10s Across the Board
‘Pose’ Isn’t Just Great TV. It’s Making Trans History.
Author and activist Janet Mock, the first trans woman of color to be hired as a TV writer, tells us why Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking LGBTQ drama could change television forever.
The watershed moment that is FX’s new series Pose has been a long time coming. It once seemed so impossible that, on the eve of its premiere, it’s hard to even be surprised that a potential nuclear holocaust, of all things, is threatening to keep the historic television show from making it to air.
“I can’t even talk about that stuff, OK? Pose is going to make it!” Janet Mock and I are talking the morning that Donald Trump taunted North Korea with nuclear capabilities “so massive and powerful” that he prays to God they won’t have to be used. Strangely, there’s a dark irony to the fact that an outlandish Trump power play is casting a pall over Ryan Murphy’s fabulous disco ball of a series, for which Mock writes and directed.
Trump’s presence looms large over Pose, which follows five trans women of color as they find a home and a family in New York City’s legendary ballroom scene circa 1987, a world in constant contrast to the ostentatious culture of wealth and excess personified by The Donald in skyscrapers miles away from where our unsung heroes spend their nights voguing.
After we finish small talk about nuclear war (2018 is truly something else...), Mock lets out a kind of breathless cackle, like some operatic aria of joy. If you spend any time with the author, television personality, and, now, Hollywood writer and director, that laugh is the first thing you’re struck by. Well, that signature mane of curls might announce itself first. Maybe that dimpled smile, the kind that sort of winks at you when it’s flashed, next. But that laugh, that infectiously radiating joy, defines Janet Mock’s aura. It’s why she was the perfect person for Ryan Murphy to draft into the world—and mission—of Pose.
The thing you will hear and read constantly from anyone talking or writing about Pose is how it’s unlike anything television has aired before. That it knows that is part of its power, and that that power comes at you with the force of a dozen duck-walking drag queens.
It is a prestige television series with mainstream attention—Ryan Murphy tends to demand that—starring five trans women of color as the leads, fronted by the revelatory performance of Mj Rodriguez as Blanca. She’s the adoptive mother (or “mutha,” as she articulates it) to the House of Evangelista, a group of homeless LGBTQ “children” she houses, cares for as her own, and coaches for ball competitions. James Van Der Beek, Evan Peters, and Kate Mara play supporting characters, but the draw here is the largest cast of LGBTQ actors ever assembled for a scripted series, a milestone mirrored behind the scenes.
Murphy and his producing partner Brad Falchuk co-created the series with Steven Canals, whose original script, inspired by his experience growing up an Afro-Latinx man in ’80s New York, couldn’t get made without Murphy’s involvement. After starting the engine, though, Murphy did something rare. He got in the backseat. He hired Our Lady J and Mock to the writers room, two trans writers who can actually speak to the trans experience. Mock is the first trans woman of color to ever be hired full time into a series writers room. That she also directed an episode of the series is historic.
Mock first met Ryan Murphy in the most Ryan Murphy-y of ways: on the Hollywood set of a nightclub, surrounded by shirtless go-go dancers and partying drag queens. It was July, and he was shooting American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
Ever since Mock publicly came out as a trans woman in a 2011 Marie Claire article, the former People magazine editor became one of the most visible members of transgender community in the U.S., authoring two books about her experience, appearing on and hosting several TV shows and news programs, launching the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, and producing the HBO documentary The Trans List.
“I think you’re special,” Murphy told her. “You should join us. This is going to be fun.” In March, eight months after being hired for her first Hollywood writing job, Murphy told her she would be directing an episode of Pose, too. “First of all, I was like, ‘What the fuck? Are you kidding me? I’ve never done this before,’” she remembers. “But only in a Ryan Murphy world would he be like, ‘Well you’re going to do it anyway.’”
It’s Mock, struck by working so intimately with her for the last week, who mentions the memorable way in which Rodriguez pronounces “mutha” in the series. She half-jokes that the crew had a drinking game for every time she said it. In many ways, it’s fitting that we’re talking about the concept of a mother. Especially as her public profile has grown, a whole community of young LGBTQ people, particularly trans women of color, have begun to look to Mock as a mother figure, too.
“I hate when they call me that!” Mock says. That laugh comes back as she continues. “Number one, and on the record, I am too young to be anyone’s mother. So children, please stop. I love you dearly, though. Also, do not call me Auntie. Because that, too, does not work. Let’s stick with Big Sis. Big Sis is very respectful.” To wit, she recounts how she would drop in on Pose dance rehearsals, where ballroom legend Leiomy Maldonado would teach the cast to vogue. Mock was right there with them, learning to lolly, duck walk, and dip. “She taught me all these things. Even with my 35-year-old knees I can still do them!”
Mock has that quality that, no matter what chaos surrounds her—and we first met four years ago in a newsroom hurricane of a MSNBC TV set—all the energy in the room points directly to her. She’s the eye of any storm, a position she centers herself in to tell her story with trailblazing truth, clarity, and eloquence, whether she’s writing about her life in her memoir, Redefining Realness, or enlightening Oprah with a rare “a-ha moment” during a televised Super Soul interview.
We struggled with how much of Mock’s personal story to include here. The journey of her transition, the sacrifices she made to afford surgery, why Janet Jackson is her namesake, how she met her husband, Aaron: It’s all well-documented, including by Mock herself, and easily Wikipedia’d.
But there’s something transgressive about what Pose is doing. In a rare case for our culture, the journey to transitioning isn’t the point of these women’s story arcs. Most of their origin stories, Mock says, are never going to be told in Pose. Instead, the focus is on their dreams, their struggles, their darkness, their loves, and their “striving in a world not built for them to thrive.”
“These are characters who often may have a 1-3 episode arc on another series, who are then killed off or have a surgery or have something to teach the cisgender straight protagonist about being their true selves and living their lives,” Mock says. “So we’re often just martyrs. Because they are our leads, the world already shifts. We don’t have to defend their identities. They are just trans women who live their lives in gritty, dirty, messy-ass 1980s New York City.”
In the writers room, Mock had to let go of her own rules about what she would allow people to ask her. (One of the breakout moments in her career as a public figure was when she used an offensive interview conducted by Piers Morgan as a teaching moment, sitting down with Fusion’s Alicia Menendez to flip the script with Mock as the interviewer asking Menendez questions like “do you have a vagina,” in line with the interrogation trans people typically receive in the media.)
“I was deeply aware that I was giving so much of my own experiences, so much of the things I was never able to say myself publicly,” she says.
Angel (played by Indya Moore) is the character Mock says most resembles her. She is someone who grew up in a world where she wasn’t deeply taken care of and who had to figure out not only how to live her truth as a young person, but find the resources to do so, turning to sex work as a means to take care of herself. Still, Angel has dreams of falling in love and being a wife. “All these things that tapped into my most insecure, lovelorn girl self,” Mock says.
Mock concedes that, by virtue of the uncharted nature of the series, there’s a lot of education that has to happen: What is a ball? Why is it important to this culture? What are the issues that faced the trans community at that time? That meant explanation about trans bodies, queer sex, and—this is 1987 New York City, after all—the specter of AIDS and HIV. Actually, “specter” is how any other network series would have tackled the presence of AIDS in these characters’ lives. Pose confronts the reality of it.
Much of that reality is owed to Mock’s influence on the show. The sheer spectacle of Pose screams Ryan Murphy: a warehouse writhing with queer people, all in ornate costumed eleganza, exploding in dance and glitter and joie de vivre as an ’80s pop soundtrack blares in the background. But that inspirational rapture is in stark contrast to the dark, bleak reality that underscores so much of the show.
“Me and Ryan went at it,” Mock says. “He wanted the show to be uplifting-aspirational and a family show.” She lovingly snickers even just saying it. “I get it. I’m there. But I’m like, we need to go deep, deep, deep, deep dark, because people love these characters and need to know what their reality is.” Still, Murphy, it should go without saying, doesn’t like boring. “He’d be like, ‘This is not The Wire! We’re not doing that. Let’s put a dance number in.’”
Those dance numbers, as has already been memorialized in several headlines about Pose in early press, will give you life. But that’s just one aspect of this show. “Black and brown trans women in 1980s New York City is heavy, gritty shit,” Mock says. “But if you give it a little bit of disco ball and some glitter and some space to process through dance and through spectacle, then you can hit them with the heart and the love and the deep, deep drama and hard times.”
As our conversation wraps, Mock and I share a little moment.
Four years ago, Mock was hired to host a pop culture news show called So POPular! on MSNBC’s digital streaming site Shift.
She had a regular rotating group of panelists she labeled the Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique—for a sense of her delightful sensibility—of which I was one. We’d gag over whatever Beyoncé happened to be doing, debated race and ageism in Hollywood, talked about the Obama administration’s advancing of trans issues, and made jokes about Justin Bieber. That four years later she’s doing this show with Ryan Murphy is, I tell her, frankly damn cool.
“I know,” she gushes. “Didn’t we think it was revolutionary when MSNBC put a trans girl on the dotcom? I was so excited to do that show. Now we have fast-forwarded how many times that there’s five trans women on actual television. I can’t even.”
Pose premieres Sunday, June 3, at 9 p.m. ET on FX.