27 years ago, filmmaker Jeannie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning propelled New York’s drag ball scene from a clandestine pleasure for those in the know to a feast for broader public consumption. In addition to winning acclaim for Livingston, the film garnered attention from journalists and academics who looked toward the scene as a hip trend warranting analysis. Overlapping the film was Madonna’s hit “Vogue” (video and song) a commercialized take on the intricate choreography of the scene tailored for MTV and top 40 radio.
Though audiences in the Americas have long enjoyed watching the bodies of Black and Latinx male entertainers in motion, the queer context of the ball culture, notably the danger of being openly queer and the alternative family offered by ball houses, was central. The abject economic circumstances for most ball participants was a visible yet strangely underdeveloped aspect of Paris. These deficiencies coupled with a lack of analysis toward many of the men’s (mostly) unironic aspirations to secure the social stability of white affluence did not go unnoticed. Cultural critic bell hooks’s 1992 essay “Is Paris Burning?” (in Black Looks: Race and Representation) was one of the more incisive critiques of the film’s limitations, many of which I share.
Though many gender theorists and performance studies folks rightfully lauded the brilliant performativity of the ball culture. And were astute in their praise for the highly cultivated parodic elements embodied in the aesthetic of “realness” the larger dangers of poverty, violence, disease and self-loathing in the film have always stuck with me long beyond quaint academic observations, however thoughtful they might be.
In 2006, German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch’s documentary How Do I Look, further documented the New York and Philadelphia ball scenes, including several performers from Paris. Whereas the performers in Paris often emulated tropes of style drawn from the very white worlds of Dynasty and Ralph Lauren commercials, Look showed something else. Notably, the scene matured from the mix of irony, envy and aspiration integral to Paris to a more independent and eclectic set of influences. The performances in Look are no less stunning than Paris, and more importantly, reflected an embrace of Black and Latinx urban aesthetics. Though the desire for mainstream acceptance, wealth and fame endure in the American psyche, one gets the sense that the scene’s participants shifted from pressing their fingertips against the sleek windows of Bloomingdales to get a glimpse of nice but unattainable objects to opening their own store. A more innovative and internal cultural sense of expression emerges in the film.
In this sense the summer 2018 FX series Pose offers a kind of narrative correction to some of Paris’s flaws while hinting toward the future documented in Look. Set in New York circa 1987, the series mixes melodrama, performance film, and elements of dramatic realism to thrust its audience in the center of the scene. While there are plenty of delightfully over the top costumes and dazzling choreography at the ball scenes, it’s the richness beyond the red walls of the runway that give the series its bite.
The series creators provide a firsthand look at how a family’s disapproval and violent rejection of their effeminate son Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who loves to dance leads him to homelessness in the streets of New York, before the generous new house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) takes him in and helps him get an education. The series also depicts the susceptibility of queer young people to selling drugs and engaging in various forms of sex work including prostitution and dancing for peep shows. Though the depictions are a bit sanitized and viewers are mostly sheltered from some of the seedier elements of these activities (at least, thus far) there is a refreshing attempt to provide a fuller context.
The HIV/AIDS crisis, including anxieties about testing, medical discrimination toward patients and the toll of watching one’s generation perish from the virus impacts multiple characters profoundly. Another notable element is the show’s critique of different forms of normalcy. Though several characters embody the aspirational element of Paris’s interviewees the characters have multiple scenes where they acknowledge white privilege, racism and transphobia including several protestant scenes in a tony white gay bar, and a surprising exchange between a central character and a white lover. The fragility of the nouveau riche life for several white characters with working class backgrounds, and the predilection of closeted wealthy men for queer erotic exoticism is also depicted gamely. The show has a liminal element that acknowledges the pervasive desire for mainstream acceptance balanced with an appreciation of the structures, mores and cultural scenes the characters have created for themselves.
Pose has been renewed for a second season which should provide more opportunities to refine and develop the series. For example, there is a range of acting experience on display ranging from some stiff interpretations of dialogue to the virtuoso talents of Tony-winning actor Billy Porter (as Pray Tell) whose MCing of the balls is hilariously shady and whose offstage navigations of various life challenges are a marvel. There are many touches of TV movie style melodrama that result in some awkward dialogue and a few too many plot contrivances.
Still, Pose is easily one of scripted television’s most promising debuts. The series is a complex mosaic of characters and subplots. It goes beyond novelty and humanizes the characters beyond the ballroom floor. The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television. The casting of trans actresses Rodriguez, Indya Moore (Angel) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra) as lead characters is a milestone for the series as is the involvement of trans directors and writers, such as Janet Mock. These impactful behind-the scenes decisions, and the series’ narrative choices place the balls in context and amplify your ability to understand why the balls matter and to embrace their creativity. Fans of ‘80’s fashion will revel in some of the brilliant choreography and costuming showcased in the ball scenes, as will fans of ‘80s dance pop and R&B (Check out this Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/g0u1d1e1/playlist/7a9qNUw7ojPCuPPrKm9VlZ?si=or8LwWrPRPyUUgs1Kn3lLA). Viewers will be entertained and enlightened, and most importantly compelled to value fuller representations of people whose lives have been obscured for too long.
COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.