Set in the late ‘80s, Pose paints a vibrant portrait of two very different New York Cities.
The one emblazoned on posters and featured in a press blitz celebrating the historic nature of the series finds its home in the city’s underground ballroom and queer scene. It’s a culture memorialized by the documentary Paris Is Burning, with tendrils still spreading throughout modern society, from our lexicon (“slay” and “shade,” for starters) to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Pose centers on five trans women of color and their queer community struggling to thrive in their corner of the world. It’s a corner in stark contrast to the culture sweeping the rest of the city, in which the craven desire for ostentatious wealth and the peacocking of power bleeds from the heart of Trump Tower.
The two worlds come together when one of the show’s heroines, a trans sex worker named Angel (Indya Moore) becomes romantically involved with Stan (Evan Peters), a junior executive at the Trump Organization who picks her up one night.
Stan is the avatar for the pressure to keep up with the Joneses—or, in this case, the Trumps. He has a wife (played by Kate Mara), kids, and a respectable house, but is driven to attain more by his Trump Organization boss, played by James Van Der Beek, whom we meet ripping lines of cocaine, monologuing about the need to flaunt wealth, and punctuating it all saying, “God bless Ronald Reagan.”
When Angel learns that Stan works for Trump, she’s so impressed her eyes nearly bulge out of her head. “I can’t believe you work for Trump,” she says. “I hear even his toilet is gold. Can you imagine? Now that’s living in style.”
On the one hand, Peters’ and Van Der Beek’s characters and the world they occupy put into harsher perspective the world in which Angel and her community struggle, a world in which AIDS, poverty, homelessness, and abuse isn’t a haunting specter, but the dark reality. Their small victories, joy, and family bond radiate all that much more because of the truths of their existence.
As Janet Mock, who writes and directs Pose, told me, “Kate Mara, Evan Peters, James Van Der Beek, they’re not centered on this show. They are our supporting cast. These TV stars! They are our supporting to these women. They know that and they’re conscious of that. They know they’re there to help serve the themes of the show and give context to these women’s lives, where usually it would be the opposite.”
Trump is emblematic of a world these people are chasing. Pose isn’t the origin story that we’re used to seeing trans characters and their journeys reduced to. They arrive in their identities, with their chosen families and amongst their community, and therefore the show gets to explore their truths: their dreams, fears, aspirations; what they want from love; what they want from life; what they can only imagine getting.
Especially as Angel becomes involved with Stan and tastes enough of his Trump-minted life to be able to imagine it as a reality, what was once untouchable becomes all the more desirable.
But there’s also a mirror being held to a straight, privileged audience, one that might have more in common with the performative Trump ethos, which is about posing and passing in its own way, than they may like to admit. There’s a key scene in the second episode, for example, in which Kate Mara’s character berates her husband, Stan, for spending money they don’t have to “look the part,” when they can’t even afford a much-needed dishwasher.
As Murphy told The New York Times, “It was in the Reagan era, the Trump era in New York City, when you could pretend to be money and be seen as wealthy. You could pretend to be anything and be accepted, whereas before that, you really had to have the background and education and breeding. It was the beginning of surface passing. Before that, you wouldn’t be allowed in the room.”
When Steven Canals, who co-created Pose with Murphy and his producing partner Brad Falchuk, wrote his original script for the series, Trump was not a major presence. In a version of the script after Murphy got involved, however, Trump himself became an actual character, before being replaced by Van Der Beek’s cokehead executive. “Nobody wanted to see that fuckhead,” Murphy told The New Yorker about why he made the change.
But it was canny to have his presence loom so large in the series, given how inescapable he is in the culture and time Pose is being released in, and how inextricable its subject matter is from the missives delivered from his Oval Office.
His tunnel-vision mission to ban transgender people from serving in the military has reared its head twice in less than a year. “Transgender” is on the list of words the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is forbidden from using in official documents. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced a policy requiring transgender inmates to be held in facilities according to the sex assigned at birth, rolling back existing protections.
The Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Labor have all won protections to discriminate against transgender people, while politicians championing anti-trans policies including Mike Pompeo, Betsy DeVos, and, of course, Mike Pence, continue to receive full support from Trump.
One would imagine these people could learn a lot about the trans community from watching Pose. One would imagine their heads exploding over the frank conversations about identity, sex, and gender the characters have. And one might dream that they could come away with some empathy.
After all, there’s nothing that attracts Trump’s attention more than being the star of a show.