Venus Xtravaganza was a transwoman who lit up both Harlem’s ball scene and “Paris is Burning,” the seminal 1987 documentary that dove into the world that let her and others like her — trans, queer, poor, creative, spectacular people — thrive. She had a wide smile, a hushed speaking voice that drew people closer, and a swoop of blonde hair that was so heavy she’d have to lift it out of her eyes with her entire arm. The last time we see her in the documentary, she’s smoking a cigarette on the pier as it’s revealed that she was later killed, strangled in a hotel room by someone who knew they’d never have to pay for it.
For a long time, this was the only kind of story transwomen got to see about themselves onscreen, making it that much harder to imagine a life without such a tragic ending.
Enter “Pose.” FX’s drama — heavily inspired by “Paris is Burning” — is as sweeping as it is earnest, centering trans and queer people as the stars of their own New York City fairytales. The show doesn’t ignore the harsh realities those characters would have faced as real people; HIV diagnoses, poverty, and racism loom omnipresent. But over the course of eight episodes, “Pose” did a downright radical thing by not just focusing on its characters’ pain, but their defiant triumph in the face of it.
Take Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a gay black teen who’s kicked out of his home in the first episode and lands a plum scholarship for a dance program in the finale. Or Angel (Indya Moore), a trans sex worker who thinks she’s found salvation in a curious client (Evan Peters), but who ultimately takes control of her own story by telling him he’s not its endpoint. Or Pray Tell (the magnetic Billy Porter), who thinks his life is over when he learns he has HIV and his partner dies of AIDS, but who eventually finds an attentive man who doesn’t care about his diagnosis.
Still, the most significant and telling story that “Pose” told over its first season is that of Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson), two transwomen of color who discover the kind of power in the ballroom scene that they rarely could outside of it. Elektra models herself as a grand dame who’s just too important to belittle herself with the petty squabblings of mere mortals. She built the “The House of Abundance” to be her own royal court she could rule. But Blanca — whom Elektra took in years ago when no one else would — recognizes that a house can also become a home.
After leaving the House of Abundance in the series premiere, Blanca creates the House of Evangelista with the explicit purpose of taking in stranded people like Damon and Angel and nursing their potential with firm but loving guidance. Sure, she wants to win trophies — okay, she really wants to — but Blanca thrives when her loved ones thrive. Though she loves the balls, the moments when her face truly lights up are when her friends and adopted children achieve personal success on a level they might not have ever thought possible.
In the beginning, “Pose” was advertised as a classic rivalry story in which two women competed to see who could be the most glamorous. But this, as it turns out, is the show’s most brilliant bait-and-switch. By the finale, Blanca’s approach of triumphing through mutual support is the one that wins out — not just literally, when Pray Tell tearfully awards her the title of House Mother of the Year, but spiritually. Even Elektra recognizes it when everyone else she trampled on abandons her in her time of need, but Blanca insists on helping her anyway. So even though the last episode superficially hangs on the rivalry between the House of Evangelista and the newly formed, viciously mean House of Ferocity, it’s no contest. Blanca’s vision of love and support, of chosen family supporting each other in the way their blood families never did, easily wins the day.
The season’s final shot — of the House of Evangelista chatting and laughing around a dinner table having achieved some version of their dreams — is the embodiment of what “Pose” writer/producer/director Janet Mock outlined in Variety as her ultimate hopes for the series: “a salve and a possible solution, showing viewers what inclusion looks like, what community and family looks like, what radically loving and accepting one another, especially those most rejected and discarded, looks like.” It’s the kind of vision that transwomen like Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia St. Laurent wished for in “Paris is Burning,” when they looked at the camera and said they hoped for “a normal, happy life.”
So is “Pose” a fantasy? Sure it is. But in choosing to tell marginalized stories by trumpeting their triumphs louder than their heartbreaks, it isn’t just heartwarming, but self-consciously radical. As a scripted show, “Pose” had the luxury of giving its characters the extraordinary gift of a happy ending.