Ryan Murphy’s latest project for FX, Pose, was the perfect Sunday night activity for the first weekend of pride month. The series made waves many months before its premiere thanks to its historic cast, which broke the record for the highest number of transgender actors in regular roles on any show. Pose follows a host of players in New York City’s underground ballroom scene — a competitive performance space where gay and trans youth vogue, catwalk, and push the boundaries of gender for their shot at glory — in 1987. HIV/AIDS, homophobia, and homelessness haunt an underrepresented community that leaves it all on the floor during their balls and depend on chosen family to survive. One could consider it a dramatized version of the seminal 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning. But FX’s Pose is only the latest mainstream content to explore the ballroom scene.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has built a cult following among queer and straight viewers alike, making international celebrities out of drag queens. Now in its tenth season and airing on VH1, Drag Race was a first step towards blowing the lid off of contemporary queer performance for a mass audience. Now, Viceland — the network that unofficially built its reputation as a destination for stoner dudes — recently debuted its own original docu-series called MY HOUSE, directed by queer filmmaker Elegance Bratton. The 10 episode show weaves together the experiences of Black and Latino LGBTQ folks performing at kiki balls (a younger subculture stemming from mainstream ballroom culture) and building a shared sense of identity through the “houses” that they join.
But how is this new wave of exposure actually impacting the real-life communities — mostly working class, Black and Brown, queer and trans people — that make up this scene? As glorious as Pose’s debut was, with its cast full of breakout trans stars, it is still the brainchild of Ryan Murphy, a rich white man who I highly doubt is part of any house. His positioning begs the question: what responsibility might he have to these communities and how is he fulfilling it by choosing to tell their stories? And while Bratton is a Black man and very much a part of the New York Black queer scene, how does his raw portrayal of joy and resilience on MY HOUSE relate to Viceland’s audience?
Jason Walker is an LGBTQ organizer who works on HIV policy in New York City and serves as a member of the House of Garcon. He is concerned that mainstream interest has the potential to popularize ballroom culture, and only that. He isn’t convinced that audiences will be as enraptured by “systemic issues like HIV and homelessness and employment,” that run just as deep for these groups, he told me. And he has a reason to worry. History has shown us how elements of marginalized culture are extracted, appropriated, and commodified, often without context by dominant groups. Hip-hop culture has made its way around the globe, with millions embracing its stylistic elements but not the spirit of resistance and struggle from which it was born. Technology has made it even easier to selectively participate in elements of someone else’s culture. Today, gifs allow white internet users to engage in digital Blackface. Cis heterosexual artists like Drake are being called out for using the voice of queer New Orleans artist Big Freedia in their songs while refusing to feature her alongside them in their videos or present themselves in solidarity with LGBTQ issues.
Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner and founder of the House of Garcon. He is also a consultant on Pose. In a 2017 article for Arts Everywhere called “Ballroom: The Trans Sounds of Black Freedom,” he elaborated on Walker’s point and gave specific examples about the misappropriation of ballroom culture. “With its artistic practices rooted in the Black radical aesthetics tradition, and its cultural, political, and theological formulations rooted in a history of the Black struggle for freedom— [house and ballroom culture] has been commodified and misappropriated through the white supremacist gaze via Madonna’s song and video ‘Vogue’ (1990), Jennie Livingston’s documentary ‘Paris is Burning’ (1990), recent contemporary white European Vogue competitions, and so on.” And white people haven’t been the only culprits. Roberson also named Black entertainment and fashion entities from Beyoncé to reality television as commodifiers of this subculture. “Despite this visibility, we are witnessing increasing violence and health disparities in the [culture].”
On the flip side, there is certainly something to be said about visibility itself in all of this. Walker noted that, via these programs, “the representation of trans people will be helpful in increasing the acceptance of their body in public places.” Trans women of color are disproportionately affected by violence – much of it stemming from their gender identity – in this country. Yet harmful legislation, like bathroom bills and imposed limitations to hormone therapy, push to keep them invisible. We are way overdue for depictions that represent this group in their full humanity.
Murphy tapped several ballroom leaders to consult on Pose. His name may be the primary one attached to the show, but the series is not lacking in authentic voices who can speak to the history of their movement. MY HOUSE is ultimately a platform for another queer person of color to tell their own story as they see it themselves. It’s quite possible that what matters most are the conversations that come about as a result. I hope that the dialogue goes beyond the walls of the ballroom.