Abstract

From the museum heist cast members perform in its first episode to the series finale, Pose (FX, 2018–2021) endeavors to complicate the dominant historical narrative of queer and trans of color life and death at the height of the AIDS pandemic. By focalizing the vitality of the community's social life despite the disease's deathliness, the show attempts to humanize its “real” history. This article explicates the ethical dilemmas that haunt this positive historiography despite its significant value. The show's attention to the robustness of the community's social relations—particularly in its depiction of ballroom culture and the work house mothers do to make chosen families—usefully reorients viewers’ attention away from dominant historiography's pathologizing gestures. Yet simultaneously, this push for the positive threatens to obscure the structural neglect that enabled the pandemic's death toll along with the complex and often tragic reality of black and brown queer life more generally, particularly insofar as it implicitly links success to performances of homo- and transnormativity. This article tarries with rather than attempts to overcome this tension—between the structural critique and historiographic intervention modeled by the cast's theft, transport, and refashioning of the museum's historical objects and the logic of toxic positivity that takes shape in many of the show's other representations. Rather than argue for the wholesale embrace or refusal of the representational logic that inheres Pose's historiographic intervention, the article uses the show's range of historical representations as a starting point for thinking through what it means to face death and choose life amid conditions of extraordinary violence.

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