Intersections of Race, Gender, Class, and Sexuality in Pose (2018- )
By João M. Bauer
The FX/Netflix Original Pose came to mind as an interesting study of how multiple social challenges may overlap, or intersect, amplifying the difficulties endured for people of all walks of life. Initiating itself as a window into New York ballroom culture in the 90s,Pose is a remarkable display of who we are as a living, breathing community of human beings – materialistic, sexual, prideful, often at the whim of the ebb and flow of culture, and almost always subject to our senses. During the 1990s, New York nightlife was segregated and stratified which highlights the relevance of this show as it relates to Difference, Power, and Discrimination studies. Throughout seasons one and two of Pose, the story continues to develop and show the darkness surrounding gay and trans communities as they struggle to gain acceptance and influence culture enough to be seen as fellow humans who deserve equitable treatment and respect. The diverse group of people who created Pose, many who are of color and of the LGBTQ community, encode their life experiences and challenges into a compelling story that opens up our hearts and minds to sympathize and act on these struggles. I never thought I would be writing an academic essay on the topic of sexuality, but the struggle felt by the colored LGBTQ person is something more people need to be aware of.
The cast and crew of Pose has set new standards as all five main trans actors are actually playing trans characters and the rest of the crew is well represented. A Hollywood Reporter article informs “Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles as well as the largest recurring LGBTQ cast ever for a scripted TV series” (Goldberg 3). The drag ballroom scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s couldn’t be better depicted by any other, as unique perspectives are brought into the acting process. Casting in this manner has worked well for this show, as it flourishes and develops into an immersive experience for the viewer. It is not easy being a woman in America (or many parts of the world), and it is certainly not easy being Latino, Black, Gay, or Trans but this show highlights why it is that Black Lives Matter as a movement, and as a motto from which to build equity and justice from. Through various film techniques, the message of Black being the lowest of the low is heard, specifically LGBTQ and Black. The Trans community feels like part of the untouchable caste of our society which is a heartbreaking notion to ponder. Not only is it awful to consider their suffering, but it is sometimes unbearable to watch how the AIDS patients are treated, and the parallels of the struggle for hegemony, political pressure, and public opinion which resonates with the pandemic event we are experiencing today. Difference, Power, Discrimination, and the intersection of race and sexuality have a disproportionately negative effect on LGBTQ communities, especially those who are of color and HIV-positive. Pose does a revolutionary work in portraying the injustices and makes effective use of cinematography and mise-en-scene to frame their story.
In order to study how Pose reveals the struggles of this community through film, it is important to remember “A growing body of research has documented that…(LGBTQ) young people experience worse outcomes in mental and physical health and education as compared to their heterosexual peers…” (Snapp 1). The same academic article which supports these findings reports some 59% to 84% of LGBTQ Youth experience verbal abuse at school. “Pose” reveals a bit of what it may be like out in the real world outside of the confines of a school – the bullying gets much worse in the adult world and takes its roots in our earliest years. Everything about Lulu is different than what we see about the men which stare at her. Lulu is introduced as a woman marginalized due to the intersection of race, gender, class, and LGBTQ identity.
It is worth noting how the facial expressions (cinematography) are meant to cement this as the establishing shot for the scene, but it is rear-projected so we can take in the difference between Lulu and the surrounding men; some of which look incredulous, others appear as if someone brought in a foul odor. There is almost a vignette-type effect and the lighting is low-key but with a strike of color reflecting on Lulu, highlighting who she is and how she manages to remain strong among the unfriendly company. I can imagine the holistic effect of White patriarchy and homo/transphobia as a horrible experience, but “Pose” depicts strong persons with agency who are battle-hardened by years of verbal and sometimes physical abuse – none dares to apologize for being who they are. This is, in my personal opinion, fundamentally American, and it is part of what strengthens us as a country. We learn how to live together equitably, regardless of diverse backgrounds, and this process elevates us as an ethical productive society.
Posedepicts the White male as being in a position of power and holding some type of social status about that of the two women, Blanca and Lulu, who sit at his bar. There are no editing choices that appear relevant; however, cinematography again works in synergy with mise-en-scene to send the message well. The White male bartender is elevated in power status above both women, rendering their reasons to be present there irrelevant as he requests them to leave. Insulted with disparaging remarks about it being “drag night” at the bar and hearing the hurtful “you’re dressed as women” type comment is no deterrent for Blanca, who stands up for herself and requests to speak to a manager. She believes her recent ballroom win and rises within her own community has earned her a seat at the table where she is at liberty to patronize whatever bar she wants, especially a gay one.
The film history textbook America on Film demonstrates that “visual culture in America often ‘expects’ women to be objectified for the pleasure of a male gaze” (Benshoff and Griffin 386), which was unfortunately experienced by these two women even after being told they’re not women. More appalling is the fact a gay man is trying to tell Blanca and Lulu who are women, what it supposedly means to be one. Notice the low-key lighting in the mise-en-scene choice and the angle/level of framing. The sound effect of the male bartender’s voice seems to boom over the bar’s music and chatter, and the point of view between the two women shows how this man projects his power onto them. Feminism at its core is a fight for all peoples, as it seeks to empower the cornerstones of all of our lives – our motherly figures. Our roots, our origins, akin to the Earth herself as Mothers are willing to give away every part of their body and soul for the benefit and desires of their children. This is the moment Blanca begins to grow as a Mother and decides to stand up for who she is, declaring herself a “woman” and noting how disrespectful the man was, despite being in the same community. Blanca asserts giving birth does not guarantee or maintain itself as a requirement for motherhood by acting with grit. She rises shortly after the screenshot in Figure 2 and so does the camera with her. I associate the rises and fall in camera as points of view of power in Pose, and how the text seeks to describe exchanges between persons. Women are rising but continue the fight for equal recognition as the White patriarchal capitalist hegemony leverages its power by constantly attempting to provide an accepted version of womanhood – distorted by base heterosexual White male desires and their accepted norms for sexual intercourse.
Historically, women of all types have not fared well when they stand up, few in number, to power structures seeking to keep them “in their place”. The same is safely said for Latinos, Blacks, Gays, and especially Transsexuals. Blanca and Lulu are of color, they are women, they are trans, and there are issues of class that also intersect in their case as they’re considered the lowest caste of the LGBTQ community during this period, marginalized by others in their own struggle. Pose reminds me of the recent artistic depictions of the late George Floyd, with the text “I Can’t Breathe” as the caption. How could ones such as Blanca and Lulu “breathe” and thrive despite all the injustices? The screenshot below is perhaps the most powerful of this selection.
Blanca and Lulu are discriminated against due to their color and sexuality and literally taken out of the bar as if trash – notice the big bag next to them and its size compared to the two women. This is a long shot in cinematography terms, but it provides an interesting eyeline match and point of view contrast between the women, the manager, and where they stand in New York society. The women are told the gay men inside don’t want anyone of color there, as New York City nightlife is segregated, and they don’t want “drag queens” either. The trash bag is a powerful symbol as it relates to this discrimination. Discrimination works by defining someone (usually a messy subject) into a neat and orderly form one can then utilize or dispose of. It’s an interesting artistic choice to put the bag there but perhaps it may have been a common feeling by women and the LBGTQ, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities – that they were treated as if society’s trash and discriminated against to be judged as good or bad by men the powerful arbiters and exclusive enjoyers of patriarchal societies. The class textbook America on Film reminds us how “Living with patriarchal cultures, women have traditionally been less empowered and accorded fewer rights and opportunities than man, thus discussions on gender often center on the ways women have been discriminated against in the media…” (Benshoff 302). The manager of the gay bar is empowered by default to exclude Blanca and Lulu from some joys of womanhood, belittling their identity by purportedly segregating according to color, which is socially acceptable at the time and enough of a virtue signal to attempt a distraction from the deep disrespect extended to the duo – being disposed of as if trash, said to be “dressed up like women”.
As of late, there has been enthusiasm for the representation of Black voices in our communities and many of us are engaged and ready to listen to their experiences and celebrate their contributions. There are many examples of opposition to this message, claiming it to be racist as it doesn’t say All Lives Matter. It is unknown to many in our country of the struggle of the black community and truly how lowly they’ve had to live and place themselves in our society in order to be accepted. In short, it is important to educate on how if we make Black lives count across the board, we win a major victory for our society and the development of human culture. It is a slogan which I can claim to understand to some degree but it’s only a tiny perspective of great moving pieces, most of which comes from the lives of phenomenal people of color who have felt the unequal weight of government power, discrimination, and how by just being seemingly different has historically called for a rejection of basic rights. “Pose” in the scenes studied within this essay, proves to be a visual point of inspection into American culture in the late 80’s and early 90’s – much of which remains felt today.
The gay bar scene we have studies in this essay is depicted as a simple an outing to a bar where two women go out to commemorate a winning night. Multiple layers of oppression and disagreeable ideologies are present from the beginning and shown throughout “Pose” as in Figure 1. Masterful cinematography and mise-en-scene choices, which are clearly Black and LGBTQ, corresponding to the main characters the audience experiences. Figure 2 shows the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race as the women are diminished, obscured, and made as if to possess a lower point of view than the White male bartender. Throughout this analysis, I’ve assumed he is a gay man, as this is a gay bar, but I don’t believe it a necessary assumption. Though it is an interesting academic study in intersectionality to consider if the bartender is gay – for if he is, his position as a white gay man still towers far above that of two women of color who are LGBTQ and this episode depicts exactly what the manager treats them like; garbage needing to go outside.
The FX series Pose is recommended by me due to the effort, quality, and depth of content. The costumes are fantastic, the music is sensational and takes you back to a different time. The sets seem to be well designed and the musical aspects fit right into the story. It is a relevant series to today’s fight for justice and equal recognition for Black lives, and if one watches both seasons, there are dark glimpses of similarities between how those with HIV/AIDS were treated in the beginning of the disease, as to the way Covid-19 patients and survivors are being treated today. It is an unfolding series of events but those who have suffered from the virus are likely to suffer some form of discrimination or social challenge for years to come. The difference with the HIV/AIDS spread was how its proportion of LGBTQ victims were large and it seemed an exclusive disease or curse which is shown in Pose through a couple of dark episodes in Season 2.
Cinematography and Mise-en-scene are what Pose excels at, delivering clues and interesting artistic content to digest and mull over as you watch the show. The creators leverage their film strengths to communicate to us the challenges faced by colored LGBTQ communities, and their resolve is infallible. We will grow as a people if we embrace each other’s differences and continue taking our small steps toward acceptance. Allowing more open definitions of love within mainstream culture may allow our traditions to flourish into mechanisms that benefit and don’t hinder Us.
Benshoff, Harry M, and Sean Griffin. America on Film. 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2009, ProQuest Ebook Central, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/detail.action?docID=819377.
Goldberg, Lesley. “Ryan Murphy’s ‘Pose,’ With History-Making LGBTQ Cast, Ordered to Series at FX.” The Hollywood Reporter, 27 July 2020, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ryan-murphys-pose-history-making-lgbtq-cast-ordered-series-at-fx-1070485.
Snapp, Shannon D., et al. “LGBTQ-Inclusive Curricula: Why Supportive Curricula Matter.” Sex Education, vol. 15, no. 6, Nov. 2015, pp. 580–596. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/14681811.2015.1042573.