Over a quarter of a century after Paris burned, ball culture has finally made its way into popular culture.
by Eric Peterson
In 1991, as a young, closeted-even-to-myself college student, a group of friends and I visited The Magic Lantern Theatre, the only art-house cinema in Spokane, WA, to see a documentary that everyone had been talking about. It was a film called Paris is Burning, and it was about the drag balls in Harlem.
In it, black and brown gay men and trans women led hard lives, to be sure. But every weekend, they put their troubles away and walked the balls. They served up “realness,” they threw “shade,” and they vogued ferociously. I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t see myself reflected in these stories (nor did I particularly want to), but I liked them.
It took almost three decades for stories like these to become fictionalized, but now we have FX Network’s Pose, a serialized ensemble about the black and brown gay men and trans women who defined much of LGBT culture back in the 1980’s.
In the world of Pose, the dispossessed find families of their own, called Houses, led by Mothers who would adopt their Children and care for them in ways that their own mothers and fathers could not. The houses often live together, and Mothers can be strict, but also caring. The lucky ones find work behind counters and department stores or nail salons; others sell drugs or turn tricks. Many are slowly (then quickly) dying of AIDS, and Ronald Reagan has barely mentioned the word.
The eighties were a dark time for LGBT people, but even within that oppressed community, trans women ranked the lowest. At several points in the first season of Pose, trans characters remark that they can make just about anyone in the world, even their fellow queers, feel superior by comparison. And so, they created an environment where they were celebrated as goddesses: the balls.
When walking a ball, achieving “realness” was the ultimate goal. And while this often took the form of poor people looking at home in designer clothes and trans women “passing” to the best of their ability, the new series has accomplished its realness behind the scenes. The series boasts the most trans actresses in its regular cast than any series in television history, many episodes were written by trans memoirist and activist Janet Mock. The consulting producers feature several members of the Legendary House of Xtravaganza, featured prominently in Paris is Burning, as well as that film’s director, Jennie Livingston.
And yes, it feels like a soap opera sometimes. Ryan Murphy, who also brought us Glee, sometimes can’t resist a stirring-and-emotional-yet-completely-implausible speech every now and again, and some of the plot developments, particularly in the pilot episode, require a suspension of disbelief higher than these queens’ wigs.
And yet, the show also doesn’t shy away from many of the tough realities these characters lived through. Almost all have been cruelly rejected by their families of origin, the streets were dangerous, friends were few, and death – usually in the form of a virus with no cure – was far too familiar to these youngsters than it had any right to be.
Many of the performances are fantastic. Mj Rodriguez plays Blanca, a young trans woman who discovers that she is HIV-positive in the first episode, and decides that she might as well pursue her dreams as quickly as possible, and moves out of the House of Abundance to form her own. In every scene, she is as vulnerable or as fierce as the moment demands; at one point, a character describes Blanca as not being afraid to lead from the heart, and the same is true for Rodriguez. Indya Moore plays Angel, one of Blanca’s Children, who – in addition to occasional sex work – engages in an affair with a promising young businessman who works on Park Avenue for a certain real estate developer known for golden toilets. With her sad eyes and wild hair, Moore plays Angel like an explosion of big dreams and bad choices, and the results are complex and heartbreaking. Finally, there’s Tony winner Billy Porter as Pray Tell, the master of ceremonies of the ball, who frequently provides Blanca with a shoulder to cry on, but nurses his own tragedies as well. Pray Tell is the show’s embodiment of wisdom and kindness, but Porter never allows him to function merely as a symbol.
Not every performance reaches these heights, but as a firm believer in knowing our history, I urge people – especially queer people – to experience Posefor themselves. You might not see yourself reflected completely by these stories, nor will you particularly want to. But you’ll enjoy the trip down this glamorous but imperfect runway, and you’ll be ready for Season 2 in 2019.
All episodes of Pose are available on demand via the FXNow app. Paris Is Burning is available on YouTube.