When “Pose” premiered on FX last June, much fanfare was made of the first show starring five transgender women of color, three as leads. Viewers who tuned in found a world as beautiful and moving as Christopher Street, the ballroom, and the runway. From the fiercely protective house mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), her spirited child Angel (Indya Moore), and her dripping-with-elegance rival Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the women at the center of “Pose” were able to live and breathe on their own terms, free from any preconceived notions or box-checking of what a trans-femme character should look like. Much of that had to do with the writers, directors, producers, and general talent assembled by “Pose” executive producer — and reigning king of queer Hollywood — Ryan Murphy.
“From the very first conversation I had with Ryan…the first difficult conversation we had was about — ‘Why you? Why are you choosing to do the show?,'” Janet Mock said in an interview with IndieWire last month from the “Pose” set. “I asked him that, and he was very sincere, and he said, ‘The reason I’m doing this show is this internal thing that I’ve been saying to myself – using showrunning as advocacy.'”
As a co-executive producer, writer and director on “Pose,” Mock has added credits to a lengthy resume that includes New York Times bestselling author and MSNBC host. In addition to the background actors getting their SAG cards and choreographers nabbing their first Hollywood credits, Mock was proud to have her third hour of TV directing under her belt, with more lined up for Murphy’s upcoming shows “Ratched” and “The Politician.” (She recently signed a sweeping, multimillion dollar three-year deal with Netflix, solidifying further collaborations with Murphy, including on his forthcoming Netflix series “Hollywood.” She is the first transgender person to land full creative control with a major content company.)
“We made history in many senses, not just the cast. I’m the first trans woman of color not only to be in a writers’ room of a Hollywood series or movie, but to also direct,” she added. “So what he said at the first meeting came true, at least for me, and I know for a lot of people on this series.”
Murphy is characteristically demure in his own estimation. To hear him tell it, he’s always championed and centered marginalized people in his work; and it’s only now that he somehow — miraculously — earned enough success that he’s able effect real change, with Hollywood finally noticing the full weight of that longtime advocacy.
“I always sort of did it. I only wrote or created shows that I wanted to watch,” said Murphy at the same set visit. “And as a result, they had a lot of gay characters and trans characters and minorities and people on the margins, and I took people on the margins and made them the leads or sort of the sidekicks, because that’s what I did in my own life. I was empowered early on through success to go from being a writer for hire to a brand in some weird way, because I had people who believed in me and pushed my stuff through the system.”
Though the very LGBTQ-positive “Glee” started the ball rolling on the Murphy productions of today, even early series like “Popular” and “Nip/Tuck” featured LGBTQ characters, whether outright or by reading between the lines. The hunky plastic surgeons in “Nip/Tuck” certainly shared a wealth of homoerotic subtext, and the punk rock baby feminists of “Popular” were years ahead of their time. Murphy said it was the response to his film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” that showed him the real power of the medium.
“‘The Normal Heart’ aired, and I remember I was looking at the Twitter feed that night, and so many young people were writing about — ‘I had no idea this happened!’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing gift to be able to tell those stories.’ And I saw it on [‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’] with a complete rehabilitation of Marcia Clark from scold to feminist heroine. I saw the power of that,” Murphy said.
Shortly after “‘The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Murphy launched the Half Initiative, his company’s personal pledge to achieve full gender parity with its roster of TV directors. According to the Half Initiative website, less than one year after launching, “Ryan Murphy Television’s director slate hired 60% women directors and 90% met its women and minority requirement.”
“It was two years of pitching and being told it was too niche, it was too urban. It was too queer, too trans, too black, too brown, and a period piece,” said “Pose” co-creator, executive producer, and writer Steven Canals. “Ryan being someone who cares about both equity and equality, someone who’s a disruptor, someone who clearly has his finger on the pulse, and I think is wonderful at knowing what an audience wants before they even know it, was like — ‘Let’s make that!’ So that’s why we’re here now.”
Our Lady J, supervising producer and writer on “Pose,” had a similar experience: “I had heard every excuse under the sun for not hiring trans people: ‘We can’t find any trans people to do this, they don’t have enough experience, there’s not enough talent.’ I’ve heard that over and over, there’s not enough talent. To hear that about who you are is insane. And so it’s really inspiring that Ryan took that chance and insisted on bringing some equality into this town.”
“It started that way, but I never even think of it, because I never would’ve done [‘Pose’] just for that reason. I just wanted to do this story,” Murphy said. “That idea of ‘I’m poor and struggling and yet I want to be somebody in the world’ is what I locked into. And now I have this great gift of being able to put people into the world in a major way and champion them and give them jobs and again take marginalized people and make them the heroes.”