Janet Mock Becomes First Transgender Woman of Color to Write and Direct an Episode of TV

Last night, Janet Mock made personal history with her directorial debut on Pose, the new FX drama that has garnered significant buzz for its inclusivity both on and off-screen. But the episode, which was written and directed by the trans activist, was historic in its own right, as it was the first episode of television to be written and directed by a transgender woman of color.

Mock has had quite the year, from the release of her 2017 best-selling memoir to her elevation to a writer, producer and director on Pose. The show is a dance musical drama set in the 80s, and tracks the intersections of the ballroom scene and the HIV/AIDS crisis. The show, helmed by prolific queer creator Ryan Murphy, is a major trailblazer for LGBTQ television, as it showcases the largest cast and crew of queer talent, the most recurring trans characters on a TV show in history, and exceptional representation specifically of trans women of color—who are insultingly underrepresented in media.

The episode in question, “Love is the Message,” heavily incorporated the musical elements the show promised in its previous five episodes. Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) perform for a room of AIDS patients, delivering a tear-jerking duet of “Home” from The Wiz.

“I think for me the most rewarding part of [being part of this series] was really just being able to tell the truth about my own experiences,” Mock told The Glow Up. “And to really show the beauty, the vibrancy, the love and resilience of my sisters and siblings. I really wanted to ensure that they were able to have Pose be a mirror for them to truly see themselves.” 

Mock is the first black trans woman to write and direct an episode of TV—she pointed out on Twitter that the first trans WOC to direct an episode of TV was actually Sydney Freeland, who directed an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. And amid the recent controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson, who just signed on to play a trans character in Rub & Tug, Mock stresses the importance of trans people, like her and Freeland, being afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories.

“I think that so often and historically—specifically for trans people, and for LGBT people in general—our stories are told by people who don’t belong to our communities,” she said. “And so they only speak through a very slight prism, and that limited prism is often only through victimhood and trauma and violence. And I wanted to show that yes, we deal with the reality of very gritty stuff that we have to go through and overcome—but we do overcome them. We go through them, and we often go through them together to creativity, through love, through acceptance.”

Aside from the importance of seeing stories like her own on TV, Mock describes the necessity of depicting womanhood with her trans characters, and how her own female gaze manifests in the way she directed this episode. Speaking on the character Angel (Indya Moore), who is Patty’s (Kate Mara) husband’s mistress, she said,  “[W]hat was important to me was that Angel was fully embodied in her trans-ness. She was not ashamed of it, she was not hiding it. … [Angel’s] not ashamed of who she is, so then [Patty] can’t really be ashamed either.” Mock added: “In terms of the question of what does that mean in terms of womanhood, I think that that’s probably one of the largest things on our show that we explore … I’m never trying to have our characters discuss their realness, or needing to say that they’re ‘real.’ We already know they’re real because they’re centered in [this] world, and it’s through their perspective.”

Womanhood is something Mock wants to explore further in Pose. “For me the idea of womanhood is not one that needs to be justified; I think that what it shows by placing the two together is that they’re both women grappling with their own sense of identity and in relationship with a man who’s not treating either of them right. … It’s all the same kind of questions that we all have to grapple with when it comes to sharing our bodies with those around us.”

The best-selling author also noted the importance of having trans women and LGBTQ people in the writers room to make the trans women on-camera feel comfortable, taken care of, and understood. “It’s in every single space, so that when our actors are navigating being on set for 12 hours a day they see people that represent them and they feel a sense of home, of safety, that this is our space and that we all belong here,” she said.

Mock said the LGBTQ community must stick together to ensure that the kind of progress we’ve been able to see on Pose continues—we must bring each other up. And for many of the show’s trans actors, this is their first ever production credit. Their involvement in Pose has afforded them membership to the Screen Actors Guild, which further solidifies their careers as professional actors.“[T]hat sense of growth, that bringing all of our community in with us is a huge part of the advocacy work of Pose,” Mock explained.

“I hope that we will be an example for other productions to realize that it’s not just enough for people who don’t belong in those communities to tell those stories and to put marginalized people on screen, but we also have to empower those communities by economically investing in them and giving them jobs and giving them the pen and allowing them to have a true seat at the table.”

Pose returns Sunday July 15 on FX.

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