(Editor’s note: spoilers of the Sunday, July 8 episode to follow.)
If you’re not watching Pose yet, you’re missing out on one of the most groundbreaking moments in television, as the largest cast and crew of LGBTQIA+ talent, especially trans women of color—both on screen and behind the cameras—have been assembled to revisit the ballroom scene of the late 1980s (which, unfortunately, gained notoriety in tandem with the HIV/AIDS crisis).
One of the tremendous talents recruited for the Pose writers’ room was bestselling author and transgender activist Janet Mock. Mock, who is also now a producer on the series, made television history on Sunday night by becoming the first black trans woman to direct a television episode in her directorial debut.
Episode six of the series, titled “Love Is the Message,” also had the distinction of being the first truly musical episode of Pose, which is billed as a “dance musical” drama in the tradition of ’80’s hit Fame. As Pray Tell (played by Broadway legend Billy Porter) and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) belted out a duet of “Home” from The Wiz (which Mock fought to include in this episode) to a room full of AIDS patients—including Pray Tell’s dying lover, Costas—the series hit upon a moment of profound poignancy, seamlessly merging the fantasy world of the ballroom scene with the terrifying reality of the AIDS epidemic.
It was a fitting episode for the author of the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness, which shifted the paradigm for many in our awareness and discussion of trans identity, particularly as it relates to trans women of color. As part of a recent group interview, The Glow Up got to speak with Mock about this latest career milestone and why it was so important for her to be a part of Pose.
“I think for me the most rewarding part of [being part of this series] was really just being able to tell the truth about my own experiences,” Mock said. “And to really show the beauty, the vibrancy, the love and resilience of my sisters and siblings. I really wanted to ensure that they were able to have Pose be a mirror for them to truly see themselves.” She continued, saying:
I think that so often and historically—specifically for trans people, and for LGBT people in general—our stories are told by people who don’t belong to our communities. And so they only speak through a very slight prism, and that limited prism is often only through victimhood and trauma and violence. And I wanted to show that yes, we deal with the reality of very gritty stuff that we have to go through and overcome—but we do overcome them. We go through them, and we often go through them together to creativity, through love, through acceptance.
And so, that sense of community, that sense of creating social safety nets for one another, through bonding together, I think is one of the beautiful things of being an LGBT person ... that taking in and creating of a family is really what this show is all about, at its core.
It’s also an opportunity to truly redefine “realness”—and, as is so often the case in Pose, to challenge the traditional concept of what makes a woman. This larger conversation is what made Episode 6’s very grown-woman discussion between betrayed wife Patty (Kate Mara) and scorned mistress Angel (Indya Moore) so intriguing—and refreshing.
For Mock, showing empathy for each of these women and their experiences was key to making the scene work, juxtaposing Patty’s rightful disillusionment with the information she’s receiving about her husband (“he’s having an affair; he’s having an affair with a brown woman; he’s having an affair with a sex worker; he’s having affair with a transsexual,”) with Angel’s candor, telling us:
[W]hat was important to me was that Angel was fully embodied in her trans-ness. She was not ashamed of it, she was not hiding it. ... [Angel’s] not ashamed of who she is, so then [Patty] can’t really be ashamed either.
In terms of the question of what does that mean in terms of womanhood, I think that that’s probably one of the largest things on our show that we explore ... I’m never trying to have our characters discuss their realness, or needing to say that they’re “real.” We already know they’re real because they’re centered in [this] world, and it’s through their perspective.
For me the idea of womanhood is not one that needs to be justified; I think that what it shows by placing the two together is that they’re both women grappling with their own sense of identity and in relationship with a man who’s not treating either of them right. ... It’s all the same kind of questions that we all have to grapple with when it comes to sharing our bodies with those around us.
That kind of empathy has translated to the cast, many of whom trusted this project specifically because Mock was attached as a writer. She takes the responsibility seriously and sees it as an extension of her existing work to advance the narrative of trans women in the mainstream media—and in mainstream awareness.
You know, I’ve heard this over and over again from the women—our leads on our show, five trans women of color who are series regulars on a drama series—that there was a certain safety and comfort that they felt knowing that I was in the room, shaping these narratives.
And so, because I’ve always committed to being my sister’s keeper this is the work that I’m committed to doing. There was a reason why I chose to sign on for this show in the first place; it wasn’t for my own career or my own potential ... It was because I wanted to make sure that they were protected and that when they showed up to work that they felt that the material was real, that it was resonant—and that, hopefully, then it would resonate with audiences who are feeling their way through an experience that may not be like their own.
And much like the struggles people of color have long been facing in Hollywood, Mock acknowledges that having a seat at the table is vital for the advancement of trans talent in media, something the Pose team has been trying to do by employing trans and/or LGBT talent in every single department in the production, ensuring that the community crafting the story is representative of the community on screen. As she attests:
It’s in every single space, so that when our actors are navigating being on set for 12 hours a day they see people that represent them and they feel a sense of home, of safety, that this is our space and that we all belong here.
In fact, Pose will provide many of its trans talent their first production credits, in some cases, enabling many to legitimize their careers by securing Screen Actors Guild cards.
“[T]hat sense of growth, that bringing all of our community in with us is a huge part of the advocacy work of Pose,” Mock says, adding:
I hope that we will be an example for other productions to realize that it’s not just enough for people who don’t belong in those communities to tell those stories and to put marginalized people on screen, but we also have to empower those communities by economically investing in them and giving them jobs and giving them the pen and allowing them to have a true seat at the table.
Mock, who is currently working on a script adaptation of Redefining Realness, is adamant that that seat includes giving fellow trans women of color an escape from the pervasive threat that their lives are destined to end in violence, paraphrasing black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith when she says,
“We have to be able to write ourselves onto the page so that people can better live and better dream.” And I want to give [trans women] something to dream and reach for, even if it is a bit of a fantasy world ... We also have to get to something else, which is survival and resistance and thriving in the world.