The history-rattling Season 1 finale of Pose concluded just as it commenced: with a ball. Born of Steven Canals and Ryan Murphy, the darling FX show—which spotlights black and Latin queer performers, specifically trans women, in New York City’s late-1980s underground ball scene—became a small revolution on TV, but not entirely for its most obvious reasons. Employing a large LGBTQ cast and crew, Canals and Murphy ushered in a first for the medium: a scripted drama that unshackles trans life for women of color who, through circumstance and history, have been set asunder and are in search of a home.
Some people like to categorize Pose as outsider art, an inexact term that, as art critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote of the creative gatekeepers canonizing Bill Traylor’s work, belongs to “a fading time of urges to police the frontiers of high culture.” I like to believe that Pose, alongside some of the best shows from last year and the year ahead, sits somewhere else: It is part of a new, growing wave of Resistance TV. The movement includes shows that counter not just traditional narratives about race, gender, and class, but ones that staff those same ignored communities on set, in writers’ rooms, and in executive suites. Among this horde count Queen Sugar, Atlanta, GLOW, Random Acts of Flyness, and Claws.
This is partly what made the Pose finale so delicious. It solidified the series not just as one of TV’s most daring enterprises, but one of its most needed. The show carries a cosmic, decorated air to it, with Murphy’s signature thematic maximalism injected throughout. The episode culminates with Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) winning the Princess Ball’s most sought-after title: Mother of the Year. The victory is not a total surprise to viewers; all season they saw Blanca empowering and providing for her “children” (essentially, queer people who were shunned from their former lives and found shelter in a respective House; in ball culture a House is like an informal club that competes against other Houses). But it is a shock to Blanca herself. “This year the voting was unanimous,” master of ceremonies Pray Tell (Billy Porter) announces to the packed ballroom. “The recipient has taught us that a House is much more than a home. It’s family. And every family needs a mother who is affirming, caring, loyal and inspiring.” The penultimate shot is of Blanca being hoisted into the air in celebration as Force MD’s “Love Is a House” plays. The scene feels holy, electric, true. It’s also the show’s most radical act: It all but upends the TV mom archetype.
Archetypes, by definition, are static objects. They don’t invite much room for transformation. Since the first glimmers of television, the TV mom has endured with a lasting, irremovable presence. A Ranker poll for Favorite TV Moms of All Time—with over 44,000 votes—offers a glimpse into how, historically, the archetype has been defined, and ultimately restricted. Atop the list are cut-and-paste figures like Carol Brady (The Brady Bunch), Marion Cunningham (Happy Days), and June Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver). Next to them are mothers who were created in a slightly more fantastical vision such as Samantha Stephens (Bewitched) and Morticia Addams (The Addams Family), but even they were sculpted from the same texture of clay. The only non-white woman to break the top 10 is Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show), who sits in sixth place.
Often defined by the parameters of domestic life, these mothers, while vastly different women in many regards, were all in pursuit of an ideal family life. They exuded, or attempted to exude, a kind of imperviousness. They were tough and loving, rarely vulnerable. That’s changing. In recent years, the archetype has taken on a more evolved nature: The TV mom has become more intricately layered; she navigates the world with a kind of naked vulnerability. It’s not that she is broken, but she is someone who struggles openly. These are stories told at full scale, fresh wounds and all. Stories that juggle the ugly, the beautiful, the unremarkable. There are no illusions to an ideal life, only a life that has been lived—one that is turbulent and unpredictable and littered with small, hard-won dignities.
Often defined by the parameters of domestic life, previous TV mothers, while vastly different women in many regards, were all in pursuit of an ideal family life. They exuded, or attempted to exude, a kind of imperviousness. They were tough and loving, rarely vulnerable. That’s changing.
Although this overhaul has been ongoing for some time, 2018 bore witness to a literal and figurative shift when one of TV’s most iconic moms was exiled. A ratings-bolstered Roseanne returned to ABC after a two-decade hiatus but was quickly cancelled when its star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted racist remarks about former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. The character on the show and the real-life Roseanne were now one and the same: a Trump-supporting bigot (it seemed the gulf between the character’s own political leanings and Barr’s rampant conservative beliefs had shrunk considerably during her 20 years off the air). When news of Barr’s ouster from her own show came, the vacancy left room for and gave rise to competing narratives of motherhood.
Blanca was one such mother. She’s an HIV-positive trans woman whose children mean the world to her, though they don’t solely shape her identity (as a woman or a mother). Her portrait, like that of Penelope (Justina Machado) on Netflix’s fantastic Norman Lear reboot One Day at a Time or like Jane (Gina Rodriguez) on The CW’s telenovela family saga Jane the Virgin, is more in line with a modern interpretation of mothers: These are women who color the world as it is, not as it should be.
The small genius of Jane The Virgin is how it has, since its 2014 debut, been a mirror to motherhood across three generations of women—with each one reflecting a very different image of parenting, its expectations and its difficulties. Its most recent season introduced storylines around breast cancer and citizenship while maintaining the whimsy of its telenovela format. On the second season of One Day at a Time, Penelope, a Cuban-American army veteran and single mother, continued to openly battle with PTSD. The deep draw of their narratives is not that these mothers are necessarily defined by their hardship; instead, it’s their response to the hardship that renders a much more human story. There is a bright, essential appeal to the experiences of mothers like Penelope and Jane as the TV landscape continues to grow louder. We gravitate to them because, like some of our own mothers, we recognize the truth in their fight, in their willingness to not give in so easily.
Today, the story of the modern TV mom is multicellular. She embraces risk and reinvention (Frankie in SMILF, Liza in Younger); she is full of ambition, muscle, and empathy (Grace and Frankie in Grace and Frankie, Jessica in Fresh off the Boat). Stacked side by side, their stories knot into a chromatic realness (to borrow a term from Blanca). They are defined by much more encompassing narratives—racially, sexually, religiously, age-wise. No longer regulated to a second-class status on the small screen, the interior life of the TV mom invites all manner of nuance and excavation. Hers is a story that at once feels public and personal.
Above all, these are mothers who don’t have all the answers, who are shattered in ways both obvious and hidden. They’re mothers who are willing to put in the work, who are willing to figure it out. And even when they don’t, they do what they’ve always done: continue on.