“I Look Too Good Not to Be Seen”: Bodily Capital and ‘Realness’ in Pose

Abstract: In this article, the pilot of the 2018 show Pose, which explores the ballroom scene of the 1980s in New York, will be analyzed. In the show, the life and struggles of transgender, poor, Black, Latinx, or generally marginalized characters are narrated as they navigate their own colorful world but also deal with AIDS, heartbreak and discrimination. As a basis for my reading, I will connect the theory of ‘bodily capital,’ which is an adaptation of Pierre Bourdieu’s work, to the concept of ‘realness,’ which plays an important role in the ballroom scene and LGBTQ culture in general but can also be employed as a theoretical concept. The latter describes the practice of performing gender and racial norms, stemming from the desire to belong, to fit in. Ultimately, I argue that in this episode of Pose, the pictured field of 1980s ballroom culture is structured by bodily capital and that realness is depicted as being unavailable to those not possessing the ‘right’ kind of bodily capital.

The FX show Pose, which premiered in 2018, delves into the rich, loud, colorful, diverse, and phantasmic world of the ballroom scene of the late 1980s in New York City. The characters that inhabit this world are not, as one most often sees in television series, mostly white, straight, and middle-class, but transgender, gay, poor, Black, or Latinx, and generally marginalized. Even more unusually, the characters are actually portrayed by transgender and gay actors—in fact, the show boasts the largest cast of trans actors up until now (Pollard). Pose emerged at a moment in time when LGBTQ culture in general, and ballroom culture more specifically, had already reached a more mainstream audience through increasing representation in media, for instance through the famous reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race, which introduced many viewers to such concepts as ‘houses,’ ‘vogueing,’ and ‘realness’ (Crist). Pose follows Blanca, a transgender woman who, after being diagnosed with HIV, sets out to build up her own house in order to leave a lasting legacy in this competitive scene. Angel, a transgender sex worker, and Damon, a young man who was kicked out by his parents when they discovered that he is gay, join this family. Together, they navigate the perilous ‘real’ world and the world of the ballroom community.

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