Gitlin argues, “generate ideology… indirectly and unintentionally, by trying to read popular sentiment and tailoring their schedules toward what they think the cardboard people they’ve conjured up want to see and hear.”
This is the space where Murphy’s Pose first encounters issues. The “quality” discourse that surrounds it always already intimates that the imagined audience is white, middle class and financially well off (or at least stable), and not one that is, what I have called elsewhere a BLAMP, or black, liberal, affluent, metropolitan professional audience. In this way, then, it is free to engage with pathologizing discourses about race. In the pilot episode, one of the series’ leading characters, Damon Richards, a young black gay man with a passion for dance, is thrown out of his home by his father, a move that is endorsed by his mother. There are, sadly, many young LGBT youth who are rejected by their families and are either forcibly removed from the familial home or choose to leave it because of the conditions therein. However, in Murphy’s hands, this trope seems to only play out when there are characters of color involved. On Glee, while Kurt’s father almost immediately grabs a rainbow flag and heads down to PFLAG, Santana’s abuela is fiercely anti-lesbian. I am aware that such action serves as a narrative catalyst, but given the ways people of color generally, and black people specifically, are stereotyped as anti-gay, that Pose is largely imagined as a show for white, cisgender folks is problematic. White folks (largely) hold the belief that black folks (as a monolithic group) are anti-gay (forgetting that anti-gay legislation, which often gets codified into law, is spearheaded by white, often male, politicians). Because of this belief, the beginning of the episode is understood as a narrative catalyst. Pose uses the mythology that people of color are anti-gay to re-tether and reify such a pathology that can be observed across news and entertainment media.
Part of the ease with which Murphy can engage with such discursive treatment of queers of color is via casting. While Murphy seemed to eschew verisimilitude when casting wheelchair-bound Artie on Glee with an able-bodied actor, or his choice to cast heterosexual actor Justin Bartha as one half of a gay couple on The New Normal, Pose was approached differently. Instead of falling back on what Kristen Warner calls the “best actor discourse”—the entertainment industry’s insistence that when casting any role, the best actor is sought, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or ability—Ryan Murphy thought the politics of representing queer and trans people of color was too great to be handed to heterosexual actors of color donning gayface and transface. Murphy’s interest in casting queer and trans actors of color can be read as merely satisfying demands for inclusion without actually challenging the larger structural and systemic labor issues. As I have documented elsewhere, casting directors who are engaged to cast gay roles (wrongly) insist that they cannot ask an actor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, even if that were true, it seems queer that casting director Alexa L. Fogel would “just happen to” be able to find queer and trans actors who both identify as such and happen to be deemed “best” by whatever nebulous criteria the best actor is judged. I argue here, as I have elsewhere, that such casting decisions, while wonderful, financially and professionally, for out LGBT actors of color who might not otherwise find work within a big-budget productions, are subterfuge. These gay and trans actors of color function as a shield for Pose’s problematic representational politics. Jeremy Butler has argued that actors, the characters they play and their “star texts” become inextricably linked within audience reception practices. As such, if one expresses disapproval of any of Pose’s LGBT characters, it could be construed as a critique of actors. Such a set of discursive practices functions to quiet criticism of such characterizations in a media environment in which representation of LGBT bodies (not to mention raced LGBT bodies) remains precarious.
A second way Pose attempts to shield itself from criticism is via the involvement of trans activist Janet Mock as a writer and producer for the series. Fascinatingly, Pose is Mock’s first credit as a writer and only her second as producer, the first being 2016’s The Trans List. My aim in calling attention to Mock’s involvement with the series and her relatively slight resume is not to belittle her talent; Rather I argue that her involvement functions to deflect critique about the ways the show represents trans people of color. It is important to note that Ryan Murphy is a white cisgender gay man who ultimately profits (like Jennie Livingston, director of Paris is Burning, and a consulting producer on Pose) from telling (and exploiting?) the lives of queer and trans people of color. While he certainly has opened doors for these queer and trans actors, the fact remains that it is his white capital within a fundamentally racist industry that allows Pose to be made. And by focusing on employing trans folks, like Mock, Pose deflects the problematic narrative by trotting out the (secondary) trans and queer folks who are involved in its production.
In fact, Mock was the only producer to appear alongside Murphy and co-executive producer Brad Falchuk and the cast at the 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) winter press tour. At TCA, Mock spoke about trans representation and that the characters in Pose were being written as “beyond the struggle with their bodies, with people calling them by their right name. These are people who are creating new ways of having family — chosen family through the ballroom networks.” Mock’s comments are important for two reasons. First, she centers a post-transness that suggests that the trans characters within the series are “beyond” the concerns of gender dysmorphia gesturing toward the notion that the “transition story” is one of the most frequent tropes within mainstream media when engaging with trans people’s stories. However, despite Mock’s suggestion, the series does, in fact, feature a story line in which Elektra Abundance struggles with her body, and has to weigh whether her gender dysmorphia is more important than keeping her boyfriend who does not want her to undergo gender re-assignment surgery (spoiler alert: she goes through with the surgery and loses her boyfriend as a result).
Concomitantly, in exploring dating and trans women of color, the series positions white men as the “prize” for these down-on-their-luck women. When Elektra “disobeys” her white boyfriend’s wishes and undergoes gender re-assignment surgery, she is evicted from the apartment that serves as her home and the headquarters of the House of Abundance that she leads. In addition, Latina trans woman Angel also seeks a relationship with a married white man who initially engages her services as a prostitute. When their relationship moves beyond that of a prostitute and her John, he rents her an apartment, becoming a literal white savior who “rescues” her from life living in a small apartment that is called the House of Evangelista. Because whiteness has capital in what Dwight A. McBride calls “queer marketplaces of desire,” the “obvious” choice for these trans women of color is to desire white men. McBride forwards that “Much like capital, whiteness is a valuable commodity in a fundamentally racist culture. Its value is so compelling, so complete, that it reaches even the most intimate parts of our lives as sexual, desiring and loving subjects.” In this way, Pose gestures toward its SLUMPY audience by serving up and centering whiteness as cultural capital within queer marketplaces of desire even as the series ostensibly revolves around the lives of queer and trans people of color in 1980s New York City.
Is Pose a good show? I am not sure I would go that far, but it has moments. The narrative, like many (most?) Ryan Murphy series is jumbled with the ball scenes, in particular, going on for far too long, and the mise-en-scéne and dialogue do not always connote the 1980s. Resting on its historic representation of queers of color in a quality television program helps to hide that Pose’s emperor is naked. I certainly celebrate that these black and brown trans and gay actors are finding work in Hollywood, but I find it difficult to celebrate Pose because while it may strike an appealing pose, that pose is, what Kristen Warner calls plastic – it cannot hold up under scrutiny because it is solely about the representation and not the conditions that have produced it.
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