Pose has been praised as a bastion of queer representation on television for its prominent casting of Black and Brown trans women. Carrying the weight of BIPOC queer representation on its shoulders, the series understandably has blemishes when it comes to storytelling and character development. With a fairly green cast as far as acting is concerned, Pose has over time leaned into writing storylines that feel unrealistic for the time period and characters involved, at times crossing the thin line into wish-fulfillment territory. Pose exists during a time when trans women, especially Black trans women, are being murdered in sickening numbers. It airs while a record-number of anti-trans bills are being proposed in Congress. These realities, as well as the burden of representation, explain why the screenwriters feel an imperative to write favorable narratives of trans life. Seeing trans women be successful, desired, and alive on television is a small debt repaid to real trans people who have joy consistently stolen from them.
Yet, with episode four of Pose’s final season “Take Me to Church,” the wish-fulfillment imperative came to a head. The episode saw Pray Tell return to his religious Southern home to reconcile with his estranged family after being diagnosed with cancer and given a prognosis of six months to live. At face value, the plot is believable — impending death inspires some to make amends with bitter rivals. For all of his causticity, Pray Tell has been revealed to have a deeply sensitive side throughout the series. In execution, however, the writers troublesomely shift accountability from the abuser to the abused in the practice of apologizing for past harm.
Upon returning home, Pray visits his mother, Charlene (Anna Maria Horsford), and two aunts (played by everyone’s favorite aunties, Jackee Harry and Janet Hubert). He reveals to them that he is dying of AIDS, and his mother, already peeved at the reminder of his homosexuality, is beside herself. Later, Pray confronts his mother. Charlene begins by shaming her son about leaving and never visiting in over 20 years, and suggests that this was the reason for their broken relationship. In response, Pray shares a shocking revelation: he was molested by his father as a child, and his mother worked to keep the secret hidden from their church and community.
Pray goes on to explain to his mother (and by extension, the audience) that her gaslighting of his abuse, combined with the church’s condemnation of homosexuality, drove him out of their community. Charlene once again attempts to gaslight him, feigning ignorance of her husband’s actions and asserting that he was a good man. Pray retorts that the reason his mother invested for years in downplaying the molestation was because she “needed” a husband to keep up appearances for the church. She responds dismissively, demanding that he simply forget the past and move forward. The conversation ends unresolved, but it served as a glimpse into the years of trauma Pray endured under his parents’ roof.
In the climax of the episode, Pray returns to his mother’s room to continue the previous conversation. Only this time, without any indication of deeper reflection since their last talk, she is more receptive. Pray sits and cries to her, asking desperately why she never apologized to him. He then pleads that he needs her to “admit her faults,” and without any pushback, she obliges. She consoles him in her arms, apologizing and asking him what “his God” is like. Viewers are meant to interpret this as a redemption for Pray’s mother and feel happiness for him. But as with the rest of the season so far, this resolution feels rushed and unearned. Not to mention, it sends a harmful message to today’s generation of queer folks about forgiveness.
If we recall the beginning of the episode, Pray’s impetus for going back home was to reaffirm his love for those he left behind. In Pray’s first interactions with his mom, she brings up the pain she felt after he left, insinuating that the physical distance between them was to blame for their strained relationship. In this final one-on-one with his mother, Pray is the one that essentially begged for his mother to apologize to him. The implication was that her apology was the only thing keeping him from healing his trauma before he died. In all of these instances, it is Pray initiating the contact with the person who harmed him. He is the one prying for answers and pleading for apologies. In real life healing, the abused shouldn’t have to do these things; in fact, the abused needing to perpetually explain their trauma in hope that their abuser will affirm it is itself an abuse dynamic. The writing of this conflict insinuates that it was Pray’s long absence, not his mother’s disinterest in acknowledging his abuse, to blame for their estrangement. Up until this episode, Pray made no mentions of his biological family making an effort to reconnect with him. The distance he put between his life and theirs was justified.
For Pray’s mother to apologize to him after more than two decades of not speaking and a couple of days of interaction is not only unrealistic, but wrongfully implies that a “sorry” from those who have wronged us is merely a weekend’s visit away. The person who has done harm must have an intrinsic motivation to redeem themselves and follow through on transforming their beliefs. It is a sobering reality that most abusers never meaningfully apologize to the people they’ve hurt because harm is so normalized in our culture. With psychotherapy still stigmatized and inaccessible, as well as a fixation on restorative rather than transformative justice, it is also true that we have yet to substantially give abusers the tools to heal the wounds that cause them to wound others, or even acknowledge the wounds exist to begin with. In the LGBTQ+ community, which sees comparatively higher numbers of parental abandonment to other demographics, the aforementioned factors compound the homophobia that pervades our society. It is a far reach to suggest that Pray’s mother would apologize to him as abruptly as she did given the context of the gay panic of the 1990s and the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Furthermore, it is not the abused person’s job to prompt their abusers to apologize to them. Shifting the onus for apology away from the abuser keeps the abused subservient to the emotional whims of those who hurt them, which keeps us locked in this vicious cycle of harm. While the traumatized are responsible for their healing, they need not beg their abusers to affirm the pain they live with. Receiving an apology for being hurt is not a prerequisite for healing. In fact, it is an act of liberation to heal our wounds without ever confronting the villains of our stories. It is understandable from a character motivation standpoint why Pray was written to seek a concrete apology from his mother. Indeed, fans have come to love Pose for its romanticism of happy endings for gay and trans people. In pursuit of this end, however, the writing of this episode could have shown more competence about the realities of harm and forgiveness in queer culture.