“Pose” on the FX channel recently completed its inaugural season run and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Every week we were treated to the largest cast of transgender women ever assembled in one show, strutting across our screens with their improvised catwalks, to the beat of glorious 80s music.
We dove into the lives of their characters and saw their struggles with poverty, family, the men who fetishize them, sex work and living with HIV. We felt their hurt at yet another rejection and relished their triumphs in the face of adversity. In a way not too often seen on television, we were centered in the story and humanized.
For the last couple months as each episode ended, my social media would explode with posts from other trans women praising the insider nuance and thanking the trans women, both in front and behind the camera, involved in the show. They were clearly delighted to see a too rare sympathetic portrayal, and if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the weeping of gratitude behind keyboards across the country. “Here, finally, is television that can make a difference for our community,” was the subtext in every post. It had positive impact that I could see as one or two people personally reached out to me with questions as a direct result of “Pose.” However, I must also admit that, as the show approached the end of season one, I found a guilty dissatisfaction with it growing in me.
Perhaps it is expecting too much of a show called “Pose,” but as amazing as it is to see the stories of multiple trans women of color told all at once, the lens by which we view them is through gender performance and the male gaze. Ryan Murphy, the creative genius behind “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” gives us the inner-workings of the lives of these courageous women in a way that tugs at the heartstrings, but backdrops it against a ball culture and men who quite literally judge them on primarily superficial terms. They win at the ball by becoming exotic glamazons. Away from the balls, they are the objects of obsession for cisgender men who exoticize them as the “girl with something extra” from straight male porn dreams.
I don’t want to pile on, because I think the empathetic peek we get into the lives of these women more than makes up for any misgivings I have, but a consequence of the structure of the show is that we only see one kind of trans woman repeated over and over. Gorgeous, straight and—because this is television and the characters need to be acceptable to the general viewing public—all of them are not-too-obviously transgender. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of that, but for a show with intentions at being groundbreaking for the transgender community, it is actually a very conventional depiction of trans women. What we get is more of the same stereotypes we’ve seen in other media countless times, but enhanced and redeemed by backstory and Hollywood caliber beauty. I’d hoped to see something truly different, like a character resembling one of my many real life transgender friends, and was disappointed that I didn’t. I might have even been satisfied by the inclusion of one cisgender lesbian in the New York City created by Murphy, but they apparently didn’t exist in the 1980s.
Now, why does this matter? Well, and I know this is hardly a new idea, being visible is important. “Pose” is the most high profile vehicle to accomplish this to date for the transgender community.
In case any of you hadn’t noticed, we are at a major crossroads in history. This is the time to build inroads to communities that have never seen a transgender person and popular media has historically been a great avenue by which to reach a large audience. I just don’t know how much “Pose” is doing to move the needle on the multiple fronts where the trans community is battling for our civil rights. Is it helping trans kids to get their schools to respect their gender identity? Will it increase empathy for trans women getting thrown out of ladies facilities across the country? Can it bring greater understanding among radical elements in the feminist community who see trans women as a patriarchal encroachment by men in ultra-feminine guise? I have my doubts, but I dearly hope that I am wrong.
I know I am supposed to be grateful that “Pose” even exists at all, and I think it is a great show as far as it goes. However, I think we need more diverse depictions of the transgender community at this critical juncture. There is certainly great value in having us appear in living rooms on a weekly basis. Especially given the violence trans women of color, like the characters on the show, experience too often. Unfortunately, this show does so by serving up standard stereotypes of trans women. Our worth is much more than how attractive we appear when we pose. It is time the world saw that.
Melody Maia Monet is the co-founder of madrigalsoftware.com and owns a YouTube channel on lesbian and transgender topics. You can view her videos at YouTube.com/MelodyMaia.