Steven Canals spends his days jumping between the ballroom world of 1980s New York City and the writer’s room with Ryan Murphy. As the co-creator of TV series “Pose,” the UCLA screenwriting alumnus aims to fill the gaps of communities underrepresented in TV, he said. The Daily Bruin’s Cameron Vernali spoke to Canals about determination in the face of rejection, Janet Mock and the importance of representation in media.
Daily Bruin: When you were working on “Pose” before meeting Ryan Murphy, how did you find the determination to not give up in the face of rejection with a story that’s really personal to you?
Steven Canals: While I was at UCLA … the first thing I did was assess the TV landscape. Where are there gaps, who isn’t being represented? That really was the inspiration to put “Pose” down on the page, a story I had been carrying around with me for a very long time but just hadn’t gotten around to writing. The strength to keep fighting for this story, even when I was hearing, “No,” and a lot of rejection, is a very simple notion: Representation matters. I think having come out of education where we talk so much about the importance of authenticity and everyone having a seat at the table and everyone having voices and those voices being heard, for me I just wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. I knew even if I was receiving 200 “no’s” – which ultimately I did over the course of two years – I knew at some point, someone would see the value in it and say, “Yes.” And that’s what happened.
DB: What makes “Pose” so relevant?
SC: I think the intention behind the show will show the beauty and the breadth of the trans and queer, black and brown experience. And hopefully for the audience to realize that we are not a monolith, that we all have our own very specific stories to tell, but in spite of that we all want similar things. That we all want to be accepted, we all wanted to be loved, we all want to be affirmed for who we are in our fullness. I hope that that is the takeaway for audiences and I think that in the current TV landscape, “Pose” is filling an important gap in that, for much too long, queer and trans people of color weren’t seeing themselves.
As a product of the ’80s, I grew up never seeing my story, never represented. I grew up poor in the Bronx, I never saw people growing up and living in the projects. And more often than not, if you’re a person of color you’re represented in specific ways; we’re the dealer, we are the thug. We’re not centered positively, and very rarely are we at the center of our own narrative.
DB: What are the results you’ve seen after pushing for representation of trans actors and creators?
SC: People are now seen. I think that there is specifically power in TV and film, so seeing yourself then normalizes the experiences. … For folks that are still struggling with their identity, having your experience normalized then means that you spend less time battling internalized phobias. The media has the ability to affect how we view ourselves, it affirms identity, and there have been plenty of studies proven that it can boost self-esteem.
DB: What is it like to work with others who have the same interest in pushing a story like this?
SC: It’s great, working with (FX Networks) and all of my collaborators – especially our writer’s room, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and Janet Mock and Our Lady J – we are so committed to equality but truly to equity and making sure that … there is an equal playing field for everyone. The bottom line is that these stories matter and deserve to be told and for much too long, they just haven’t been. … Everyone had come to it from a very pure heart space, just wanting to see that representation and recognizing that it’s been much too long since we’ve had it. … We’re telling very serious stories, we’re digging into the HIV/AIDS epidemic and we’re talking about the (crack cocaine) epidemic of the ’80s and we’re talking about poverty. … Now, we’ve brought that conversation out in the open to the mainstream and that’s great.
The amount of love that has come back to us and the feedback that we’ve received, particularly if you look at episode six – “Love is the Message,” written and directed by Janet Mock – that episode really looks at and investigates what was the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, specifically on the folks who were still living. As all of these LQBTQ people in the ’80s were dying because they didn’t have access to health care, because the government wasn’t helping, the folks who were left behind and left to deal with that emotional impact of that disease – how did that affect them? And that’s something that we got to highlight.
DB: With the news of “Pose’s” renewal for a second season … where do you hope the show goes forth?
SC: In terms of ideas and things I would love to see us unpack in season two, Larry Kramer in ACT UP, the activism around HIV started happening in ‘88 and so I would love for us to lean into more of the politics, like the grassroots organizing that was happening around HIV/AIDS activism. I would also really love for us at some point, I don’t really know if this is a season-two story or farther along, but I would also like us to start investigating gentrification because late ‘80s New York City we started to see the beginnings of gentrification in the city. Those are two areas I’m curious and interested in and (have) done a lot of research on independently, so I would love to find a way to craft (a story) around that. At its core, “Pose” is a family drama and so I’m just excited in season two to continue to explore all of the interesting relationship dynamics between all of our characters.