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How should TV tell stories about violence against trans women of color?

FX’s Pose shows how fiction can ensure the deaths of trans women of color don’t completely erase their lives.

Pose is unique on television in its portrayal of a wide number of LGBTQ people of color.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In the year 2019 to date, 11 black trans women have been murdered in the United States. In addition to these 11 murders, two Latinx trans women have died while in government custody, one at the Rikers Island prison in New York and the other while being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Few of their killers will be brought to justice — or even charged with the crime of their murder. Trans women of color often live on the extreme margins of society, on the streets or in low-income housing. Some are sex workers, already a profession that suffers under the threat of violence.

Violence against trans people is nothing new, though it has been rising in the Trump era, according to Monica Roberts, editor of the site TransGriot and media chair of the National Black Trans Advocacy Coalition. Trans women of all races are at a heightened risk of violence, but trans women of color bear this burden disproportionately. Though white trans women (such as myself) also have to worry about violence, we are insulated by our whiteness and often by our income levels.

Violence committed against trans women of color has only recently begun to receive notice from the American mainstream. The media is at least writing about it now, but there’s a dark side to broader recognition of the problem — all too often, the only time trans women of color (and especially black trans women) are in the news is when they’re dying.

The black trans journalist Serena Sonoma wrote about this issue last month for Vox:

Every month of every year, I am reminded of my place in society when the media only pays attention to black trans girls like me if it involves violence. Sometimes the very outlets reporting on our deaths are the ones that have published transphobic articles in the past.

So yes, we should continue to learn the names and stories of Muhlaysia Booker, Chynal Lindsey, and so many more who have been victims of transmisogynoir today and in the past and never forget them. But activism and change goes beyond awareness of the dead.

For two years now, one of the few examples of black and Latinx trans women receiving mainstream attention that hasn’t focused on them mainly as victims hasn’t come from the news media. It’s come in the form of scripted television, via the FX drama Pose.

Pose is an ’80s- and ’90s-set TV series where the threat of violence and HIV/AIDS looms. It’s also a TV series where nearly every episode involves the time period’s ballroom culture — a culture that revolved around over-the-top performances by trans and gay people, who wore elaborate costumes to present dance routines set to popular hits. (Think Paris Is Burning or Madonna’s video for “Vogue,” which introduced this style of performance to a wider audience and whose success is a cornerstone of Pose season two.) Here’s a clip from the series’ pilot that showcases what I mean:

But beyond its flash and sizzle, Pose is also a poignant drama about a found family of people who’ve come together to support each other in a world that otherwise might not care. It is frequently moving, often beautiful, and sometimes corny. But it is a show where the lives of trans people of color are shown to matter.

And in its latest episode, Pose killed off one of its characters, a black trans woman on the extreme edges of its story. Is her death an exploitative example of every story about black trans women becoming a story about violence at its core? Or is it a necessary depiction of the world as it is?

Or is it both?

Pose’s latest episode shifts the burden of a character’s death onto the living. That’s realistic, but it also feels a little empty.

Since Pose debuted in 2018, the character of Candy, played by Angelica Ross, has been notable mostly for what she is not. Unlike characters who are more central to the narrative, Candy lacks polish. The outfits she wears to the show’s ballroom competitions often feel shabby. Her attitude veers wildly from wanting everybody to like her to doing everything in her power to turn people off. She’s a bit of a mess, but that’s also what’s endearing about her.

Candy lives on the edges of Pose’s story, compared to other characters. She’s a series regular but a supporting character. She’ll pop in every so often to generate drama or offer up some rich comedy. She rarely has a storyline of her own. She is precisely the kind of character you might kill off if you wanted to underline that the threat of violence is persistent in the world of your TV show, without really wanting to underline it.

That’s exactly what happens in “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which is directed by Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy and written by Murphy and co-executive producer Janet Mock (who became the first trans woman ever to write and direct an episode of television in the show’s first season). Unbeknownst to Pose’s other characters, Candy has returned to a life of sex work at a motel with a reputation of being a dangerous place for sex workers.

Around 15 minutes into the episode, after Candy has gotten into a bruising verbal argument with Pray Tell, the ballroom emcee, her best friend Lulu cannot find her. The other characters band together to look for Candy, only to discover her body in a motel room, clearly the victim of murder. They organize a funeral. They come together to mourn.

Candy’s murder sits at the center of “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”

Candy’s ghost shows up at the funeral to discuss her life and legacy with several of them, and the episode’s climax is an elaborate fantasy sequence set to the song of the episode’s title. Candy finally pulls off the ballroom performance she dreamed of, receiving perfect marks across the board. And as her ghost moves on to whatever is next, the other characters are left behind to carry her legacy forward, to try harder to embrace those at the fringes of their community and help those who feel lost and alone.

I am of two minds about the episode. On the one hand, it’s beautiful and almost intensely moving. On the other hand, it’s awkward and ungainly, and it sometimes uses Candy’s death for unearned dramatics. But in the weeks since I first saw it, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. (It is, in other words, an episode of television directed by Ryan Murphy.)

Most importantly, I didn’t come away feeling that “Never Knew Love Like This Before” had used Candy’s death to score cheap sentimentality points or to artificially underline how hard the lives of Pose’s characters are. Candy might not have been the character whose death would have the most impact on the rest of the cast, but the point of the episode is precisely that: Her death has impact. And that’s what matters.

The episode avoids feeling exploitative thanks to some key decisions made by Murphy and Mock. The first and most crucial of those decisions is that once Candy leaves for the hotel, we do not see her again until we see her body. We don’t witness her murder; it exists not as an act but as aftermath. This choice puts the audience in the shoes of too many people who’ve lost friends and family to killers who were never caught.

The second key decision that Murphy and Mock make gives “Never Knew Love Like This Before” some of its greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses in the same breath. Instead of focusing on Candy’s death, Murphy and Mock’s script focuses on the rituals around her death — her friends working together to try to find her, and then making sure she was dressed in her best in the casket, and reaching out to her parents to invite them to the funeral. The episode’s attention to these details extends even to the choice of New York Mortuary Service as the funeral home.

“It was one of the few [places] that would actually embalm and have funerals for AIDS bodies,” Mock says of the real-life business depicted in the episode, which takes place in 1990. “It became a place where our community comes together.”

Yet the devotion to these rituals subtly shifts the story from one about Candy to one about Pose’s many other characters, who try to reconcile their grief over Candy’s death with the conflict they had with her before she was killed.

This is both messy and real. Death often strikes in a way that leaves the living regretting their actions toward the person who died. That’s especially true in communities like the one depicted on Pose, where funerals due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic are an unfortunate part of the rhythm of life.

But as a result, who Candy was gets a little lost amid the other characters’ grief. They speak with her ghost and try to grant her a grand fantasy on her way to whatever afterlife awaits her. And then “Never Knew Love Like This Before” ends with those who are left behind trying to move on, as the mundanity of life reaches up to grab hold of them again. There will be more Candys. There will be more problem children within this found family. There will be more deaths.

When you’re the only show depicting a certain experience, the concept of representation can be a paradox

Billy Porter has earned widespread praise for his portrayal of emcee Pray Tell.

And yet the question that hangs over “Never Knew Love Like This Before” for a trans critic isn’t “Did the show do justice to this story?” or even “Was this episode good?” Those answers will differ from person to person. Instead, a different question emerges: What does it mean for one of the extremely rare roles for a black trans woman on television to disappear just like that? Does Candy’s death do a broader disservice to representation as a whole?

On the most immediate level, at least, Murphy — who’s long been known for casting his favorite actors as often as he can — has thought ahead. Ross might no longer appear on Pose going forward, but she has joined the cast of the upcoming season of Murphy’s American Horror Story. She won’t be playing a trans role even, a distinct rarity for trans actors of any race. (It’s still pretty rare for trans actors to play trans characters, even.)

“I am very aware of the limitations and obstacles for the actresses who are on the show, and I really want to make sure that they know I love them,” Murphy told me.

So Angelica Ross, at least, will continue to have gainful employment. But questions of representation lead to another, bigger question: Why this story? Why now?

To be clear, violence is part and parcel of the world Pose depicts. While it isn’t a show that frequently luxuriates in darkness or violence — it’s a heartwarming family drama, for the most part — to ignore the violence that is directed against trans women of color would be to ignore something that’s part of its characters’ lives.

“We decided to tell the truth,” Murphy said. “This is what happened then, and this is what is happening now.”

It’s not as though Pose suddenly added tragic elements to its mix, either. Of the show’s major characters, two have HIV, with one’s diagnosis tipping over into AIDS in the season two premiere. And other episodes have shown the threat of violence that hangs over the lives of these characters without directly depicting it, as when a violent altercation between a man and a trans woman ends with the police taking the man’s side, on the basis that her trans status was a “surprise” to him. These things happen in the lives of trans women, then and now, and they happen on Pose too.

So the show’s choice to put happier moments front and center — even in an episode featuring the death of a major character — is a coping strategy the LGBTQ community is familiar with. When you live in the midst of darkness, finding some way to make light is human and necessary.

Still, I couldn’t quite escape Serena Sonoma’s article about how often black trans lives in the media are depicted less as lives and more as statistics. Was Pose doing something similar? So I reached out to Sonoma to ask how these stories — both real and fictional — can be told in a way that acknowledges violence but doesn’t make it the primary driver of a story.

“As a society that we get so fixated on [violence against black trans women] to a point where we make our deaths so political, and it dehumanizes the multidimensional human beings that these women were,” Sonoma wrote to me in an email. “They had lives, they had goals and aspirations, they had friends and family. ... We have to center the violence that my community faces, and I feel that often we get so focused on the violence we forget to know that person behind it.”

Mock says she and Murphy were thinking along these same lines when making the episode. “I get exhausted seeing a name and a hashtag and a watercolor graphic [of a victim of violence],” Mock said. “I don’t know anything about what she enjoyed, what she loved to eat. All I know is that violence was enacted on her body, that she was trans, that she was of color, and that she’s no longer here.”

What we’re tiptoeing around here is the idea of a representation paradox. When there are so few roles for trans women of color on television and in film, period, a project like Pose — which reliably does its damnedest not to make those women into stereotypes or clichés — has a higher bar to cross in terms of making sure it avoids those stereotypes and clichés in every story it tells. The “reward” for doing good work is that the path it must walk to continue doing good work gets ever narrower.

When there are already so few prominent TV shows considering the trans perspective at all, and really only this one considering the lives of trans women of color, this one becomes the primary window that many casual viewers will have into the lives of trans women of color, a heavy burden to bear. That might lead some shows to try to portray a world where violence is present but rarely visited upon the main cast. And that show might be fine!

But, Sonoma also pointed out, if Pose avoided this story, it would be shirking its responsibilities.

“Killing off a character can help reach an audience who may not quite understand us when we say that black trans women are facing a staggering amount of violence,” Sonoma said. “I don’t believe it’s exploitative but raw and very authentic to what we face in our real lives. And it may take Candy dying for some of us to get that.”

The power of seeing yourself on television

Season two of Pose has also tackled the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The simple fact that Candy was a character with a name, that her murder came after 11 episodes of character development, that she was mourned — that carries with it a weight all its own, said TransGriot’s Roberts.

“For the most part, black trans women were [historically] depicted as either a joke or a murder victim in the first five to 10 minutes of some crime drama, and Pose has been groundbreaking on a lot of levels in terms of not only having a black trans woman producing and writing it but actually having trans folks playing trans characters,” Roberts said.

Roberts and Sonoma hadn’t yet seen “Never Knew Love Like This Before” when we first talked. And my thoughts on the episode almost feel beside the point. The story of Candy’s death is for me, as a trans woman. It’s also not for me, as a white trans woman who faces discrimination but not at all like what some of Pose’s characters face. After all, I’m writing this piece about an experience I have not lived, and it’s being published in a mainstream publication. That I have a voice at all puts me in a distinctly privileged position.

“There are gains to being a white trans woman that are not equally shared with black and nonblack trans women of color,” Sonoma said. “We have trans women of all colors who are social media influencers, actresses, musicians, and more. And yet if you look at who is getting more of the focus, it is always going to be white trans women.”

And this is true. By far the most famous trans person on the planet — the trans person who single-handedly vaulted discussion of trans issues into the mainstream more than any other one of us — is Caitlyn Jenner, who is rich and white and famous. Her experience is decidedly atypical, but it’s become representative of “the trans experience” in the minds of too many who follow these issues only casually. (Perhaps the most famous fictional trans experiences before Pose too often fell into this rough archetype as well — think Transparent or The Danish Girl.)

An underlying misconception about trans identities in too much of our culture is the subtext that being a trans person is a vanity project undertaken by the rich and privileged. Putting the deaths of trans women of color into the mainstream is a sometimes clumsy attempt to push back against this subtext, but it creates a false binary — to be a trans person (and a trans woman especially) is to be either a rich idiot or a poor tragedy. It’s what Roberts said above all over again: Either you’re a joke or you’re a victim.

Maybe, then, the most radical thing about Pose isn’t that it’s about trans people or that it features trans people of color, but that its world barely contains white people at all. The rest of media can center white trans experiences; Pose won’t. That doesn’t mean the show will get everything right — both Murphy and Mock said they expect some degree of criticism for the choice to kill Candy (criticism comes with the territory, after all), and as stated above, I have my quibbles with this episode in particular and Pose more generally.

Sonoma, too, found the episode lacking in some regards after having seen it. “Killing off a character like Candy can come across as a little unnecessary. It falls into the ‘bury your LGBT’ trope that we are all too familiar with. I do love how Candy was celebrated at the end. Pose is consistent with making sure black and non-black trans women of color are shown in a way that dignifies us. But [that celebration] still felt a little blunted with the depiction of her death,” she said in an email the morning after “Never Knew Love Like This Before” aired.

But the mere existence of Pose allows people who’ve never seen themselves on television to see possible lives that can end in death but don’t have to.

Fittingly, “Never Knew Love Like This Before” doesn’t end at Candy’s funeral. It ends later, with two characters washing dishes afterward. It’s one of the most mundane chores imaginable, but a chore that underlines what it is to be human — to have fed yourself or somebody else, to have to clean up after friends. The lives of trans women of color too often end in shocking acts of violence. But Pose finds a way to look beyond that, to the moments that follow, when the sink is full of warm, soapy water, when life goes on for those who are still here, because it does.

Updated with Serena Sonoma’s thoughts on the episode after having seen it.

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