It is only fitting that as a media student, I should write at least one review of a tv show or film. After watching two seasons of the show Pose on Netflix in only a matter of days, I straight away added it to my list of topics I want to discuss on the blog. As a fan of RuPauls Drag Race myself, I came to realise that I was not aware of the history of drag or ballroom culture for that matter. Growing up, the word ‘transvestite’ was used when describing those participating in drag or cross-dressing, and even today the word is still commonly mistaken with transgender people.
- Transgender – Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth (Trans Equality).
- Transvestite – just don’t use this word anymore when talking about people dressing as the opposite sex, it is degrading as the term ‘transvestism’ was seen as a mental illness. Instead, use the word cross-dresser (which is the category in which drag falls under).
The show Pose, written and produced by Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, has the most LGBTQ diverse cast of actors to ever be seen on TV. With the largest cast of transgender actors, the representation is what makes this show so worthy of watching. Starring, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Billy Porter and Dominque Jackson the storyline follows New York City’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ballroom culture scene in the 1980s and 1990s (wiki). Not only is the soundtrack amazing, but also the vibrant costumes and flawless dancing make you want to blast Madonna and learn to vogue yourself. The show also gives an emotional account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, as well as young queer adults of colour experiencing homelessness and loss of family.
Underground ballroom culture became popular amongst black and latino queer people in the 1960s due to experiencing racism and being ostracised at the balls amongst the white performers in previous years. After the New York’s Stonewall Riots, many queer people found that “self-perceptions within the subculture [had changed]: from feeling guilty and apologetic to feelings of self-acceptance and pride” (Balzer 2005:114).
Balls became a safe space for queer youth of colour, mainly Blacks and Latinos/Latinas, to express themselves freely.Underground Ball Culture
With categories and competitions, this might seem all too familiar with RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competition for drag queens in the U.S. and now across the world. RuPaul is one of the drag queens who became famous through ball culture in the 80s and has continued the tradition of ballroom competition since.
“The performances consist of strutting, dancing, and spoken word. Performances are judged by one’s fashion, appearance, and dancing. One common category is “Realness,” where participants in drag are judged on their ability to “pass” as heterosexual males or females. Other common categories include business executive, best dressed, and butch queens in pumps. Not all performances consist of cross-dressing; a few common categories include females highlighting their femininity and males highlighting their masculinity” (Underground Ball Culture).
Although Pose is fictional, you can get an insight of what queer people of colour were having to deal with during the AIDS epidemic. However, to get a more accurate understanding, I highly recommend watching the documentary: Paris is Burning (1990). “The film alternates between colourful ballroom sequences – an acknowledged influence on current hit show RuPaul’s Drag Race – and candid interviews with key scene figures, who address complex subjects including class; race and racism; wealth; gender orientation; and beauty standards” (The Guardian). Although ballroom culture was seen a place of expression and freedom, it was also home for many young queer adults and teens too. Older queens would take in younger performers who had been disowned by family members. The documentary touches upon this, as well as the difficulties of being able to afford gender reassignment surgery and the controversy of sex work during this time.
“This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they’re gay or not. It’s about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy.”Orlando Sentinel
Accurate representation in the media is important, especially when retelling history. However, it sometimes seems more forced, appearing negligent with the use of ‘the token black character’ in order to just check off the diversity requirement. However, Ryan Murphy did his job. The producers made sure that all transgender characters were played by transgender actors (take note Scarlett Johansson). By giving transgender actors a platform, it also gives transgender people visibility – something that is extremely necessary due to the on-going transphobia and the invalidation of trans people in the world. Especially because the transgender actresses on the show are black women, a vulnerable group in society due to racism, transphobia and sexism. So seeing these women on the screen looking gorgeous, with strong independent roles is indeed a step forward for trans representation in Hollywood.
For some more context on transgender history, then please add the documentary Disclosure to the watchlist on Netflix. This has been on my recommendation page since it came out during the summer and it gives an insight on the representation of trans people in Hollywood and the media throughout the years.
Also a quick fact for those who might not know: Madonna’s song Vogue was inspired by the dance ‘vogue’ or ‘vogueing’ which evolved out of the underground ballroom scene. So if you love Madonna, you’ll love this show.
If I haven’t managed to convince you yet to start this show, then I leave you with this edit of the show that surely will convince you otherwise: