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July 7, 2018

The Hard-Won ’80s Empowerment of ‘Pose’ and ‘GLOW’

Two excellent summer shows portray the struggles and successes of marginalized dreamers.

Near the start of each episode of FX’s new ‘80s-set series Pose, MC Pray Tell (Kinky Boots’ Billy Porter) announces the title sequence, imbuing each word of the line, “The category is: liiiive, weerk, pooose!” with a drawn-out air of playful melodrama that perfectly encapsulates the ‘80s ballroom drag culture which frames the show.

“Live, work, pose” may seem like an offbeat trio of philosophical pillars, but when embodied by the vibrant found families portrayed in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s latest collaboration (this time co-created with Steven Canals), the phrase transforms into nothing short of an inspiration. Pose follows two New York ballroom “houses”–tight-knit groups of LGBTQ dancers, performers, sex workers, and societally overlooked individuals who both compete and live together–as they do just what Pray Tell prophesied. They live, they work, and they pose their way through unconscionably hard times, fighting through hard-earned acceptance, confidence, and a place in the world via the specific joy of stepping on the ballroom stage (the Paris is Burning kind, not the Top Hat kind).

They aren’t the only ones on TV this summer seeking catharsis through glittering ‘80s performance. Over on Netflix, another group of misfits comes together for the second season of GLOW, a half-hour comedy-drama created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, whose laid-back seasons each feel more like long movies than sets of distinct episodes. Set on the opposing coast two years before Pose (GLOW begins in 1985, while Pose is set in 1987), the series follows a group of desperate would-be actresses, stuntwomen, and performers who sign up for a project that turns out to be an all-female fake wrestling cable series, The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Though they’re quickly typecast as offensive stereotypes, over time these women are able to gain a measure of creative control over their characters and put on shows that demonstrate their creativity, physical strength, and off-the-wall showmanship.

Both series follow real subcultures that actually provided support for people who held minimal social standing in the 1980s. Ballroom culture welcomed trans women, gay men, people of color, drag queens, the HIV-positive, homeless youth, and everyone in between who had the ability to “walk” at least one of the performance categories. In a revolutionary step forward for televised representation, the show’s main cast is comprised almost entirely of transgender actresses. Meanwhile, ladies’ wrestling like the show GLOW is based on served as a respite from the imbalanced real world for queer women, big women, non-feminine women, and women of color.

While GLOW and Pose both could have opted for a self-congratulatory take on their own diverse representation, portraying these pockets of self-made glamour as nostalgic dreams come true, they instead choose to push for realism and complexity. Each show continually exposes the flaws and divisions that existed even within the subcultures they celebrate. It’s made clear again and again that the spaces these characters are told to take up in society are limited–to a certain kind of bar, a 2 am time slot, or a role as a stupid stock character, for example–and that it takes all they have to make even a fraction more space for themselves. There’s a Room of One’s Own joke in GLOW’s second season, and it’s apt. Even as they try, through cathartic self-expression, thriftiness, and teamwork, we know that the odds are still stacked against these marginalized groups’ dreams of fame and glory.

Although the hegemonic powers-that-be are the clearest form of opposition in both series, many of the women on GLOW and Pose still fail to understand one another’s struggles and desires and end up hindering each others’ livelihoods as a result. This is demonstrated in GLOW’s second season when a pair of wrestlers steal a vital idea from Indian-American Arthie (Sunita Mani), trapping her once again in the role of a generic Middle Eastern terrorist stereotype. Their action isn’t actively malicious, but thoughtless and harmful all the same. In a separate, harrowing instance, wrestler Ruth (Alison Brie) becomes the target of an attempted casting couch assault at the hands of a station executive–one which closely hews to victims’ accounts of Harvey Weinstein–and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) later chastises her for not allowing the man’s advances to go further. When it comes to the stories of these outcast dreamers, the show always opts for complexity over simplicity and is better for it.

Meanwhile, characters on Pose frequently judge one another in terms of “realness,” or their ability to pass as cisgendered, which is often based on one’s ability to afford expensive clothes and feminization surgeries. While the balls are the highlight of most characters’ weeks and their best chance to prove their worth and talent, cattiness and judgment are also built-in elements, especially for on-again, off-again antagonist Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson). In one episode, a woman named Candy (Angelica Ross) is ridiculed for her slender build by the only community she calls home, so she ultimately resorts to back-alley silicon injections that make her sick. For some people, Pose and GLOW both demonstrate, the price of an American dream, fame, or even agency is often much too high.

The dazzling, Hollywood-emulating microcosms that frame both narratives reveal the highest of highs and lowest of lows. At their best, the ballroom performers and lady wrestlers are pulling off something that feels brand new, brighter and better and more wonderfully melodramatic than anything their audience has seen before. At their worst, the pain shows through nonetheless: neither group is untouched by the sting of constantly reinforced bigotry, the humiliation of poverty, or the complex terror of the AIDS epidemic. For the underdogs who populate both shows, empowerment is by necessity self-generated and self-sustaining. In a recent Twitter comment, Pose actress Indya Moore explained why all people should feel like the show’s target audience, and she’s right; these complementary stories are for everyone who appreciates success that’s hard-fought, homemade, and continues to grow despite the odds.

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