It would be easy for Pose to rest on its bejewelled laurels as a boundary-smashing LGBTQ+ series. After all, the Ryan Murphy-Brad Falchuk period piece already made history by hiring more trans performers for its series regular cast than any other TV show ever. Hypothetically, Pose could just coast on that little groundbreaking detail. But, the FX drama, about the queer New York City ballroom culture of the late 1980s, isn’t choosing to go down the easy road, as Sunday night’s “Access” proved to viewers. To believe that, we simply have to look at the very complicated relationship of Angel (Indya Moore), a transgender woman of colour, and Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), a married cisgender man.
Most shows would use the basic optics of this pairing as proof that it deserves the title of “edgy, innovative TV.” They would scream, “Look at these two! They couldn’t be less alike — or more queer — and we let them kiss! How daring we are!” But, Pose isn’t scandalised by the idea a man like Stan would fall head-over-loafers for a fascinating, caring, bombshell of a woman like Angel. That is why Stan even says he isn't gay, or repressed, for wanting to be with his new girlfriend. Instead, Pose proves it is light years ahead of other shows by inverting the power dynamics you would expect between its leading romantic duo.
Pop culture has conditioned us to assume Stan would be the one calling the shots, no matter what, between himself and Angel. After all, he is a supposedly wealthy man with “access,” to quote the episode’s title, to the kind of comfort and security a lesser show would make Angel, a sex worker, desperate to attain. Yet, this entire relationship is built on Angel's terms.
We see as much towards the midpoint of the instalment, when Stan tracks down Angel at the peep show she is now working at in Time Square. After watching everything from Altered Carbon to The Deuce, I expected Angel to be embarrassed or shocked to see Stan, someone she has a real emotional interest in, pop up at at her skin-baring show in the seediest part of town. Then, I realised I had been brainwashed into that slut-shaming assumption. Angel is not ashamed about her new profession. Clad in bright red lingerie, she writhes around in her clear box, explaining she knew her “uptown businessman” would show up sooner or later. Because, you see, Angel is the one with the magnetic powers here. Stan is merely the sad sack who can’t stay away, shakily throwing coins into the peep show machine to see her once again.
As you continue to watch the pair go back and forth, it becomes clear the claustrophobic moment is set up like a metaphorical oral sex scene, with Angel standing with a list of demands and Stan, sitting at about crotch level, eager to please. Only, what Angel is after isn’t sexual gratification — it’s the financial kind. The businessman can prattle on about his jealousies and insecurities and meaningless requests as long as he wants, but, if he’s not going to give Angel a real reason to leave her lucrative position, nothing he says matters. That is why, as Stan babbles his ridiculous stream of consciousness paranoia about Angel’s job, she merely tells him when her break is and kisses the glass as the peep window closes.
This is Angel’s show, and Stan is merely lucky enough to get a glimpse of her magic.
This ethos is what brings us to Angel and Stan’s dinner confab, where the pair figures out the rules of the “kept woman” arrangement that the real estate exec is so thirsty to finalise. It’s important to remember Angel isn’t the one contorting herself into whatever position Stan wants in order to get herself an apartment. Instead, Angel reminds her would-be benefactor that the life she has set up for herself is good, and she will only give it up — as Stan is desperate for her to do — if he is offering a serious improvement, complete with a year-long lease, no questions asked. Because Angel isn’t the one who even brought up this deal; she can turn it down whenever she wants. But, she doesn’t, because taking Stan’s offer means her chances of survival will seriously improve with a place of her own. The fact that adulterous Stan can sleep better in his suburban home is an afterthought.
Stan’s enduring admiration for Angel creates one of the most moving speeches of Pose’s young life, where he eviscerates himself for being a white, middle-class man who does nothing but “accumulate” things he doesn’t even really own. “But you’re who you are even though the price you pay for it is being disinvited from the rest of the world,” he tells Angel. “I’m the one playing dress-up. Is it so wrong to want to be with one of the few people who isn’t?”
That’s a lot of love in just a few words. More importantly, it’s a long way away from the constant feeling of impending violence that follows trans women of colour in entertainment. Yes, Stan gets a little obsessive, but, at least up until this point, it feels like he will only fail Angel emotionally, not in a physically abusive manner. While some may find that kind of normal human tension obvious, it’s actually a big step away from the tropes that have plagued sex workers like Angel throughout pop culture. And, it’s all because she is allowed by Pose's writers to go toe-to-toe with the shiny-eyed white man sitting across from her.
Hopefully Pose, which is crafted as a sequin-splashed fantasy that grapples with tragedy but isn't defined by it, continues to give Angel the agency she so seriously deserves. Well, that and the mink coat she keeps talking about.