Pose and the Uncapturable Brilliance of the Ballroom

Amid a wave of new tributes to the queer art of voguing, Ryan Murphy’s FX show struggles to capture the subculture’s energy.

Indya Moore as Angel in 'Pose'
JoJo Whilden / FX

It was one of the first great gay outrages-slash-inside-jokes of 2018: “I’m so into voguing right now.” So announced the former Disney Channel actress Vanessa Hudgens on a January episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars after watching one of the contestants karate-chop the air and then execute a backwards fall off a platform. So into voguing right now? It was like Hudgens had been invited to the conclave of the cardinals, sped-read the New Testament on the plane, and showed up declaring that the Lord is totally her shepherd. It was like she’d wandered into vogue’s history with appropriation, seen in the early ’90s when Madonna’s “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning publicized the practice while paying only some of the practitioners, and seen today when Drag Race viewers scream “10s across the board” without knowing whom they’re quoting.

Nevertheless, it’s likely others will join Hudgens in getting so into vogue this year. And why wouldn’t they? The purring energy of New York City’s ballroom scene—where “houses” of gay and trans folks, mostly of color, compete via creative fashions and fluid-then-frozen dance moves—powers a few new entertainments. Ryan Murphy’s much-hyped FX show Pose, a wide-scoped drama about voguers in 1987, comes on the heels of My House, a Viceland documentary series about the contemporary ballroom world, and Kiki, a 2017 feature-length documentary about the same. Meanwhile, the vibes of ’80s/’90s house and R&B have thoroughly reinfiltrated pop, whether as heard in the elegant clamor of Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry” or seen in the dinner-table catwalking of the video for MNEK’s “Tongue.”

In his recent book Fabulous, the scholar Madison Moore noted how every few years someone tries to announce that vogueing is “back in vogue.” “Where does it actually go when the media isn’t writing about it?” he asked. “The only thing that changes, actually, is the singer, artist, journalist, or media outlet choosing to pay attention to it at the time.” Pose and My House indeed make clear that there are two separate phenomena here: the ballroom, and its cultural portrayals. The former is the ever-humming engine of creativity. The latter has the broader culture jealously reckoning—often clumsily—with how something so vibrant and specific was built exactly in defiance of that culture.

For Murphy, an interest in vogue makes sense in the span of his career-long effort to build an alternative canon of Americana. First, he bedazzled the pop-culture touchstones of the medical thriller (Nip/Tuck), the high-school melodrama (Glee), and the slasher (American Horror Story). Lately he’s been tackling real history: humanizing every player in the O.J. Simpson trial, lending depth to the tabloid feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and piecing the puzzle of Gianni Versace’s murder into a portrait of American homophobia. Over time, his politics have become yet-more overt, and his filmmaking tricks have become more familiar—two trends that converge in the noble mediocrity of Pose.

The most exciting aspect of the show is the fresh faces that populate it. More than half of the cast and crew identify as LGBTQ, and the bulk are transgender, including many first- or second-time actors. The demographic makeup reflects the historical reality of the ballroom as a place for people displaced by traditional ideas of gender, and it comes at a moment when Hollywood’s diversity issues are front-of-mind. In fact, the simmering conversation over representation might help explain why the Paris Is Burning milieu is receiving new attention: The vogue scene of the ’80s, Pose rightfully insists, joyfully enacted the principles of what today get called “identity politics.”

“Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else,” explains the show’s hero, Blanca, a trans woman pursuing her dream of forming her own “legendary house.” Pose dramatizes scenarios familiar to gay literature—the boy beaten by his dad and thrown out of his home, the aching visits to lovers and friends in AIDS wards—but also shares lesser-portrayed stories of the trans experience, touching on such issues as body shape, sex work, and the expenses of transitioning. It also demonstrates the way that the fantasies of the ballroom doubled as social critique: Competitions over “realness” had voguers pretending to be white businessmen and socialites, and the difficulty of the challenge directly reflected how, say, a black trans woman would not actually be accepted at a country club.

Unfortunately, the characters don’t so much enact storylines as they do parables or lessons. For a hint of the broadness at which the show is aiming, look to the white, mostly straight foils of the cast: James Van Der Beek plays a coke-huffing executive at the Trump Organization, and Evan Peters plays his underling, who escapes from his picture-perfect suburban home life to experiment with a transgender sex worker he picks up by the docks. What more obvious way to seek relevance than to insert Trump? The only welcome twist of this storyline is that the sex worker, Angel, played by Indya Moore, is the real protagonist. Sad-eyed but willful, she is one of the show’s strongest pillars.

Murphy calls his filmmaking style “baroque,” but usually it’s as workmanlike as a network procedural’s, spiced up with imitation-Hitchcock camera angles and garish, but unsurprising, musical cues. The dance scenes have promise, but the swooping camera and quick cuts undermine the sustained, graphical momentum of voguing. Again and again, the show faces a version of the problem that often crops up in art about artists: We’re told what we’re watching is worthy of acclaim, even if our eyes and ears tell us otherwise.

All of which not only keeps the characters from feeling like actual, three-dimensional people; it also makes a poor tribute to the voguers’ striving for “10s across the board.” The politics of the ballroom may be fascinating, but Paris Is Burning first sizzled the national consciousness with the brilliance of its subjects—their unforgettable verbal coinages, their impeccable looks, their bizarrely beautiful moves. It felt as though the energy inside the ballroom mostly stayed in the ballroom, and could only ever be caught in glimpses on the screen. Pose just feels like TV.

There’s a bit more verve in My House, a multi-part documentary airing now on Viceland. Capturing the vogue scene as it exists in New York City today, it is packed with kicking and spinning and mugging, with clashing camo prints and lace, and with tiny dance floors crowded on all sides. As with Pose, there’s an overt educational element, including a crash course in the five elements of voguing: hands, catwalking, duckwalking, floor work, and spins and dips. But, one dancer tells the documentary crew with a smirk, “Just so everyone knows, there’s way more than five elements. The people need to learn the element of surprise.”

The social struggles underlying the scene are clear too. One dancer we follow, Tati 007, is a long-haired trans woman and in-demand talent who, we learn, doesn’t quite know where she fits among the cliques of the scene. Another, the gravel-voiced Jelani Mizrahi, excels in categories where competitors try to pass for straight, though he can also shimmy in a tutu. The filmmakers interview him with his dad, who says on camera that he loves his son but—catching Jelani by surprise—that his boyfriend wouldn’t be welcome at family gatherings.

The show highlights how even though voguing is associated with the ’80s and early ’90s, it remains a vibrant practice—and still the provenance of brown and black queer people. Much of the action centers around “kikis”: smaller, youth-oriented gatherings thrown by LGBTQ-outreach nonprofits. Refreshingly, many of the cast members have stories not simply about surviving, but also about striving—with some success—for careers as dancers or rappers. To be clear, the 22-minute episodes aren’t entirely scintillating, and feature reality-TV-standard scenes of stilted dinner-table confrontations and backstage backbiting. But at the center of the action are real lives and real talents, whose brilliance makes for a great show—for their contemporaries, first, and for cameras only sometimes.