Give us our bread and our roses:
a materialist trans feminist
approach to media

by Nicole Morse

Inside a queer club set in the 1980s, a door opens from the street and a young Black trans woman strides into the shot, moving through a hallway filled with queer and trans people of color. As she walks through the crowd, they wish her luck on her interview for “that modeling campaign.” The camera tracks backward, holding her in frame as she walks down the length of the hallway, barely pausing her forward trajectory as she greets friends with a word, a kiss, or a hug. Moments later, she enters a performance space, and the camera turns to keep her in frame as she advances to stand at the beginning of a spot lit runway, poised to walk its length. Amid cuts away to the emcee, the audience, and the other contestants, we see her walk, pose, turn, and pose again. The spotlight crowns her with its illumination as a series of slightly low-angled shots celebrate her beauty and confidence.

These images from Season 2, Episode 3 of the FX television series Pose (2018-present, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals) ensure that we see Angel—the future model and current rising star of the ballroom scene—as photogenic, gorgeous, and already successful within a community that both imagines alternatives to dominant values and is simultaneously a site of continuous struggle, conflict, and negotiation with those values.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Crucially, this scene is juxtaposed with her modeling audition scene, illuminating the distinctions and connections between these spaces and communities. Written by white trans writer Our Lady J and directed by Black trans writer and producer Janet Mock, this episode follows Black trans actor Indya Moore’s character Angel just as she is at the point of breaking into the modeling industry. Praised and celebrated by her friends and chosen family, she’s about to finally get the life she’s always wanted. An outsider, she seems poised to enter into the economic and social structures that have excluded her.

What might a Marxist analysis make of this scene, especially given that this example of trans cultural production is produced by giants of the entertainment industry and explores topics that might seem to be strongly associated with capitalism, like beauty, ambition, belonging (within hegemony), and socially-sanctioned triumph? Based on common (mis)interpretations of trans cultural production that appear in classroom discussions, casual conversations with colleagues, comments overheard at conferences, and online debates about the perils of assimilationism in trans representation, there seems to be an easy answer to that question. Trans issues are a question of identity politics, and are not only separate from but even opposed to Marxist political struggle.[2] From such a position, the show inadvertently reveals that Angel and her community are misidentifying and misunderstanding their situation and are complicit with the racialized, gendered, and cissexist capitalistic values that actually oppress them. But such an interpretation remains incomplete and unsatisfying as it attends only to the surface content of the scene, and not to its formal and affective registers.

In this essay, I use Pose as a case study to examine two competing Marxist approaches to the analysis of trans cultural production. First, I discuss the problems with what I’ll describe as a “capitalist complicity” approach, which I contend is a reductive understanding of the process of participation in (and resistance to) capitalism. Then, I argue for the advantages of a Marxist approach inspired by materialist trans feminism, which considers how trans and queer communities understand, negotiate, and describe the material conditions they confront within capitalism. I contend that a capitalist complicity approach fails to offer productive anti-capitalist insights even though it is a common way for leftist critics to interpret trans cultural production. Instead, I draw on queer of color critique and on Jody Rosenberg’s description of “Transgender Marxism” as a dialectical lesson in how “life is both made and makes other lives possible”[3] to argue that a materialist trans feminist approach that is based in formal analysis allows critics to collaborate with trans artists and creators in envisioning liberatory potentialities.

A capitalist complicity analysis of the scene I described from Pose might focus on how Angel’s desires and ambitions—as well as her ability to be read as cisgender—are shaped by and reinforce the harmful social structures of white supremacist, hetero- and cis-sexist capitalism. It might also regard the entire setting of the scene as further proof of capitalist complicity since the ballroom community devotes so much time and effort to imitating the culture and fashion of the powerful. That analysis isn’t entirely wrong. However, not only does it misunderstand how cultural production emerges from dialectical struggle, but it also presents trans and queer subjects narrowly, and neglects their ability to understand, assess, and transform their material conditions. As Marlon Bailey’s research on ballroom culture in Detroit demonstrates, community members are not actually reiterating dominant social scripts, but instead are constructing new kinship models through cultural production that supports and sustains their countercultural existence.[4] Of course, Pose is fictional, and in many ways it does represent the trend that Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rouke identify when they describe how trans lives are increasingly packaged by popular media in order to interpellate trans people as “properly subjectified market citizens.”[5] Yet such an interpretation of Pose only attends to some elements of what Stuart Hall would call the dominant reading of the show; it also overlooks aspects of the dominant message while simultaneously neglecting to imagine how spectators might engage with this text more complexly.

By contrast, a materialist trans feminist analysis can illuminate the stakes of ballroom culture’s countercultural intervention into hegemony, since it emphasizes societal transformation through coalitional politics among those most marginalized by late capitalism: trans people, people with disabilities, people who are incarcerated, survivors of sexual violence, those engaged in anti-colonial struggle, and others.[6] Attuned to material conditions, materialist trans feminism is also necessarily intersectional and thus closely tied to queer of color critiques of capitalism. Similarly capacious, trans cultural production involves cultural work by trans people in an incredibly wide variety of media and has a long history of radical, leftist critique.[7] Yet instead of looking for the ways that trans and queer subjects might be navigating and surviving the conditions they face, the capitalist complicity approach assumes too quickly that trans and queer subjects who engage with the world as it is are fooled by capitalism. At its extreme, the capitalist complicity approach resembles the transphobic position that trans cultural production—and the very existence of trans people—is deeply and uniquely complicit with capitalism.[8]

Pose stages a desire for success, beauty, and power by constructing situations that demonstrate how complicated both power and desire can be. In the scene I describe above, Angel longs to have her beauty recognized by the outside world in the same way that it is embraced by her community, and her friends and chosen family are simultaneously proud and envious of her. The capitalist complicity approach can’t fully account for the scene’s complex expression of desire, longing, and envy, but a materialist trans feminist approach can examine the feelings felt by the characters within the fiction and analyze how they are communicated to the viewers through formal filmmaking strategies. Form is crucial to my materialist trans feminist analysis, since form itself is how our embodied experiences of media are produced. Additionally, form offers a vital way to engage with trans cultural production in the digital era, since both trans people and digital media are inaccurately imagined as exemplars of late capitalism’s mythicization of fluidity, flexibility, and frictionless interchangeability.[9] As Nathaniel Dickson writes, just as art problematizes “the seeming naturalness of things” through its form, gender transition troubles many of the processes of social reproduction that must be naturalized in order to sustain capitalism.[10]

Gender transition destabilizes capitalist social reproduction not just despite but because of the demand that it makes for access to resources in the name of human flourishing, joy, and pleasure.[11] This “hunger” for what others have and for what trans people are denied is seen as counter-revolutionary by a left that neglects physicality and embodiment,[12] but its particularity and its insistence on access to what makes life livable is profoundly intertwined with Marxist politics.[13] As Carolyn Kay Steedman argues, the “structure of feeling” of envy (of the rich and powerful, or of those in closer proximity to power) is a form of feminist class consciousness, yet its power is all too often dismissed.[14] Steedman writes that only

“by allowing this envy entry into political understanding” can “the proper struggles of people in a state of dispossession to gain their inheritance … be seen not as sordid and mindless greed for the things of the market place [sic], but attempts to alter a world that has produced in them states of unfulfilled desire.”[15]

In other words, the envious desire felt by the oppressed for what the powerful have does not merely reinforce the existing power structures. Instead, it produces an affective friction that strips away the seeming naturalness or rightness of that power. It exposes the cruelty of the system and gives voice to the demand for change.

Keeping this in mind, a materialist trans feminist analysis of the scene might acknowledge that Angel’s pursuit of a modeling career is one of the few possibilities available to her if she wants to leave behind risky survival sex work, and it could attend to the way Angel and her community understand their conditions, their oppression, and their opportunities. In this reading, the pageantry of the balls is not merely complicity with capitalism but is instead a form of class consciousness. Producing a counterculture that pursues beauty and success, this scene can be read as an invitation to imagine what kind of world is possible if pleasure, joy, and luxury aren’t necessarily the property of the bourgeoisie. As suffragist Helen Todd wrote in 1911,

“there will be no prisons, no scaffolds, no children in factories, no girls driven on the street to earn their bread, in the day when there shall be ‘Bread for all, and roses too.”[16]

Today, protest art by contemporary trans activists responds to murders of trans people, especially Black trans women, by demanding, in the words of artist and activist Wriply Bennet, that the public “give us our roses while we are alive.”[17] Cultural production itself is one of the “roses” to which all are proposed to be entitled, and trans cultural production shows us how desire for these “roses” can be understood as a critique of what is in the name of what could be.

As Sam Feder’s Disclosure (2020) examines, trans cultural producers are active in Hollywood but consistently marginalized due to the misperception that there are no trans actors, writers, or directors available to tell trans stories. Pose is featured in Feder’s documentary as an example of correcting this tendency, which has long had serious economic consequences for trans cultural workers. The significant contributions that trans cultural workers have made to Pose are important, both from an artistic standpoint and from a labor equity perspective. Yet I focus on Pose not only because of the many trans cultural workers who are critical to its success,[18] but more importantly because of how it revisits and reimagines the documentary Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990) from the perspective of trans cultural workers. Directed by a white, cisgender lesbian, Paris is Burning follows Black and Latinx trans and queer ballroom performers in the late eighties and early nineties as they compete in balls. Part of the independent film movement identified by critic B. Ruby Rich as “New Queer Cinema,”[19] the documentary was both celebrated and critiqued for its exploration of this particular queer of color subculture. As a result, Paris is Burning has been at the heart of debates about the political economics of trans representation, and it has famously been the subject of numerous interpretations that follow what I call the capitalist complicity approach—some of which I will discuss below. These issues emerge again in Pose, which draws on Paris is Burning for its settings, storylines, and even many of its visual motifs. Yet Pose, by contrast, is shaped by trans creators, and this allows Pose itself to serve as commentary on Paris is Burning some three decades later.
Since its release, some critics of Paris is Burning have suggested that its transgender subjects problematically celebrate consumer capitalism and conspicuous consumption. This position is aligned with a more general concern that transgender people are icons of conspicuous consumption under late stage capitalism or enforcers of patriarchy and neoliberalism.[20] More important, it also emerges in historical materialism when dominant ideologies about gender, race, and sexual orientation are treated as natural. As Ferguson notes, this is a position that reiterates Marx’s own inability to fully understand how capitalism is racialized and gendered.[21] While this discursive tendency is reductive and has been challenged repeatedly, it often resurfaces in casual conversations about trans cultural production, including classroom discussions of trans media production. There’s a discomfort with the idea that gender presentation and access to gender affirming technologies might be a political issue, even among some who consider themselves to be trans allies. Among my colleagues and my students, I notice a lingering assumption that attention to the surface or to appearance is seen as unserious or as disconnected from important political issues. For Julia Serano, this is tied to femmephobia, or cultural discomfort with what is gendered feminine—such as beauty, looks, or outward form.[22] While these ideas might not withstand close scrutiny, they persist and deserve to be interrogated. One solution, following Ferguson, is to “disidentify” with historical materialism’s silences around race, gender, and sexuality.[23] However, as Gleeson and O’Rourke point out, Marx himself was attuned to “questions of social particularity,” and building from such elements in Marx enables them to work toward trans Marxism.[24]

Although the lighting in the 1980s wasn’t as elaborate as that depicted in Pose, and although the documentary footage of Paris is Burning doesn’t have the same high resolution or production value as the FX series, sequences like this, which features an unnamed ballroom performer showing off their complex costume against a carefully designed backdrop, are clearly the inspiration for many of the ballroom sequences in Pose, including the sequence with Angel that I have analyzed here.