‘Pose’ Has an Increasingly Obvious Colorism Problem

FX Network’s series “POSE” has recently become one of my favorite series of all time.

“POSE” is about Black/Afro-Latina trans women and queer men trying to survive New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Loosely based on the 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, the show follows their journey through the ball scene, entertainment industry, sex work, and the AIDS epidemic that hangs over all of their heads. “POSE” is the first network television show with a predominantly trans cast.

“POSE” focuses on the family drama in a few houses in the ballroom scene. Our main characters hail from House of Evangelista, formed by Blanca, an Afro-Dominican trans nail technician living with HIV. She’s the surrogate mother of Angel, an Afro-Puerto Rican trans woman who is an aspiring model; Damon, a Black gay dancer whose biological parents kicked him out of his home; and Lil Papi, a lovable Afro-Latino hustler who is intensely loyal to his newfound family.

Elsewhere in the city, we have the House of Ferocity, formed by dual mothers Candy and Lulu Ferocity, two trans women who used to be housemates with Blanca and Angel before they all decided to form their own houses. And then there’s the newly-formed and shady as hell House of Wintour, created by Mother Elektra, former mother of House of Abundance, of which Blanca, Angel, Candy and Lulu were all members.

House of Wintour is also home to Ricky Wintour, a Black gay dancer who used to be an Evangelista, but left the house after a messy breakup with his ex-boyfriend, Damon. And witnessing/judging all of the mess and shade is our Master of Ceremonies, Pray Tell, a Black gay elder living with HIV who acts as a parental figure for the wayward children of the houses.

I fell in love with “POSE” within the first five minutes of the series premiere, when Mother Elektra lead her children into a heist so that they can steal elegant costumes from a museum. I found the first season to be uplifting, yet heartbreaking; wildly dramatic, yet incredibly warm and tender.

“POSE” portrayed Black and Latino queer and trans people in a way they’ve never been portrayed before. The characters were dynamic and the storylines were compelling. Watching the show felt like watching a labor of true love; it was like the writer’s room — which includes author Janet Mock — had fully dedicated themselves to the story of “POSE.” I had never grown so attached to a show so quickly. I was thrilled to learn that we’d be getting a season two.

Well, season two has premiered, and it’s been . . . bumpy . . . so far. Like, very bumpy.

Okay, so “POSE” has never been a perfect show; no show is perfect, and it would be unreasonable to expect it to be. But there were aspects of the show that bothered me. One of them was the treatment of the dark-skinned trans women on the show.

Since the show started, there’s really only been two dark-skinned characters trans women with prominent roles: Elektra and Candy. And while I have been living for them both, it’s clear the writers have intentionally portrayed them both as aggressive, violent, vindictive and messy in a way that their lighter-skinned counterparts aren’t.

Dominique Jackson as “Elektra Wintour”

Season one’s Elektra was often characterized by her vanity, self-centeredness, and viciousness. When she was dragging Blanca out of envy, she was dragging and reading everyone else just because she felt like it. While we got to see some moments of vulnerability from Elektra, she doesn’t make a big personality shift until the end of season one.

During season one, the writers went out of their way to humble Elektra: she was dumped by her long-time benefactor after she got gender confirmation surgery. Being dumped lead her to being in an extremely dire financial situation. Elektra wound up homeless and in danger. Blanca shows compassion to Elektra by taking her into House Evangelista and helping her get a regular job. In turn, Elektra shows compassion to Blanca by standing up for her after Candy maliciously reads Blanca during the season finale. Elektra tells Blanca that Blanca showed her how to be a kinder, warmer mother.

So season one ends when Elektra turning over a new leaf as an Evangelista, with a new home and a new relationship with Blanca . . . only for season two to open with Elektra declaring herself better than all of them, flipping the dinner table over and storming out of the house for no discernable reason. She shows up at House of Ferocity to become a part of their house . . . only to do the exact same thing to them and form the House of Wintour.

All that character development went out of the window within the first two episodes. It’s like someone hit the reset button for Elektra, taking her from kind, potentially loving mother back to the hostile woman we met at the beginning of the series.

Elektra appears to be the only character who’s gotten this weird treatment. Everyone else in the cast has gotten to grow — or at least start to grow — into new people. But for some reason, Elektra has been denied that opportunity. It’s like the writers are relishing the chance to teach the haughty dark-skinned woman the same lesson she’s learned before.

So far, the show seems to be taking Elektra back through the same paces as the first season: she’s mostly cruel until something terrible happens. Then she’s humbled and most seek Blanca’s help. While last season’s “something terrible” was getting dumped by her sugar daddy, this season’s “something terrible” is the death of her one of her clients, a white man named Paul who overdoses on drugs during a BDSM session in which Elektra is acting as his mistress. A terrified Elektra runs to Blanca and Candy, who help her figure out a way to hide the man’s body. Elektra ends up with this dead man’s body in her closet, where he’ll presumably be forever.

Elektra hiding a dead body in her closet is based off of the true story of Dorian Corey, a trans woman and performer who was featured in Paris is Burning. Dorian hid the dead body of a man named Robert Worley in her closet for nearly two decades. Worley’s body was only discovered after Corey’s death in 1993.

Dorian Corey

I don’t necessarily mind them bringing this story into show, but I couldn’t help but notice that this violent story has been given to one of the two dark-skinned women when it actually happened to a fair-skinned woman. And maybe I wouldn’t even mind that, if it were an isolated incident. But it’s not. “POSE” has spent all of the second season fictionalizing Paris is Burning by giving shocking storylines — ones that happened to fair-skinned people in real life — to the dark-skinned characters.

The most gruesome and polarizing of them has been Candy’s storyline.

Since the beginning of the series, Candy has been portrayed as violent, two-faced and snarky. Candy has spent most of her time on the show either antagonizing Blanca and the Evangelistas or being antagonized by Pray Tell, who ruthlessly tears her apart almost every time she walks in a ball. One of the show’s running gags has been Candy carrying around a hammer as a weapon and threatening to beat everyone’s ass with it.

Season one of the show didn’t give Candy much development or backstory beyond being the oftentimes funny yet terrible frenemy.

I was really, really hoping that we’d get more from Candy this season. And we have! But, it’s come at a horrible cost.

In episode four of this season, Candy, who had taken a job as a sex worker, is murdered by one of her clients. Her bloody, brutalized body is found in the closet of a seedy motel room. The rest of the episodes feature Blanca, Angel, and Elektra putting together a funeral service for Candy. Pray Tell gives the eulogy (which is worthy of some serious side-eye considering he’s spent the whole show being cruel towards her), and everyone comes to pay their final respects to Miss Candy, including her parents.

Throughout the episode, Candy reappears to each of the main characters, giving them the opportunity to make their peace and say what they wish they’d said to her before her untimely death. The episode ends with a huge send-off for Candy in the form of a ball in the afterlife. Candy gets all 10’s, a beautiful trophy, and dances and lip-syncs into the beyond.

I have a few problems with Candy’s death. Candy’s death is based on the murder of Venus Xtravaganza, who was a trans performer and sex worker featured in Paris is Burning. She was murdered by one of her clients and left underneath the bed in a motel room during the filming of the documentary. Venus was a fair-skinned Puerto Rican-Italian woman.

So, my first problem with Candy’s murder is that it’s another example of the writers taking a tragedy that happened to a fair-skinned woman and changing it so that it happens to a dark-skinned character. It’s becoming a very noticeable pattern at this point.

Venus Xtravaganza

My second issue with Candy’s death is that Candy’s death isn’t even about Candy: it’s about everyone else around her. Her funeral episode becomes a way for everyone to be absolved of their guilt/grief. Pray Tell gets to explain why he was so horrible to her. Angel and Blanca get to tell Candy how much they needed her, even though it wasn’t overly obvious that they needed her throughout the series. Lulu gets to accuse Candy of mistreating her because Lulu is “light-skinned and thick” and then resolve their apparent conflicts with one another.

Mind you, the audience hardly ever saw any conflicts between Candy and Lulu, and we didn’t really get any indication that Candy was particularly jealous of Lulu’s skin tone, so this scene just felt out-of-place and haphazardly written. Watching Candy’s funeral felt like watching the writers try to compensate for Candy’s lack of character development. They knew that we didn’t get to know her before she was killed, so they just threw a bunch of stuff in to say that they made her a well-rounded character when they really didn’t.

MJ Rodriguez as “Blanca” and Angelica Ross as “Candy”

The writers have continued this half-done development since killing Candy off. Two episodes after her death, Candy’s ghost reappears, haunting Pray Tell while he’s sick in the hospital. She shows up to antagonize him for his illness (even though they’d supposedly cleared the air during the funeral episode) and to try to convince him to kill himself.

While she’s haunting Pray Tell, we suddenly learn that Candy had been living with AIDS the whole time, but never told anyone because she thought people would treat her differently once they found out. Again, this just felt like the writers desperately trying to compensate for how they treated Candy in the series.

Candy and Elektra both have been on the short end of the stick when it comes to the writing. While their lighter-skinned and male counterparts have been given dynamic storylines and growth, these two have either been denied that development or have only been given it as an afterthought. It’s been so frustrating to watch this season, especially when it comes to Candy.

I can only hope that “POSE” listens to the critiques viewers have made online and try to correct their course in season 3.

Maybe introduce a new dark-skinned trans woman as a main character, one who gets to be as dynamic and adored as Blanca or Angel or even Lulu. Maybe let Elektra finally grow as a character instead stripping her character development for the sake of drama.

They have to do something. Because what they’re doing now isn’t working anymore.

Sometimes, I write things.

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