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Making little things grow: 'POSE' is challenging heteronormative culture, status quo

FX's "POSE" does more than just set a new precedent for representation in media — it fundamentally challenges our understanding of gender, sexuality, history and the world around us.  – Photo by Pose FX / Twitter

“The legendary Elektra Abundance. Looking like a tall glass of lemonade. Giving us daffodil realness. Giving us sunflower. Sun power! Making the little things grow!”

Making the little things grow. 

That is exactly what Ryan Murphy’s new show, “POSE," aims to do. The show's cast consists of five transgender women of color (the most of any mainstream television series), and American Horror Story fan-favorites Billy Porter and Evan Peters.

For a majority of people, we've grown up in a Eurocentric world with the support, education and betterment of the white man in mind. Our white teachers teach lessons of white-saviorism, and our curriculum treats Black history as an impediment upon our otherwise spotless antiquity.

The TV programs we watch star white, cisgender people. The God we have come to know in the Christian faith is white and declares that being gay is a sin. These are the truths of our world for a lot of people. But for the Black child, they are living in a world that feels like it doesn’t belong to them.

The LGBTQ+ child is made out to be an outsider, and thousands of children grow up with a distorted picture of what being Black or a member of the LGBTQ+ community looks like.

But Murphy dares to challenge these ideas and creates a different world. A realm where people are accepted and celebrated for who they are. A utopia, where age doesn’t matter, Black is beautiful and queer culture is created and defined. More importantly, beyond all the glitz, glam, fur and stilettos, it's a safe haven for those who couldn't make themselves smaller to fit in to their predetermined place in society.

Making the little things grow, as they say.

This utopia I speak of is the ballroom culture of the '80s in New York City. The show focuses in on the culture, language, fashion and dance stylings of an underground Black and Latinx subculture that emerged during the time and is rooted in challenging ideas of gender identity.

At the balls, different “houses” compete for trophies in various competition categories. Historically, houses consisted of “mothers," who were members of this inclusive and eccentric community themselves, and “children," who were predominantly LGBTQ+ youth that were abandoned by their parents and left to live on the streets of New York City. 

The show sheds light on what is otherwise a community that existed in the shadows of the mainstream.

There's Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a shy yet ambitious dancer who winds up on the street after being disowned by his family, Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), a sketchy drug dealer with a heart of gold who is trying to change his life around despite his living in poverty, Angel (Indya Moore), an aspiring model who faces adversity in a business that refuses her femininity at every step of the way and Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), a smooth talker who silently struggles with his health in the face of the AIDS epidemic.

Under the guidance of matron goddess of the balls, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), and elder queen Pray Tell (Billy Porter), the kids learn the basic rules for survival in their counterculture, how to advocate for their community and how to fight for themselves and their independence in a world that wants to see them dead.

The '80s was a time of cocaine, big hair, loud music and hungry New York City yuppies eager to climb the ranks and stomp necks on Wall Street. But while the rest of the city was becoming young executives, driving around luxurious SUV’s and talking about their stock portfolios, in the umbra of gloomy, run-down hospital rooms in the darkest corners of the city under that horrible fluorescent lighting, thousands of people were slowly dying.

Much misinformation about the spread of the virus contributed to the lack of care and resources available. The general public’s silence and complacency coupled with former President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to recognize the epidemic rendered the LGBTQ+ completely powerless.

It was the epidemic no one wanted to cure. It was seen as some twisted version of divine intervention, as if AIDS was heaven-sent to save us from the plague of homosexuality that had befallen our beloved country.

Throughout the show, the characters seem to be constantly running from an inescapable virus that is out to kill them. Pray Tell verbalizes this feeling of loneliness to Blanca: “They'll never know that feeling what it's like to love without worrying that you're gonna die, or worse yet, that you're gonna kill somebody. I don't know what's shittier: having that freedom taken away or never having had it to begin with.”

One of the most important conversations of the show isn't a conversation at all, making this show all the more unique and culturally significant. Without words, “POSE” has normalized the relationship between Lil Papi, a cisgender, heterosexual male and Angel, a transgender sex-worker who has suffered a long line of abuse from the men in her life.

At no point does Angel question Papi’s sexuality, nor does he question Angel’s womanhood, pressure her to change her body or fetishize her. Their love is unmixed, unalloyed and untouched by the outside world.

What they have is nothing more than a relationship between a man and a woman, and the unquestioning faith and realness in that determination sends a powerful message to heterosexual couples everywhere that transgender women are real women, capable of relationships the same way cisgender couples are.

Aside from having bomb-ass characters, larger-than-life costumes and an engaging storyline, the show exposes the viewer to a lot of drag culture and encourages us to expand or question ideas about gender and sex, how they relate and how they are different.

The show also discusses divisive ideas and trends in the transgender community, like being a “passing" transgender woman, which is when a transgender woman can go out into public and be perceived as a cisgender woman because she looks more "traditionally" feminine.

Throughout the show, we watch Angel struggle with her modeling career as people refuse to work with her after finding out she is transgender. We also see characters face discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community itself, which raises intriguing questions about intersections between minorities.

"POSE" recognizes the delicate balance between femininity and masculinity, and how sexuality is a spectrum. It challenges you to engage in conversations about gender and gender roles, and might even inspire you to challenge gender norms yourself.

While it's all of these beautiful, wonderful, prideful things, it has also made me cry more times than I can count. 

Making the little things grow.

That's what this show is all about. From where I'm sitting, this show is giant leap forward in the fight towards equality. To see Black culture represented in the mainstream is atypical. But, seeing Black, queer women being acknowledged in popular culture is something else entirely.

For the first time, a show stars an all-Black cast, with the supporting characters being white and straight. Although some may have their critiques, to recognize a culture that's considered so taboo is a daring and remarkable decision on Murphy's part, and I love him even more for it.

Representation in the media is everything, and to be a transgender child growing up, watching this show and for the first time seeing someone who was like them represented in media sends a huge message. 

Perhaps it's not Elektra that's making the little things grow. Perhaps it’s the voices of thousands of people just like the characters of this show who demand to be heard, whose pain demands to be felt, whose stories need to be told.

People like Alexus Braxton, Dustin Parker, Monika Diamond, Nina Pop, Tony McDade and thousands of others whose only crime was loving themselves enough to live freely. People who were punished for liberating themselves from their sexuality. Or perhaps, it’s the people who move mountains — who advocate, who donate, who protect, who create.

We must remember that healing isn't linear, and although we may not be able to change popular culture today or tomorrow, we must continue to make strides towards ending oppression, regardless of small those strides may be.

And the little things will grow: strides will become steps, steps will become leaps. As the LGBTQ+ icon Andy Warhol once said, “They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

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