At the time of her interview for The Call with Erica Williams Simon, Janet Mock had no idea if Pose would be green-lit for a second season.
Pose, which aired its first season finale this past Sunday, is an FX show that centers around 1980s ballroom culture in New York City. The ball scene was, per the show’s theatrical illustrations, both a competitive dance floor where unapologetic glamour thrived and a home that welcomed those in the LGBTQ community who had none.
It’s historic and important television: According to its FX website, “Pose features the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, as well as the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever for a scripted series.”
“One of the radical things that we do on Pose,” Mock told Erica, “is that five trans women are in conversation with each other often. And there’s more than just one of them in a room. They’re not explaining their experience to a cisgender person. They are the center of the show.”
Janet Mock, a New York Times bestselling author who catapulted herself into public consciousness by writing about her own experiences as a transgender woman, was tapped by the show’s co-creator Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Scream Queens, Glee) to write, produce and then shortly after, direct.
“It’s been a marathon,” she told Erica Williams Simon back in June. “It kinda took over my life for the past year, and so to be able to say that there now is a body of work that I’ve been a part of — a body of work that for the first time really centers my sisters and siblings and community in this way — is deeply gratifying. [T]hat there’s something that we created as a team, and it exists in the world. It is great, and it can’t be taken away. It’s there, it exists. We’re archived.”
In this very special episode of The Call, Mock and Erica talk about the importance of telling your own individual story. They cover Mock’s path from print journalism to TV; fear — and what can happen when you overcome it; the burden of representation that’s placed upon members of marginalized communities who find their way into the spotlight; and the importance of prioritizing truth above all else.
Listen to the full conversation here. Below that, key takeaways to tuck into your shirt pocket for later (which I find especially helpful if you’re a write-it-down kind of listener).
As for the accompanying photoshoot, the theme was summer glam — “glam” being particularly fitting given that a few days before this story went to post, Pose was announced for a second season.
Cause for celebration? I think so.
On Janet Mock’s Decision, Pre-Pre-Pose, to Go Public With Her Own Story
“The most prominent trans person in America [in 2011] was Chaz Bono. That was our most prominent story and largely his story, centered around transition and transitioning in public. … We can’t erase that. That story gave a lot of Americans who saw this child grow up in front of their eyes transition, and so in that way America was forced to transition.
They were forced to deal with pronoun changes, and name changes, and ‘sex changes.’ I felt at that time that there needed to be a more diverse voice, a voice of color, a young voice. There needed to be a voice of young trans women who struggled, not only economically through class struggles, but also because of race. The first thing I learned about myself in the world was that I was a black, poor child in America, before I even knew that I was trans. And [that] colors and shapes the way in which I talk about these issues.
I was working as an editor for People Magazine. I had seen Chaz and reported on stories about Chaz Bono. In addition to that, we were also dealing with a rash of LGBT suicides and violence and bullying. … But I wasn’t seeing folk of color represented. I wasn’t seeing trans folk represented. And so I felt like, when is this girl gonna come forward?
I didn’t know that that girl would be me.”
On the Burden of Representation
“[W]hat’s so strange for me is that I’ve never really embraced the term ‘activist.’ I didn’t come out and tell my story in order to represent a group of people, or to be a spokesperson, but I came out to use my own personal story to tackle and combat shame and stigma.
I think that any marginalized person, anyone that has existed and struggled on the margins, when they become centered in this way or a spotlight is put on them, because we’re so rare, to have access to that spotlight, even if we don’t want to, we have to deal with the burden of representation. And so, for me, it’s a duty I take on.
But it is one that’s taxing and trying, because I just wanna be, like … Cardi B said, ‘a regular-shmegular’ girl out in the world who’s just trying to achieve all the things that she wants to do, who just wants to be seen as a great writer.”
On Fear (and Overcoming It)
“I wasn’t scared to produce. I was afraid to direct. And I think largely because there’s not much representation of women directing, and definitely not much representation of women of color, and queer or trans women of color doing that work. And so I was like, holy shit, this is a white man’s job. [E]ven in my own head, I was like, can I do this? And Ryan was just like, ‘You’re naturally bossy just like me and you know this story better than anyone else. So why, why are you afraid to do this? I will support you.’
He let me shadow a master director, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, as she directed my script, episode four, ‘The Fever.’ And, she was there by my side serving … as my first AD [assistant director] when I directed my own episode, which is episode six called ‘Love is the Message.’ And now we’re here.
I’m going to be directing more for Ryan Murphy television and I know if we get a season two of Pose, I’ll probably direct a couple episodes. [H]e’s putting me on another show to direct an episode that he’s doing for another series. So yeah, I kind of have a budding career as a director, which was not planned at all.”
On Prioritizing the Truth Above All Else
“[T]he only blueprint that I really had to follow was [that of] black women writers who came before me who had the audacity to tell the truth on the page. You know, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde. [That has really been] the root of my public platforms and podiums. It’s the truth. It’s telling the truth over and over and over again. Even sitting in the writer’s room with some of the most prolific television show runners and creators. [S]itting there and having to face [Ryan Murphy] as my boss and be like, ‘Boo Boo, this is not right.’
It’s always about telling the truth and never holding my tongue regardless of the consequences, because at the end of the day, even if I got fired for that, and I was let go for telling these incisive truths with a bit of fierceness and ferocity, I would rather have that than have a cultural product with my name on it that wasn’t real, and didn’t make sense to my community and didn’t resonate.
What makes me so happy about Pose is that I’ve seen my sisters and my community show up. Every week, more and more people watch. And they say that this is so real, ‘I’ve never seen myself on screen.’”
On Defining What’s True in an Age Where Narratives Shift and Reshape Every Day
“You know, one of the things that’s challenging, specifically talking about television, is that all of the stories that have come before this particular story have been written by cis people. Have been directed by cisgender people. And [with Pose], we have a show that’s not only written by, directed, and produced by trans folk in the ballroom community, but there’s also choreographers who are trans.
We also have consultants and producers who are trans. We have 150 LGBTQ cast members and crew, in front of the camera and behind the camera. And so in that way, the truth becomes — it becomes what we show is closer and closer to what the community’s reality is, right? It’s not filtered through, ‘Let me do some research and figure out what this was like for trans people,’ which has always been the case. Instead, it’s a for-us-by-us product. So therefore, it’s closer to the reality, to what is real to us, to the language that we use to describe ourselves, and our bodies, and our desires and our wants and dreams in the world. And so for me, it’s about what resonates. It’s about what feels real.”
Advice for Those Who Want to Center Their Public Work Around Part of Their Identity
“Don’t think about [the] audience. [T]hink about writing and telling your story to yourself because most often, if you’re a marginalized person, a marginalized woman, you’ve never really, truly been centered. And so I think that to sit with yourself and center your own experiences and truth and story, that’s powerful alone. And that’s revolutionary for a girl to sit alone at her desk to tell her story.
[S]tart with just telling yourself your story. And start from there. And then think about sharing that with people, you know, safe spaces of community. Because that’s what I did. I started off with just telling myself the truth, and then the people in my life, my intimate circle, I trusted them to be my first readers. And they made me feel more courageous and bold to be like, ‘No, be more specific.’ Go there, go all the way there.”
Photos by Edith Young at Broken Shaker at Freehand New York. Styled by Amelia Diamond. Market Assistance by Elizabeth Tamkin. Hair by Felicia Burrows. Makeup by Keita Moore. Special thanks to Westbourne for supplying snacks.