How ‘Pose’ Paved the Way for Better TV Representation — In Front of and Behind the Camera

On a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles not too long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Steven Canals got into a conversation with his seatmate, a woman in her mid- to late-50s who, after hearing he was a writer and producer, asked him if he worked on anything she would know. When he said “Pose,” “she gasped,” he recalls, “and said to me, ‘I wish that this show existed when my kids were younger because I think it would have made me a different kind of parent.’”

Featuring Black and brown queer characters, including transgender ones, firmly in the center of its narrative, “Pose” — which will premiere its third and final season May 2 — is FX’s 1990s-set ballroom culture/chosen-family drama. Canals met uber-producer Ryan Murphy in 2016, which officially put the gears in motion for the show. But he wrote the first draft three years prior, when he was enrolled as a MFA student at UCLA. Then, Canals’ ​initial instinct was to write a show for his younger self, and his professors stressed the importance of creating a “calling card” through which he would show the industry the stories he was passionate about telling.

But, having had a decade-long career in higher education, he was also trained to “identify where there are gaps in programs and policies so that you can fill them.” At the time, there were no transgender characters represented on the small screen, nor were there queer people of color in major roles. Instead, what was dominating were white, straight, cisgender male antiheroes such as “Mad Men’s” Don Draper and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White. (In fact, “Breaking Bad” won the drama series Emmy in 2013.) Unexpectedly, in creating a show Canals would have wanted to watch growing up, he also filled a deep mainstream void when it came to inclusion and representation.

Those few years later when Canals and Murphy were working on “Pose” together, on-screen representation for trans characters, let alone characters living with HIV/AIDS, was still low. GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report for the 2017-18 television season found that there were only 17 regular or recurring transgender characters across broadcast, cable and streaming platforms. Even more notably, there were only two HIV-positive characters across these three platform types. “Pose” then premiered in June 2018 and increased the amount of such transgender characters on television (to 26), while doubling the number of HIV-positive characters (to four), as reported in the 2018-19 “Where We Are on TV” report. The report actually credited “Pose” with having more than half of the trans representation on cable at the time and printed that they “encourage other series to follow ‘Pose’s’ example.” (The most recent report shows that there are 29 regular or recurring transgender characters across platforms, again primarily from “Pose,” and three with HIV/AIDS — all on “Pose.”)

While GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis says she doesn’t believe only “one show should take up a void like that,” she calls “Pose” “groundbreaking,” not only for its portrayals of Black, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ characters and for shining a light on living with HIV/AIDS, but also for “what’s going on behind the camera.”

“This is truly one of those pieces of content that takes the people that the stories are being told about and puts them in the storytelling position, as well,” she says. That is especially important for the trans community, which historically and exponentially has a “much higher rate of unemployment,” she adds.

“Pose” counts writer-producer Our Lady J, writer-producer-director Janet Mock and actors such as Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore and Dominique Jackson among the trans artists it has made household names. It also expanded Tony winner Billy Porter’s fame footprint and got him three-quarters of the way to an EGOT.

All of this was by design, says FX chairman John Landgraf. “You’re not only trying to make the change, but you’re also throwing down the gauntlet,” he explains. “If FX is an elite brand and its work is of elite quality, it therefore has to have the best possible core of creatives working there. By definition, the best core of creatives is a diverse core of creatives, because true talent and true excellence is equally represented in every segment of the human population.”

“Everybody’s story should be represented at all times in television,” Landgraf continues. “That doesn’t just get solved by a show, it gets solved by the nature of what television is. A show can be a pillar that’s holding up representation for a period of time, but it can’t do it permanently, so the work continues.”

The decision to end the show with the third season came from the creatives, Canals says, because they reached the “natural” end goal that had been agreed upon when he first met with co-creator Murphy. To date, the show has picked up 11 Emmy nominations (with one win, for Porter), multiple Golden Globe noms, awards from AFI and GLAAD and a Peabody.

The show has also perfectly embodied FX’s brand mission statement, which is “fearless,” says Landgraf. “Artists are brave, storytellers are brave, people who go out and seek new ways of showing us to ourselves and telling the truth [are brave]. I now think of the trans community and I think of people who have dealt with bigotry and bias in intersectional ways, who have had the courage to come out and live their lives, as the epitome of fearlessness.”

Perhaps even more important, though, is how the series shines a light on the fullness of the experience of being a queer and/or trans person of color, which has inspired empathy, understanding and relatability across viewing demographics. While “Pose” does not shy away from some of the harsher realities, from being kicked out of one’s house for being gay to the often-fatal violence against trans women, it does not exploit the community’s trauma.

“We’ve always seen all of our heroes working to get out of dire circumstances and to work to be bigger than something the world has told them they can be or should be,” says Canals. “And in this third season, we finally see all of our heroes get to that place. It’s a peek into, ‘How is your life impacted once you actually attained the dream? Once the dream becomes a reality, how do you now navigate that?’”

In many ways, this is Canals’ personal story, too. He spent 2-and-a-half years “rewriting [the pilot of ‘Pose’] obsessively” and taking 166 Hollywood meetings to try to sell the show before he met executive producer Sherry Marsh at his 167th meeting, who then introduced him to Murphy.

“In those 166 meetings, every single one of those was, ‘I love your voice on the page, I think this is a really interesting story, what else have you got?’ Or, ‘I don’t really know where so like this lives. I don’t know who the audience for this show is.’ The messaging from the industry was, ‘This isn’t a show that has value and I don’t even know where a show like this can exist.’ And so, I was internalizing all of that messaging,” Canals says.

This led to him thinking he was just the “wrong person” to tell this story because he hadn’t put in his time in the business yet.

“There are those narrative stories that you hear about when you are new to Los Angeles and you’re working to build a career [and] one of those stories was around Matthew Weiner having that draft of ‘Mad Men’ in his top desk drawer and just working hard and waiting to the point where he would have the career where he could then dust it off and make it,” Canals says. “And so, I always had that in the back of my head that that’s what ‘Pose’ would be for me. I always envisioned that I was just going to have to hustle and prove that I am someone who is worthy of fronting a series and that, one day, 15, 20 years from now I’ll be at a place where I have the clout of a Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes or Greg Berlanti or a John Wells, and then I will be able to make this series.”

Instead, though, that show he created while at UCLA actually did become his calling card right out of the gate and helped him ink an overall deal with 20th Century Television, for which he is developing new dramatic series, such as “In The End,” about an end-of-life doula.

And as he gears up to share his final season of “Pose,” which wrapped production in March after block-shooting the majority of its episodes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Canals hopes the show’s legacy will be to “remind of our humanity and what survival looks like.”

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