Mother Jones illustration; FX
Warning: This piece contains spoilers.
In the fourth episode of season 2 of Pose, the history-making show about ball culture in ’80s and ’90s New York City, the beloved Candy Ferocity is killed by a john in a dingy motel room. This came as a shock: It was the first death of a series regular, and there’d been no indication to that point that Candy was a sex worker. But fans of the show were reacting to more than just a plot twist. It was as if Pose had betrayed their trust.
When the series debuted on FX in June 2018, it was widely celebrated for all of the ground it broke: for having the largest cast of trans actors in recurring roles in TV history. For hiring the first trans woman of color, Janet Mock, as a director on a television series. For providing mainstream representation of a community few Americans know personally. And, maybe most importantly, for building a world where queer and trans people of color could be the protagonists in their own stories, and not sidekicks—or worse—in someone else’s.
While death haunted the edges of the show—it’s set during the height of the AIDS crisis, after all—it was not a narrative of doomed queer people on the verge of oblivion. Dozens of queer and trans folks of color can be seen living their best lives in each extravagant, over-the-top, beautifully shot ballroom scene. Here at last was mainstream television in which queer and trans people of color were no longer huddling in the background. We were finally front and center. Celebrated, even. With Pose, we were now the belles of the ball.
But the possessive affection inspired by the show put it in a precarious position of having to be too many things at once for queer and trans viewers who had gotten too little from American pop culture. Pose offered more than representation; it was, for many, an idyll—a vision of queer life, and Black queer life in particular, that did not center its story on the violence that the country routinely visits on LGBTQ communities.
And then the show killed Candy, a dark-skinned, Black trans woman. How Pose, whose season finale aired Tuesday night, handled the story of the murder and the subsequent outrage from fans was a case study in navigating the special burden of being the first of its kind.
The decision to have Candy murdered—while she was engaging in survival sex work—was not taken lightly. This was a political choice as much as a narrative one. It sparked a debate online about Pose’s responsibilities toward its viewers and the story it’s trying to tell. Given that so many Hollywood narratives already portray trans people as victims, some viewers noted, what purpose did Candy’s murder serve?
for the privilege who lie outside of these marginalized consequences…realism don’t have to hurt those who face that realism every fucking day. We know who are dying, we see it on our TL everyday. for me like other black trans and black gnc people Pose was a show of respite.
— BRING ME MY KIDS IRIS! (@SinnaDri) July 11, 2019
Steven Canals, co-creator, director, and writer on Pose, says the show’s producers considered many of the larger implications of Candy’s death. “We all talked about how the current life expectancy for a trans woman of color, particularly Black, and Latin, is 35 years old,” Canals says. “There’s been this continual wave of trans women of color being killed in this country with little to no media coverage. And so it was really important for us to highlight that experience for our audience, but also, just for the greater culture at large.”
Shelby Chestnut, director of policy and programs at the Transgender Law Center, says highlighting the violence against trans women of color on a show like Pose is “imperative,” especially in today’s political landscape.
“The sad thing about watching some of these episodes is that they’re very translatable to present day,” Chestnut says. “While the show is set in a very specific time, we’re unfortunately living that present-day reality where the death and murders of trans women continue to be at an all-time high.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 130 transgender and gender-expansive people have been violently killed in the US since 2013. Trans women of color are disproportionately affected, making up four out of every five anti-transgender homicides. At least 15 Black trans women have been murdered this year alone. This violence is so prevalent that HRC describes it as a “national epidemic.”
“It was just so much bigger than just Candy,” Canals says. “What we were trying to do with our episode was to hopefully engage our audience in a really critical discourse around why this violence is perpetuated, why it continues to happen, and why we aren’t doing more to protect Black and Brown trans women.”
For some trans viewers, however, seeing Candy’s bloodied, lifeless body lying on a grimy bathroom floor and later in a casket—all without a content warning—wasn’t the critical discourse they wanted from Pose. It was a triggering reminder of the violence they’re forced to survive every day.
“I got a lot of people responding to me saying how traumatic [Candy’s death] was, and how they weren’t prepared for that,” says Lourdes Ashley Hunter, a trans activist and co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Collective, a group working to expand the narratives of trans and nonbinary people of color beyond stereotypical tropes. Hunter says Candy’s death played into many of these tropes.
If you’re gonna invent this world to give a better outcome to marginalized people who normally wouldn’t get to experience that, cool. But don’t say that and then deploy “well that’s the real world” when an even more marginalized community comforts you about your imperfect utopia.
— Clarkisha Kent (@IWriteAllDay_) August 13, 2019
“It’s important to show that trans people are not just doormats,” Hunter says, “that we do find ways to respond to violence through organizing, through policy change, through coming together as a community and protecting each other. It’s important for that to be highlighted.”
While Pose does in fact highlight the various ways the queer and trans characters come together to withstand the violence aimed at them—early this season, we saw them protesting with the AIDS activist group ACT UP—Candy’s death is still a story we’ve seen before. Some viewers noted the similarities between Candy’s murder and that of real-life ballroom legend Venus Xtravaganza. Venus’ death was chronicled in the iconic documentary about New York City’s ball scene, Paris Is Burning, the loose basis for Pose.
Candy’s death scene is reminiscent of Venus Xtravaganza’s death in 1991 #PoseFX pic.twitter.com/zOqjjHmpr6
— Pretty Brown Dancers (@pbd_blog) July 10, 2019
Katherine Sender, a documentary filmmaker and communications professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on LGBTQ representation in media, says TV and film have a long-standing tendency to portray trans people as either victims or villains—a dichotomy that Candy’s character, played by Angelica Ross, managed to straddle. Up until her death, she was the sharp-tongue, quick-wit, hammer-wielding antagonist, loved for her hilarious, brutally honest commentary, but a villain nonetheless.
“We started to see occasional images of trans characters in the 1970s. Mostly they were in these cop shows where they would be simply a body or as a character that’s killed off and it becomes about solving that crime. Then the show would go on,” Sender says. “Really their function was to improve the moral character of the cisgender, heterosexual people.”
The Hollywood practice of killing off LGBTQ characters was so commonplace it’s now known as the “bury your gays” trope. Despite the obvious ways Candy’s fate fits into that trope, Sender says Candy’s story is actually a well-considered departure from it.
“What makes it different to me from the usual ‘killing your gays’ phenomenon is that the Candy character had been there from day one,” she says. “It wasn’t just like bringing in a trans character and then killing them. That’s a really significant difference.”
Sender says it’s important not to focus on Candy’s death alone, but also to consider what comes before and after. During Candy’s funeral, her spirit is shown visiting several of the living characters to give her final goodbyes, including a particularly emotional scene with her parents. Immediately after the funeral, we watch Candy in the afterlife finally getting that lip-synch performance she always wanted. Her ghost shows up in later episodes, too. Sender sees these as examples of how Pose successfully diverges from TV’s history of treating trans characters as disposable contrivances rather than human beings.
I can’t get over this moment. Candy’s funeral was emotional BUT this scene had me in tears 😭 between the song and her dance moves… she looked so beautiful #PoseFX #CandyFerocity pic.twitter.com/L85SqiJllo
— IG: Kygavine (@kylegavine) July 12, 2019
“On the one hand, she’s killed off, but she also, in a kind of fantasy world, gets to reconcile with people from her past, including her parents that she had not been able to reconcile with while she was alive,” Sender says. “It is not that she’s gone and everybody else gets to go about their business. But her death actually has this huge ripple effect in the lives of people who go on living.”
For Hunter, though, Candy’s death wasn’t just another case of a trans character being killed off on a TV show. It was the murder of a dark-skinned trans character. Hunter sees Candy’s murder as an example of colorism, a common critique of the show that the cast recently addressed at an event. Hunter says Pose sacrificed an opportunity to give one of TV’s few dark-skinned trans characters a dynamic storyline. “There could be so much more depth and nuance,” Hunter says. “There’s so much more to our lives. But this is what folks expect.”
In an essay for Shadow and Act, writer Brandon Lamar also questioned the show’s decision to kill one of its two dark-skinned trans characters, writing:
It is easy to leave gaps and to expose characters like Candy to a dehumanizing brutality in order to raise awareness about important issues. This decision to highlight the tragic injustices facing Black trans women by causing viewers to experience it firsthand removes the possibility of fictional art being used to reimagine something better and normalize healing and healthy experiences for Black queer people.
Canals says he’s sensitive to the critiques, but he also wonders what viewers would say if the show had chosen not to center the violence against trans women of color. He says the debate around Candy’s murder is part of a larger balancing act the show has to perform.
“We’re crafting a story that is centering characters who don’t exist in the real world, but yet hold identities that are absolutely real,” he says. “In many ways that makes those characters real. It’s very, very, very tricky. Sometimes we’re going to get it right, and other times the audience is going to feel that we got it wrong. It’s an immense responsibility that we all are hyper-aware of.”
Because of this responsibility, Canals says he and his team are committed to listening to the concerns of the queer and trans communities. “I feel bad that it was received in a harmful way for some of our audience, and so I would extend an apology to them,” he says of Candy’s death. “It was a lesson for me in terms of the choices that we make. Even with the best of intentions sometimes you can still harm folks.”