Melodrama as Revolution

This past May, I saw the Broadway production of Mart Crowley’s seminal queer classic The Boys in the Band at Booth Theater in New York City.

And then, this June, I saw FX’s Pose, a new drama series about NYC ball culture in the eighties.

You’re probably wondering why I’ve mentioned these two seemingly unrelated things in close succession, especially given how different The Boys in the Band is from Pose.

1968 to 2018. Opposite ends of the queer representational window. Different genres, different mediums, different time frames, and different segments of the community. Really, the only thing these productions share is one thing.

Television producer Ryan Murphy. But more on that later.

Back to The Boys in the Band. The Broadway production is the most lavish presentation of the material to date. Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the play’s original Off-Broadway premiere, it has a cast of high-profile, openly gay Hollywood performers like Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer,  Andrew Rannells, and Zachary Quinto. And, as previously mentioned, it is produced by Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud) and comes with a massive promotional footprint for a Broadway show.

I basically had to see it. I’m a fan of Crowley’s original text, the 1970 William Friedkin film adaptation, and have seen the play mounted a few times by smaller, local theatre companies. And as a writer obsessed with queer history and representation, the play is about as OG LGBTQ as you can get. It pre-dates the Stonewall riots, the gay sexual excess narratives of the seventies, and the AIDS-related trauma narratives of the eighties. It is sort of it’s own pessimistic queer beast, and discovering it as a teen was like discovering a priceless gay artifact in my own backyard.

Wait. You mean… I have gay ancestors that go all the way back to the sixties?

Well, the production was strong, with Parsons and Quinto as real standouts. Compared to the previous versions I had seen, this one felt much more vital, more expensive, and considerably less stuffy. It elevated the entire production to a coronation of sorts, making it feel like less of a museum piece and more… alive. As he had done with The Normal Heart adaptation back in 2014, Murphy and his stable of performers had helped to breathe new life into the queer canon  — a piece now revived, revered, and elevated to high art for a new generation of queers.

Our myths continue to exist, passed from one age to the next.

And on the back of every program was an ad for Murphy’s newest show, Pose.

Now, when I first noticed this, I was pretty cynical about it. I mean, what better way to get an ad for your new series into the hands of your target demographic than to ride on the back of a queer classic? It seemed convenient and opportunistic. Was this the reason Murphy had started reviving all of these queer classics? To promote his new television properties? And wasn’t he aware of the many differences between the (mostly) white gay men of The Boys in the Band and the PoC trans characters of Pose?

Well, as it turns out, yes to all. Murphy knew exactly what he was doing. If anything, it is a hell of a bait-and-switch that seems to answer to some of the representational criticisms levelled at him in the past, and that also makes me very excited about his future queer-themed projects. Because if The Boys in the Band was an exercise in preserving and elevating LGBTQ narratives of the past, Pose is an exercise in exploding and reconfiguring queer narratives of the future.  It’s popular genre storytelling as a revolutionary act.

If Crowley’s play is a classic because it gave us a tragic gay narrative about gay life in the sixties, Pose is fascinating because it upends the tragic queer narrative and transforms it into a feel-good melodrama. Some critics have approached the show’s sentimentality as a flaw, but it’s one of the most brilliant aspects of the series.

To put it simply, we’re not used to seeing trans people of colour at the center of empowering journey narratives. We’re not used to seeing them win, build communities and families, and pursue their dreams. We’re used to seeing them as victims or criminals. We’re used to them being shuffled to the periphery of the story and murder or be murdered for their transgressions. Their unwillingness to adhere to larger societal norms is punished by the very structures of storytelling.

“I’m no one. I want what I’m supposed to want. I wear what I’m supposed to wear. I work where I’m supposed to work. I stand for nothing. I’ve never fought in a war and I probably will never have to because the next one will kill us all. I can buy things I can’t afford which means they’re never really mine. I don’t live. I don’t believe. I accumulate. I’m a brand. A middle-class white guy.

But you are who you are, even though the price you pay for it is being disinvited from the rest of the world. I’m the one playing dress-up. Is it wrong to want to be with one of the few people in the world who isn’t? To have one person in my life who I know is real?’

                             — Stan Bowes (Evan Peters) to Angel Evangelista (Indya Moore)

But here, the very fabric of the series supports our characters. Blanca and Angel and Damon struggle, but their victories feel real. Their lives aren’t treated as cautionary tales,  their identities aren’t questioned, and their circumstances are given real weight and meaning. They are optimistic, and even happy. Their daily hustles, grungy apartments and ballroom showdowns are the spaces of opportunity, while the suburban houses, Wall Street boardrooms, and upscale dance studios are revealed to be far more sinister.

In The Boys in the Band, the men longed to be a part of the straight world that had rejected them. In Pose, the trans characters find more satisfaction in being themselves and making their own way rather than longing for a world that rejected them. And Murphy also doesn’t shy away from taking cisgender white gay men to task for their own transphobia and racism. Here the gays are no different than straight white society. No historical revisionism — the men who would celebrate vogue culture via Madonna just a few years later are shown to be openly hostile to the trans and PoC folk at the very center of that subculture, tossing them from bars and pushing them out of the community. Watching Blanca stand outside the window of a gay bar, wishing she could be inside as gay men sip drinks is an image that will certainly stay with me for a very long time. Even in mutual hardship, divisions remain.

And most impressively, Murphy has also made history with the largest number of trans and PoC performers on the series, as well as trans writers, directors, and producers. Diversity in action! Watching the series is like peering through the looking glass into a world where mainstream media actually understands the value of queer PoC stories written and performed by queer PoC people.

It makes me hopeful that by creating trans heroes, we can maybe reduce the number of trans victims. That melodrama can engender empathy and build bridges. That narratives can be shifted.

And that the legacy of queer storytelling can continue.

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