Never Knew love Like this Before: Signifyin(g) the Invisibility of Black Death in the 1980s Ballroom Culture

Giuseppe Polise

Abstract


Ryan Murphy’s TV series Pose takes the 1980s ballroom culture of NYC centerstage and shows how it turns the obsession of those years for style and fashion into a culture of excess and extravaganza to love and live by. Ideas of beauty and realness are re-worked and exploded, only to become as elusive as the subjects to which they are applied. In the tension between the fear generated by the AIDS epidemic, and a sheer lust for life, the ballroom provides mild consolation and only temporary solace. Assimilating and replicating, in its own terms, the consumeristic logic and the competitive antagonism that regulate the mainstream, the ballroom ultimately borrows from that ugly outside the same discriminatory principles used to annihilate the always unworthy black body.

Focusing on the narrative structure that exasperates the tragic register to a point of absurd comedy in “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (S2E4), this article looks into transwoman Candy’s death and funeral as a way to question the naïve idea of the ballroom as a safe space for the black queer subject. In so doing, it posits that the phantoms of – both physical and social – death and racial/sexual prejudice, that seemingly provide just the historical contours to the show, instead fully permeate the ballroom culture and locate the sense of permanent loss inside the very place that was supposed to be a haven. Candy’s death indeed proves that, despite the alleged existence of a safety net for “those of her kind”, the terms of its inclusion had severe limits, the most relevant being the replication of white capitalistic and misogynoirist paradigms of evaluation exasperated by – and hidden behind – the glitters and flamboyance of black queer irreverence. No matter how hard she tries, in fact, Candy is never deemed worthy to be seen by her peers, and it is this denied recognition that will bring her to death.


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