Lizzie O'Leary: Hi. I'm Lizzie O'Leary host of Slate's, What Next TBD. I'm in for Tanzina Vega back with you on The Takeaway.
Billy Porter: The category is [unintelligible 00:00:19] work, Pose.
Lizzie O'Leary: This past Sunday the FX show Pose kicked off its third and final season. Since its debut, the groundbreaking television series has chronicled New York City's ball scene of the '80s and '90sBall culture is a mix of performance, dance, modeling, and competition, mainly consisting of LGBTQ people who've been outcast to the fringes of society because of their sexuality. Ball and house culture are filled with young people who've been forced to find family in a non-biological context.
Elektra: We fought for our place at this table and that has made us stronger than you will ever be. Now pick your jaw up off the floor and go back to your clam chowder and shallow conversations. My girlfriends and I aren't going anywhere.
Lizzie O'Leary: Pose is far from the first TV show or movie to look at ball culture from Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied, to Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning, to RuPaul's Drag Race. Hollywood has long taken an interest in the underground LGBTQ and ballroom competitions of past and present, but Pose has introduced a new generation to ball culture.
Elektra: Didn't you hear the news? I'm walking with the House of Evangelista to help them win a trophy or 10 but mostly to destroy you.
Lizzie O'Leary: For more on this, we're joined by Elegance Bratton, director, writer, producer, and creator of My House on Viceland and the documentary Pier Kids. Elegance, welcome back to the show.
Elegance Bratton: Hey, thanks for having me.
Lizzie O'Leary: For people who haven't seen Pose or your work, can you explain a little bit about how ball culture came to be?
Elegance Bratton: Ball culture starts with the Faustian scenario of American culture, Black life, and white life. By virtue of being Black, you are living in the antithesis of the American dream because of systemic oppression and systemic racism, and you are now forced to find a place to have your value. That's just ground zero for being Black in America. Now, when you throw in the queer element, you get into ballroom culture. In my estimation, ballroom begins on the plantation with the playtime of enslaved African Americans who are imitating their oppressors, their captors, and in so doing there creates a little liminal space for queer performance that then transforms once we get into freedom in the 1920s.
Blacks are leaving the south in droves heading up north, where we go to Harlem, and the masquerade ball system where you have a gender performance, a component of that. Then you have the reality of being Black, where you're hyper incarcerated, you're hyper surveilled by police. Voguing gets its start in Rikers Island, where you have separate units for LGBT or gay and transgender individuals. In those units, instead of getting into knockdown drag-out fights, these folks were like posing and, again, imitating white high society for laughs and status amongst themselves. In my mind, ballroom begins in the scenario of slavery, continues through the great migration, and lands within the response to Black freedom, which is hyper incarceration in the prison industrial complex at Rikers Island.
Lizzie O'Leary: Why do you think a show like Pose or your work has found such an enthusiastic audience today?
Elegance Bratton: I think we live at a time when people are generally skeptical of mainstream institutions. We've been let down by the electoral process in the Trump administration, we've been set by just totally astonished as the Supreme Court just shifts and takes shape, sometimes against over half of the country's progressive and socialist leanings. We are all interested in finding alternatives to systems that have failed us. I think one of the silver linings of racism in America is that by virtue of being excluded, Blacks have an advantage in creating entertaining culture because it's a means of survival for us. If we can't be president, if we can't go to Congress, if we can't vote, we can entertain and that's a way where we can get money.
More importantly, we can't be employed because of our race as well, we're less likely to have the same opportunity as a white person. Entertainment culture just becomes a natural space to claim political power. As a result, Black queer entertainment culture, it's just fascinating. I think a lot of women are finding their voice through Black gay culture and a lot of conversations between Black men and heterosexual men and heterosexual women in terms of how we relate to one another and the toxicity of masculinity is interrogated by a show like Pose. That's why, at this particular moment, work about this culture is really starting to bubble up and lead the mainstream conversation.
Lizzie O'Leary: Houses and a sense of belonging to a house is a big part of ball culture. What roles do a house play?
Elegance Bratton: Houses play both a tangible role in that these are networks of individuals who can depend on one another for life-sustaining resources. I've seen house mothers feed 5, 10 homeless kids out of their purses. I've seen house mothers buy these same kids effects for their ball. I've also seen these mothers literally house the children. In that regard, it's key material life-sustaining resources.
On the other side, there's something a bit more ephemeral. A house provides a ruling ideology around this alternative social network, so that not only does it happen, but it happens in an organized structure where you have a mother, a father, brother, sister, the prince and princess, so many different titles within the house all geared round, in my mind, engaging the LGBT homeless youth of color, to make up for what they're lacking, because they've been ostracized by the heterosexual mainstream society.
Lizzie O'Leary: What do you think the impact of seeing [unintelligible 00:07:02] the actors on this show? LGBTQ actors of color. I'm thinking of Billy Porter out on red carpets pre-pandemic. What impact does seeing them working, and working at this lauded level have?
Elegance Bratton: It impacts in every meaningful way in that we have representation for people who look like Billy and look like MJ and look like Dominique. They get to see and imagine themselves, the possibility of themselves in places like the Met Gala, and on the red carpet or the Golden Globes. Then for this industry, it proves that individuals like Billy Porter and Dominic Ross, MJ Rodriguez Indya Moore, that these are models of success and that we need to find more of them because once something hits, the way it works is the whole industry is trying to create the next version of it for the next generation. Hopefully, we'll see many more icons of trans, Black queer experience.
Lizzie O'Leary: In the earlier seasons, some of the characters on Pose are involved in sex work. I wonder how significant you thought it was to see something like that on a network TV show?
Elegance Bratton: No, I go back and forth on that one because most times you see trans people on network television, it's as a sex worker. In that regard, the way that show itself is that, there has to be something that's relevant to what's been done before and then a little twist to it, that makes it modern. I think in the case of Pose, the twist is we get to see the life of the trans of color, Black and Latinx sex worker from their eyes and from the community that depends on them for this work's eyes.
I think that's really, really important that now instead of looking at them through the lens of the stereotypical white gaze, which views anybody who's a gender rebel as some deviant/pariah, we get to see the same individuals on a show like Pose as heroes, as freedom fighters in a way. Harriet Tubman gets, and rightfully so, she is lauded as being someone that has blocked Black people out of bondage into freedom at a time when it was very, very difficult for her to do. These Black trans women of the ballroom, the Dorian Corey of Paris Is Burning the characters on Pose, the characters in My House and Pier Kids, Krystal LaBeija, these women are doing much of the same work in the legacy of Harriet Tubman. They are leading Black youth who, without them, would have zero, not even a little piece of rock to hold on to in their climb of the class ladder. I think Pose and looking at these sex workers through the eyes of queer Black liberation, this is monumental. This is the twist that we've needed to use this medium as a way to build empathy and cross-cultural understanding.
Lizzie O'Leary: I feel like Pose and ball culture are both extremely celebratory, but then when you think about this season, we're talking about 1994 and the AIDS epidemic, how does the show capture, do you think, what that experience was like?
Elegance Bratton: It's a tough one for me, again, because as much as I love and appreciate Pose and I'm inspired by the creators of Pose, many of them are my friends. I view them of great esteem. That being said, I think that Pose, there's just a lot of weight when you are the pioneer of something. A huge part of being a pioneer in this culture is, I call it the educational tax. When we talk about a show humanizing people or teaching the masses, what we're talking about inherently is the white gaze who doesn't believe that black people are not human, who's erected an entire culture and civilization around the premise that trans people don't even rightfully exist. We are privileging, to a certain extent, Pose's depiction of the early '90s is very much empathetic to a white male gaze or a white gaze that does not want to hold the feet to the fire.
First of all, you don't see any queer Black revolutionaries of that era on Pose. There's no Essex Hemphill, there's no Marlon Riggs, there's no, Joseph Beam. These are individuals who went to balls in the '80s and '90s who were infected with HIV, who were part of the ACT UP movement. Particularly when we talk about something like ACT UP which occurs in 1987, which is lauded as this radical queer pink power response to AIDS.
Lizzie O'Leary: Lauded today, but was so controversial at the time.
Elegance Bratton: Right. Literally, you have these white people climbing government structures. I mean, Black people could never do that. Black people could never have that type of-- Just even right now with the murder of George Floyd, and we hear this mainstream media conversation about "rioting" these people who stormed the doors, it was always looked at as a political response because these men were white.
That landed with Black people in the movement. There were plenty of Black and Latino people in the ACT UP movement with the white people downtown. If you watch Pose, it feels like it almost all happens in Harlem or the Bronx. In reality, people from Harlem in the Bronx went downtown and sought help and were sidelined by these white people. Here we are today, one out of two Black gay men are projected to have HIV in their lifetime. 70% of the people who are homeless and young in this country are Black youth.
I think the show is very much bringing life to this history in a nuanced and absolutely essential way. However, I wonder if it's a little too soft. When I think about Ryan Murphy's Canyon, when you think about a show like Hollywood and all of the characters of fascination that show up in that show who actually existed, characters that never existed. You look at a show like American Horror Story that is so almost willy nilly with the timeline, if you will, I wonder why aren't these-- For instance, have you ever heard of a thing called GMAD Gay Men of African Descent?
Lizzie O'Leary: No.
Elegance Bratton: GMAD was started by a Black gay man by the name of Charles Angel, who was a very active member of ACT UP. He got sick of being sidelined by ACT UP and then went to Brooklyn and started his own organization to deal with HIV and AIDS in the Black community specifically because he felt ACT UP was not doing what it needed to do. Now, I think Pose lives in a reality where ACT UP has never done what it's supposed to do. To a certain extent, it's affirming in that it imagines a world where Blacks were doing it for themselves. However, I think skipping over that particular beat of the history, I don't know.
I think, again, this is the problem. This is the great problem of being a pioneer is that all of the work gets put on your shoulders. What I'm grateful for in my career right now and the work that I have coming out, I know that Pose has made a positive impact on my possibilities as a Black storyteller in this medium, and it has taken some of the burden off of me to have to explain and humanize my experience for a white gaze because it's already done that. However, if I'm to stand on the shoulders of these giants and make my mark, inspired by them, then I feel it's necessary to really talk about what is on screen and what actually happened and to look at the Ryan Murphy machine.
The question I have is why isn't Essex Hemphill on the show? Marlon Riggs was shooting ballroom before Jennie Livingston shot ballroom in Paris is Burning. Why isn't a character like that on the show? When we go to Hollywood we can have Rock Hudson, we got everybody to be on the show. You know what I'm saying? Everybody is [crosstalk] and I just don't understand it. It's a part of what inspires me to do what I do so that I can contribute my perspective on it.
I was making My House before Pose was out. My show premiered a week before Pose, and I get it. There's no hard feelings, but at the same time, we have to interrogate all of America's economic systems. I think even Janet recently said some things about this, where she pulled back the curtain generously and showed us some of what was going on behind the scenes.
She spoke to how the [crosstalk].
Lizzie O'Leary: Janet Mock.
Elegance Bratton: Yes. I think the injustice of this is that when white people show up to Black spaces where we have been the whole time filming ourselves, listening to ourselves, talking about ourselves, and they get this huge groundswell of support for doing what we already do, there in which you have a scenario where Black lives matter less than white lives. I think, going forward, Hollywood has to be much more exacting in its mission to diversify and include and also look at this. Why is it that when white people do Black things, it's suddenly news, but when Black people do it, somehow it's less worthy?
Lizzie O'Leary: Elegance Bratton is a creator of My house, which is on Viceland, and the documentary Pier Kids. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.
Elegance Bratton: Thank you so much for having me. I wish all of your audience safety and health going forward.
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