What Makes You a Woman

By Sydney Turner

The final season and episode of POSE, a critically acclaimed show about New York’s underground ball culture and the LGBTQ+ people who are a part of it, aired on June 6, 2021. show The ending o this show had me reflecting on the many lessons the show taught me and the world. Personally, POSE is one of the best explorations of womanhood that I have seen on television. POSE takes the question “what makes you a woman?” and answers it in a way we have never seen before. There are so many shows about women — particularly cis women — exploring womanhood, but that womanhood is always shown to be physically tied to something else. Their womanhood is tied to dating, femininity, gender-based discrimination, children, and almost always their vagina. None of these is the actual answer to “what makes you a woman.” However, POSE presents womanhood as a spiritual experience, which is rarely seen in the media.

King Kong Poster, (1933)

Television is a fantastic way to influence society and to show what we believe to be true. That being said, television plays a huge part in how we view gender and gender roles, and sadly how women have been portrayed in television is… historically not the best. It has often reduced us to objects, plot devices, child bearers, and best romantic interests. The most important parts of women became directly linked to the men in their life. Even when women had roles where they were not in a relationship with a man, they would have to end up in one by the end of the show because what is a woman without a man? This is because there were rarely women behind the camera, allowing men to set society’s unrealistic standards for women. There are so many instances of women not being allowed to be shown as humans, from I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo, portrayed by Lucille Ball, being one of the first pregnant characters on television but not being able to say the word “pregnant” on the show, instead of having to say she was “expecting” or “going to have a baby.” Mary Tyler Moore had to fight for her character on The Dick Van Dyke Show to wear pants to show a more realistic portrayal of women’s day-to-day life. The Brady Bunch’s Carol Brady, portrayed by Florence Henderson, could not be explicitly indicated as divorced because the network believed it was too controversial. They do not mention her former husband, while Mike Brady, portrayed by Robert Reed, the late wife, was discussed.

The worst part is that this is just some of the history of what has happened to white women on television. For women of color, poor is not a good enough word for our representation on television and film. Women of color were only given controversial roles such as slave, maid, mammy, or hypersexualized object. Hattie McDaniel is most known for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, but she did not get to attend the premiere because it was at a whites-only theater, and she was African American. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role being the first African American to win an Oscar at all, and she still had to sit at a segregated table away from the rest of the cast during the ceremony. Rita Moreno is regarded as not just a Latino Icon but an icon in general. She is one of only sixteen EGOT winners, people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony, winning them all as performers, which only two others have done. However, at the beginning of her career, she could only get hypersexualized roles and not authentic to her ethnicity until she landed her role in West Side Story as Anita. Women of color were eventually elevated to background characters but were not even afforded the luxury of being a romantic interest like their white counterparts.

However, things have changed as more women have entered the film industry, and with shows purely about women and our interests becoming more mainstream, our representation has gotten better. With iconic and groundbreaking shows about womanhood and women being women such as Sex and the City, Girlfriends, Living Single, Ugly Betty, Orange is the New Black, Scandal, Golden Girls, Insecure, The Bold Type, and countless more. These shows changed and continue to change the way we view women and question the limitations we have put on women and gender. However, what is upsetting about these amazing shows is that some of them still equate womanhood to a woman’s relationship with a man. Sex and the City is well known for challenging the limits of what women are allowed to do and want sexually, but all the characters are still incredibly linked to their relationships with men. On Girlfriends, Joan is an incredibly accomplished lawyer and yet the show portrays her as being lonely and sad despite all she had accomplished at her age as a Black woman simply because she was single. As we move further into the 21st century with shows like Orange is the New Black and other shows where not all women are interested in men, their womanhood is still linked to dating. Other shows link women to their children or to their ability to have or not to have children, if their gender expression is feminine enough, their career in a male-oriented field, or often gender-based discrimination. While women deserve to have and see in media fulfilling romantic relationships with a beautiful family if we want one, any career we want, and to express ourselves however we want, we are more than things or people linked to us. We are especially more than the injustices that happen to us. Having to work twice as hard, receiving lower pay, fighting for ownership over our bodies, or having to carry a sharp object when alone at night are important wrongs that we must right, but these alone do not make us women.

Many of the shows listed earlier are doing a magnificent job of separating women from people and things instead of showing us as people. However, no show I have watched before portrays womanhood how POSE has. POSE is centered around five trans women, who are not linked to any of the concepts we have been told make someone a woman. In the show, the women are often misgendered, which is very confusing to the audience. These women are women, even though they are women in different ways. Angel, portrayed by Indya Moore, is shown to be very feminine and passing to the point where she becomes a model, but she runs into trouble in relationships with men. By the end of season 2, Angel is engaged, but it has been shown that her ability to be attractive to men and to pass as cis is not what makes her a woman. This is demonstrated by her slowly but surely beginning to validate herself and her getting modeling opportunities still not despite, but because of her trans identity. 

Elektra, portrayed by Dominique Jackson, passes very well in the world because she has a good amount of money. Yet, she is not shown as an incredibly nurturing house mother. Even as she grows as a person later in the show, it is still not her strong suit, and that is shown to be okay because her ability to be nurturing in a stereotypically feminine way is not what makes her a woman. Blanca, portrayed by Mj Rodriguez, is a nurturing and loving house mother, so much so that she wins an award for it. She fights for all of her kids and works to better their lives, but she does not pass as easily in society as some other women in the show. However, throughout the show, she and the audience are shown that her ability to pass as cis in society is not what makes her a woman, and no one else gets to determine if she is feminine or woman enough. 

           Sometimes the women date men, but it rarely works out. The women cannot have children biologically, but they create their own families with households to protect each other and others. Career comes and goes for the women as they start only having sex work, which is a good career but not always the one they want or most safe for them because of their trans identity. Only Elektra has access to gender-affirming surgery, while most other women do not have a vagina. These women are discriminated against constantly, but the scenes where they are shown feeling most connected to their womanhood are not tied to their oppression. POSE plays around beautifully with the question “what makes someone a woman” by showing trans women both dolled up and also at home in sweats, showing men in drag experimenting with their gender expression while it still being said that wearing women’s clothes alone does not make them a woman, showing women who like men and others who don’t. The women are forced to prove their womanhood repeatedly to everybody in their life, even themselves. Yet, the entire time, the one thing they have the most faith in is that they are women, despite what anyone else says. POSE brings up the question of when everything environmental is gone, what makes you a woman? 

“God may have blessed you with Barbies, a backyard with a pony, a boyfriend named Jake, and an unwanted pregnancy that your father paid to terminate so you could go to college and major in being a basic bitch. None of these things make you a woman.”

-Elektra Abundance

I think people limit POSE by putting it in the box of a strictly trans, queer, or gay show. This show has of course been groundbreaking for representation for queer, specifically trans people, but POSE at its core is a show about family and women being women even when someone thinks they are not. POSE is a show made by members of the LGBTQ+ community about the LGBTQ+ community, but I think even people who are not in the community can learn a lesson from it too. Throughout the entire show, POSE debunks the answers we thought we knew, being a woman is not who you date, where you work, how you dress, having a child, having to fight for your rights, or even having a vagina. At the end of the second season of POSE, “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan plays and I think that was POSE’s way of answering the question for us. Being a woman is just about being a woman, and that may sound redundant, but it actually is that simple. All those other concepts, people, and environmental factors about womanhood can be someone’s reason for feeling connected to their womanhood, but they don’t have to be everyone’s. What womanhood is can change from person to person. Maybe one woman feels that she is a woman because she can perform the miracle of life and is a nurturing and loving soul. Maybe another woman feels she is a woman because she likes sweetheart necklines and pretty skirts. Another woman might feel that her strength to persevere in a difficult career and fight a world that wasn’t made for her makes her a woman. Yet, another woman doesn’t feel like any of those things connect her to her womanhood. The answer is that being a woman can be whatever someone wants it to be. It can be as complex or as simple as each individual woman wants. As anti-trans legislation and rhetoric are being spewed worldwide, we must continue teaching this lesson. It is beyond past time for the world to recognize trans women for who they are. Hopefully, the effect POSE has had on the conversation will continue past the show’s finale, and one day we won’t have to have dehumanizing debates about trans rights and people anymore.

I think people limit POSE by putting it in the box of a strictly trans, queer, or gay show. This show has, of course, been groundbreaking for representation for queer, specifically trans people, but POSE at its core is a show about family and women being women even when someone thinks they are not. POSE is a show made by members of the LGBTQ+ community about the LGBTQ+ community, but I think even people who are not in the community can learn a lesson from it. Throughout the entire show, POSE debunks the answers we thought we knew, being a woman is not who you date, where you work, how you dress, having a child, having to fight for your rights, or even having a vagina. At the end of the second season of POSE, “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan plays, and I think that was POSE’s way of answering the question for us. Being a woman is just about being a woman, which may sound redundant, but it is that simple. All those other concepts, people, and environmental factors about womanhood can be someone’s reason for feeling connected to their womanhood, but they don’t have to be everyone’s. What womanhood is can change from person to person. Maybe one woman feels she is a woman because she can perform the miracle of life and is a nurturing and loving soul. Perhaps another woman feels she is a woman because she likes sweetheart necklines and pretty skirts. Another woman might feel her strength to persevere in a challenging career and fight a world that wasn’t made for her makes her a woman. Yet, another woman doesn’t feel like any of those things connect her to her womanhood. The answer is that being a woman can be whatever someone wants it to be. It can be as complex or as simple as each woman wants. As anti-trans legislation and rhetoric are being spewed worldwide, we must continue teaching this lesson. It is beyond past time for the world to recognize trans women for who they are. Hopefully, the effect POSE has had on the conversation will continue past the show’s finale. One day, we won’t have to have dehumanizing debates about trans rights and people anymore. 


Sydney Turner is a contributing writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Sydney believes in the power of Black women of every background and is invested in bringing attention to our unique perspective on important topics. You can follow Sydney on instagram  @syd_pie11.

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