Narrative Privilege and the Power of Pose

This post contains spoilers for the full series of Pose, including the series finale.

Dorian Corey began her career as a dancer in the Pearl Box Revue sometime in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, she was the mother of the House of Corey, strutting the runway in underground drag balls and performing in shows around Harlem. In addition to her legendary performances, Corey earned a reputation for the spectacular ball costumes that she sewed for herself, including a 30-by-40-foot feather cape that required two attendants to carry it behind her.

A screenshot of Dorian Grey in full make-up.
Dorian Corey in the film Paris is Burning (1990). (Courtesy Wikipedia)

It was that reputation as a seamstress that led Corey’s friend and caretaker Lois Taylor to enter her apartment on West 140th Street in October 1993. Corey had died of AIDS-related complications two months earlier, and had, according to Taylor, instructed her to “take the costumes I wanted and sell the rest.” In the course of her search, Taylor found a green-plaid hanging bag, which contained the partially mummified corpse of a man later identified as Robert Worley, who had been missing since 1968. Worley’s body was covered in baking soda, and sewn up in layers of plastic wrap and Naugahyde. To this day, while many insist that Corey killed Worley in an act of self-defense, the case remains a mystery.[1] Both Corey, a queer drag queen, and Worley, who suffered addiction, were Black and poor, both of which built a distrust of authority, especially police. As victims of AIDS and homicide, Edward Conlon notes, “they embodied two of the main statistical bases for abbreviated life expectancy in Harlem.” With their deaths, the chance to know their complete stories vanished, leaving true-crime websites and podcasts of varying quality to reassemble the pieces of their lives. As Lois Taylor herself remarked, “Honey, the boy’s gone, right? She’s gone, right? So don’t nobody knows but her and the boy.

Fans of Pose will recognize this story as the inspiration for a two-season-long narrative arc featuring Elektra Evangelista, played by Dominique Jackson. Elektra is working as a BDSM mistress when a client dies of a drug overdose in her room. Like Dorian, Elektra knows that the police will be of no help to a Black trans sex worker. However, where uncertainty swirls around Dorian’s story, audiences know that Elektra has friends to call. They help her sew the man into a garment bag, using skills honed in crafting their ball fashions. When Elektra is arrested in season three, she uses her one phone call to alert her house family that the trunk in which the body is hidden needs to be moved before the police search her home. Blanca (played by MJ Rodriguez), Elektra’s one-time daughter and now a house mother herself, offers unconditional support and love to Elektra. In this storyline, viewers get to see the pain in Elektra’s past, as well as the comradery and joy on which she is able to draw in the present. As co-writer Janet Mock explained, “we weren’t interested in only telling a story about trauma . . . our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies.” Those everyday moments are at the emotional core of Pose, but the fact that they take inspiration from real people and events makes its power not just personal, but political, as well.

Having a complete narrative is a privilege. Those with control over the means of historical production too often control what becomes transformed into fact.[2] With every recitation, the risk grows that those without agency or control will fade away. This is as true for more recent historical events, like the AIDS activism and over-the-top vogueing seen in Pose, as it is for more familiar historical narratives. Providing complete and emotionally compelling story arcs for so many of the characters in this show will never repair the true narratives that history intentionally overlooked, rendered incomplete, or, like Dorian Corey’s, were hidden for fear of harm to the narrator.

The character Elektra Abundance, in a bright red gown and hat, stands under a disco ball.
Dominique Jackson as Elektra Abundance in Pose. (Courtesy FX and BBC)

But shows like Pose provide the tools for building empathy with people whose experiences haven’t yet grown familiar to us with time or through exposure. This show depicts Damon Richards’s pain of being disowned by his biological family, but we also get to see him find a chosen family in House Evangelista and pursue his dreams of becoming a dancer. We see Angel’s struggle to find respect and love, but we also see her fulfill her dreams of marrying Papi, thanks to the support of one very special court clerk who provides their marriage license. We see Pray Tell struggle with the loss of his friends and lovers to AIDS, and we see the choices he makes when he is given access to life-saving drugs. Not all these stories are happy, but they are complete stories that provide agency, autonomy, and emotional maturity to characters who are so often reduced to supporting roles or margins in other people’s stories.

Since its debut in 2018, Pose has provided a stylized primer, and a critical corrective, on queer history, focusing on the lives and relationships of people of color in the LGBTQ community. Audiences traveled with Blanca and Pray Tell (played by Emmy-winner Billy Porter) to visit New York’s Hart Island, the resting place for AIDS victims whose bodies went unclaimed.[3] They watched Blanca and her fellow members of ACT UP take part in the Die In at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, protesting Cardinal John O’Connor’s opposition of condom distribution as AIDS prevention. By the series finale, they explored the ways in which antiretrovirals and triple-drug therapy changed the life expectancy for many people with AIDS. By inserting its characters into the most important moments, places, and discussions of the 1980s and 1990s, Pose offered a diversity seldom acknowledged in historic sources from the time. Just as importantly, the show also provided emotional closure for its characters, offering the insight, answers, and dignity denied to so many of the people who took part in these actual historic events.

In addition, Pose provided its characters with a unique kind of privilege in the form of ghosts. Queer history has too few ghosts. For so long, popular culture, religious institutions, and social institutions enforced the idea that queer people and communities were the villains of familiar stories. As a result, our queer dead aren’t given the chance to return, to have their say after death, or to tell their story the way traditional ghosts do. For too long, films and television depicted queer characters as monsters to be defeated, rather than souls to be honored.[4] But Pose gave many of its dead characters the chance to speak to their beloved left behind, to share in their joy, and to offer important messages that provided both the living and the dead with closure and comfort. Candy returned after her brutal murder in season two to say goodbye to her friends and to share a moment of solidarity with her father. However, she also appeared to Pray Tell while he was hospitalized for an HIV-related infection. In the episode “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” Candy represents a manifestation of Pray Tell’s deepest fears, emphasizing that ghosts can also represent the slipperiness of memory and the cruelty of grief, as much as they can be messengers of personal truth.

Pray Tell on stage in a bright green jacket. He points at the audience as he speaks into a microphone.
Billy Porter as Pray Tell in Pose. (Courtesy FX and BBC)

In its final episode, Pose dealt with the death of Pray Tell and the grief of those who loved him. That grief is only magnified when Blanca scatters Pray’s ashes at an ACT UP protest, a reminder of the futility of loss as a result of the AIDS epidemic. However, the focus of the episode is not on Pray’s body, but on his story, his memory, and the fact that he, literally and metaphorically, gets to have the last word on the show, offering advice to a new generation of the ballroom. Where the stories of so many marginalized people end in pain, in the violation of their bodily integrity, and in mystery, Pose gave Pray Tell the honor of complete story, of intimacy with those he loves, and with a memory that endures beyond his physical form.

Plenty of critics made valid arguments against the portrayal of ghosts throughout the show. Pose didn’t – couldn’t – have gotten it all right (and frequently didn’t). But it raised questions and offered possibilities, as these episodes continue to engage viewers in debates over historical and contemporary language, representation, and the whitewashing of queer history, especially during the outbreak of HIV. More than anything, it offered a chance to think through the importance of narrative privilege and the chance to grieve the real lives that went overlooked in the period that Pose covered with such vivid color and fierce beauty.

Notes

  1. According to the New York Magazine article, Corey’s friends insisted that she left a note with the body that read “This poor man broke into my home and was trying to rob me;” Worley’s brother, Fred, stated that Worley and Corey were in some form of relationship around the time he disappeared.
  2. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995), 49.
  3. Hart Island is also the final resting place of Robert Worley. Dorian Corey’s ashes were scattered off City Island in the Bronx.
  4. See Laura Westengard, Gothic Queer Culture: Marginalized Communities and the Ghosts of Insidious Trauma (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

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