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Art As Activism: Groundbreaking FX Show 'Pose' Serves As 'Antithesis' To Anti-Trans Rhetoric

Left to right: Dyllón Burnside as Ricky, Hailie Sahar as Lulu, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Indya Moore as Angel, Angel Bismark Curiel as Lil Papi. (Eric Liebowitz/FX)
Left to right: Dyllón Burnside as Ricky, Hailie Sahar as Lulu, Mj Rodriguez as Blanca, Indya Moore as Angel, Angel Bismark Curiel as Lil Papi. (Eric Liebowitz/FX)

The last season of the groundbreaking FX show "Pose" kicked off Sunday night.

Over three seasons, the award-winning series has gained critical acclaim by taking us back to the '80s and '90s — the golden age of the underground ballroom subculture in New York City.

The show holds the distinction of casting the largest number of transgender actors in TV history and sets the record for having the largest LGBTQ crew of all time.

"Pose" was first developed by three people who had a mutual love and appreciation for "Paris Is Burning," the highly acclaimed 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston. The film documented ball culture — the fabulous show of dancing and posing — that served as a support system for LGBTQ youth.

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Emmy-winning TV producer Ryan Murphy was one of those obsessed with "Paris Is Burning."

So much so, he optioned the rights to it. But as he started to develop it, Murphy realized something.

"I realized this is not my story to tell. This is my story to support," he says. "But I just don’t feel like I could tell it authentically. So I put it on pause."

Then one day, Murphy saw a script about the ballroom community by a young writer named Steven Canals, who wrote it when he was in film school at UCLA.

"[Canals] had a really great vision, and I was just bowled over by him," Murphy says. "And I think at the end of that meeting, I said, ‘OK, we’re going to make it.’ And he was surprised, I think."

Murphy says within 45 minutes of meeting Canals, he was sold.

It took a little longer for Canals, who by that time had already received 150 rejections.

"The entire two months between that meeting and our first official 'Pose' writers meeting, which happened in December of 2016, every time my phone rang and I didn’t know the number, I was convinced it was going to be my team telling me he changed his mind," Canals says.

Janet Mock, who is a writer and director for "Pose," says the crew used "Paris Is Burning" as a jumping-off point to go even deeper with the fictionalized characters in the FX series.

” ‘Paris is Burning’ is one of the foundational texts of the queer and trans community, specifically for folk of color," Mock says. "I think that one of the things that hits me so hard with 'Paris Is Burning' is really the story of Venus Xtravaganza and sometimes the lack of context to what made her life and her fire extinguished so clearly."

Xtravaganza is one of the main stars of that film, and she was killed before the documentary was completed.

In the "Pose" writers room, Mock says she had Venus Xtravaganza's story in the back of her mind. While the writers wanted to explore the struggles of being LGBTQ, they didn't want to lose sight of "the want for love, the want for dreams and joy, the visions that they were going after," she says.

"That really colored our show and affected and changed us," Mock says. "And I think that similar to 'Paris Is Burning,' it is about society’s rejects coming together and forming something so magical that is rooted in being your full, authentic self."

The quest to be true to yourself is something Mock understands deeply as a trans woman. This is why she feels so close to the character, Angel Evangelista, played by Indya Moore.

Angel is the "ingénue" of the show, Mock says, the hopeless romantic who is desperately searching for love and acceptance in a world that outcasts LGBTQ people.

"Every season she’s had a storyline anchored in her quest to be loved and to love, and I think that that quest has always been inside of me," she says. "Growing up in a world where, in middle school and high school, I just sat and watched my peers be able to hold hands with whoever they want and me longing for that kind of connection and love. And I see so much of myself in Angel."

From the beginning of the show, Canals says he wanted to write characters that were "very transparent" about their desires for the future. In the final season, those dreams come full circle.

"So this third season, what was so exciting for all of us was to explore what does it look like when a person finally gets to that place where all of the things that they wanted most, they’ve accomplished? That they’re no longer struggling?" he says. "And what are the joys and also the complications of that happening?"

Season three of "Pose" also marks "one of the great performances in the history of television" by Mj Rodriguez, who plays House of Evangelista mother Blanca on the show, Murphy says.

Canals says he feels a strong bond with Blanca. For him, she represents the women in his Black and Puerto Rican family.

"Blanca raised me really and truly," he says. "Blanca is my grandmother. She’s my abuelita. She’s my mom. She’s my aunties. She’s my sister. She’s every Black and Brown woman who has been standing beside me and has said, 'You’ve got this. You’re good. You’re worthy. You’re going to be OK. I love you.' "

When he was writing these characters, Canals says it was important that they represented people in his real life.

"These characters, they live with you. They have to," he says. "Otherwise you can't tell their stories because really, the characters have to trust us."

That feeling of trust and support is what Mock hopes "Pose" gives back to the LGBTQ community, especially at a time when anti-trans legislation is increasingly being debated in statehouses across the country.

"I’m just really proud and glad that we do exist in a world where a show like 'Pose' can be the antithesis to this kind of rhetoric that is deeply dangerous, that pushes trans youth out of their homes, queer youth out of their homes, puts them onto the streets and makes them that much more vulnerable," Mock says.

Murphy agrees that the growing visibility of LGBTQ people through shows like "Pose" highlights how art can be activism.

"I think I read some recent statistic that says only one in every 50 people say they’ve ever met a trans person. So I think when you watch the show, you’ve met one and you’ve fallen in love with one," he says. "And I think it’s so informative and educational for people to see the humanity behind everyone in our show, and in a way, I think it is activism."

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.