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What “Pose” Taught Me About Womanhood

“God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things make you a woman.”

Elektra Abundance

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Simone De Beauvoir

As a straight, cis woman, I don’t do too much thinking about my womanhood. No one misgenders me. I’ve never been clocked. Yes, I joke about how terrible I am at stereotypical lady stuff. My hair/make up/nail game leaves much to be desired. This is not a source of pride for me, but rather mild embarrassment. I’m 35 — shouldn’t I be able to blow dry my hair by now? Yet my lack of both inclination and skill in this department doesn’t make me less of a “real” woman. I’m not endangered because of it, the consequences are minimal. In fact, the only one joking about my inability to perform these aspects of femininity is me.

In addition to being dedicated to looking a certain way, society also expects women to be naturally nurturing. We’re the mothers, the people-people, the ones with emotions. But I’m not what you’d call a “warm, fuzzy.” I always get analytical instead of emotional on those personality tests. My husband once insinuated that I let our baby cry too long before picking her up. I wouldn’t describe myself as cruel by any means but quick-to-the-hug, I am not. Yet again, no one doubts the actual fact of my womanhood, even if I sometimes get comments about acting “more like a man.”

So if I don’t meet the expectations around looks or personality, I have to wonder, why is my womanhood never questioned? Is it the fact that I have a vagina? That seems highly unlikely. Everywhere I go, people treat me as a woman and 99.9% of them have no knowledge of my reproductive organs. They couldn’t vouch for my vagina’s existence. I certainly don’t go around imagining strangers’ genitalia. Do you?

So, the question remains: what makes a person a woman?

. . .

 
The women of Pose: Judge them not, lest you be judged!

Watching Pose, I never doubted the femaleness of Blanca, Elektra, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and crew. Sometimes, I got confused when other characters would perceive them as male — what were they seeing that I wasn’t? It’s like when other shows pretend someone is regular looking (say because they’re wearing glasses and a cardigan) and we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a weirdly attractive person under there.

The thing is, the women of Pose are so skilled at performing womanhood. The clothes. The nails. The hair. The makeup. The shoes. They understand the trappings of femaleness and are committed to executing it each and every day. I imagine for them, as activist and show writer/producer/director Janet Mock wrote, “Femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.” And this purposefulness is key — it is not enough to simply dress a part, that part has to be integral to your identity.

Think of the season two finale — in it, we see the male characters walk the ball in drag. They’ve practiced strutting (or stumbling) in heels. They’ve got on wigs and dresses and jewelry. But as Elektra says, “Don’t get it twisted. These men are not trying to be women. These linebackers are tapping into their inner femininity and letting their inner queen come out to play.” In Pose and in real life, dressing up as a woman (whether you “pass” or not) does not make you a woman, no matter how feminine.

. . .

 
There’s more than one way to mother on Pose

There’s this idea that “masculine” and “feminine” are polls, two complementary forces that a person is between. We all know this script — the “masculine” is rationale, stoic, violent even while the “feminine” is emotional, nurturing, expressive. In this framework, to be “feminine” is to be vulnerable, less than. We see this play out in Pose as characters are continually punished for showing “feminine” traits, gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes, beaten, or worse. The consequences for being outside the norm are real from women who wear less makeup getting paid less all the way to the extreme violence perpetrated against the trans community. It’s a culture of violence, of regulation, of suppression.

As a feminist, I don’t believe there’s a correlation between someone’s sex and how “masculine” or “feminine” they are. Yes, women are socialized to be “feminine” and men, “masculine.” But people are primarily people and the expectations we put on them around gender are extremely limiting and unhealthy. As activist and author Jacob Tobia told Paper Magazine, “there’s this idea that there’s only cis people and trans people, and trans people have the complicated genders and cis people have the simple genders. That could not be further from the truth — gender is simple for nobody. Even people who think that they’ve experienced gender ‘simply’ have a nuanced, complicated, and multidimensional gender experience.” None of us are just or even primarily our gender.

Pose demonstrates this complexity so well. Think of how different the women’s personalities are, how each of them is a complex mix of traits. I particularly like how the show portrays motherhood in Blanca and Elektra. Blanca is the good, “feminine” mother we are used to seeing — she loves her children, nurtures them, and fights for them. She’s descended from Clair Huxtable and Tami Taylor, strong women who use both tough and unconditional love to raise their children. Elektra, on the other hand, could be seen as the “bad” mother — she starts the show putting down her family members in an attempt to make herself feel more superior. And while she grows over the two seasons (think of the beach trip as an example of how she takes care of her daughters), she’s not who you’d go to for a self-esteem boost. No, Elektra mostly provides for her children monetarily — her house is swanky, her ball costumes and props luxurious. This may be the more “masculine” way to care for people, but it never threatens Elektra’s womanhood. Indeed, it’s Blanca who worries more about getting clocked while Elektra passes with greater ease. Where their personalities fall on the socially-constructed spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” does not determine their womanhood, either for themselves or the society that judges them.

. . .

 
The dress doesn’t make the woman on Pose or IRL

Gender is also not defined genitalia. That’s just silly. We categorize every person we meet quickly and easily into a gendered category with no knowledge of what’s between their legs. And it’s not about hormones or other biological processes either (see the backlash against women’s running for trying to define womanhood by testosterone level). We just don’t know those things about other people (or ourselves) and yet we’re all out here using gendered pronouns as a matter of course.

. . .

 
On Pose, the women must assert their womanhood over and over again

So, again, what does make a woman? If it’s not how you look, not who you are, not your biology, what’s left? Part of me wants to say it’s a performance. It’s certainly something I do every day, consciously or not. It’s in how I dress, how I walk, even how I speak. But you choose to perform and I never chose to be a woman, I never chose to be straight, and no one else does either.

Being a woman is more like a role that chooses you. It comes with impossible expectations, the pressure to live up to an unattainable ideal of womanhood. Sometimes as women we mold ourselves to match an ideal, trying to get as close as possible. Think of Pose’s Angel — she succeeds at portraying feminine beauty to such an extent that she gets big contracts in the modeling industry (only to see her success stalled thanks to the rumor mill). Sometimes, we rebel against those expectations, going in an opposite or third direction. Like Candy always ready to pull out her hammer, ready to defend herself physically whenever the situation called for it.

Regardless, when you’re a woman, you’re identity is in relationship to the feminine ideal in a way that a man’s or genderqueer person’s is not. Maybe that’s what makes a woman.

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The Case for Still Watching “Grey’s Anatomy”

It’s official. Grey’s Anatomy is now the longest running medical drama in TV history. With its 332nd episode, it surpassed the previous record holder, ER. I have watched every single episode, and some many times. I unabashadley love Grey’s Anatomy and no snark, hot take, or hip millennial opinion will get me to stop.

The show was wildly popular when it premiered with viewership peaking at over 25 million. Life was different then. Facebook was just for students, Twitter didn’t exist yet. George W. Bush was President. You get the picture. I was still in college, not a married professional with kids. The show spoke to my friends and me – the interns on Grey’s were who we wanted to be (but weren’t yet): brilliant, complicated, sexy, ambitious.

A lot has happened since 2005, both in the world of Grey’s Anatomy and (dimmer, less-just) real life. Along the way, people have stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy: its most recent season premiere had less than 7 million viewers. But, as one of the 7 million, nearly everyone I talk to has a Grey’s story. They remember the brilliant first few seasons and how they were transfixed with Meredith and Cristina’s love life. Perhaps they followed the on-set drama. They definitely have an opinion about Katherine Heigl. Regardless of when they stopped watching, these 14 million people still carry parts of the show and its worldview with them. And I’m here for that.

I’m not saying the show is perfect. There have been bad episodes, ridiculous arcs. Izzy’s sex-with-ghost plotline comes to mind. The episode when they first revealed Dr. Miranda Bailey’s mental health problem was not great. April Kepner’s introduction was rough between her awkward crush on Derek and how long it took for her to have an actual backstory.

I weathered these rough moments waiting for the more brilliant ones to shine through. And they do. Take the case of Dr. Miranda Bailey. She started the show off as so tough and exacting as to earn the nickname “The Nazi.” At first, we see her as her interns do – a slightly unknowable authority figure who expects the best of you. But as the show progress, we see more of her. We see her give birth in harrowing circumstances, losing her edge as her ability to control dissipates. We see that first mental health breakdown, the cost of always being strong and hyper-competent. And we see her take risks in her love life and as a mother – some that pay off and some that don’t. We’ve learned so much about her and the fascinating, complicated, strong woman that she is. That’s the type of nuance you get when you’ve stayed with characters for fourteen years, 330+ episodes.

Not that all the characters have stayed. Of the five original interns, only Meredith and Alex remain. Webber and Bailey are still there but that’s about it. Derek, Bourke, Addison, Callie, they’re all gone. I wasn’t sure the show could withstand the departure of Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang. More than Meredith’s relationship with Derek, the Meredith and Cristina friendship was the central bond guiding so much of the early action. They coined “you’re my person.” They fought and reconciled and supported each other. Without that central relationship what would be the show’s heart? (Certainly not Meredith and Derek. Derek never compared…)

Luckily, the show’s ambitions were always greater than the five original interns. For example, did you know that Callie Torres is the longest running LGBTQ character in TV history? She was introduced in season two and left in season twelve leaving a string of broken hearts behind her (including mine for no longer getting to watch her). Or did you see the recent episode in which a trans character outs himself by revealing the great lengths he went to change his sex on his driver’s license? Or the compassion for Dr. Sam Bello when she faced deportation?

And less you think Grey’s is just a lefty fantasy writ large, the show also explores what it means to be a Christian in a largely secular world with the much-missed April Kepner. It explores veteran reentry issues with Dr. Owen Hunt, advocating for better medical care for veterans while valorizing their service.

You see at the heart of Grey’s Anatomy is not a single relationship or person. At its core, the show is about love and excellence, the ways these things sometimes compete and also drive each other. It’s about challenging us to love each other better and not be divided by race, class, sexuality, you name it, while also acknowledging and decrying the unjust structures that make those divisions so strong. It’s about what we can accomplish when people at all levels compete and contribute. It’s about a world where women, people of color, and particularly women of color have their talent and skill recognized.

It’s this radical vision of what humanity can be at its best that keeps me tuning in. And I’ll watch for another 300 episodes if they let me.

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