More Than a Mock-Up: How Janet Is Etching Her Mark on Hollywood
The Pose director and executive producer explores her final goodbyes to the iconic, critically acclaimed series and her growth as a storyteller.
As I called into the conference line, I awaited her arrival. Only two minutes past our initial meeting time, she called in apologetic yet calm and poised. "Apologies for being late," Janet Mock said when she entered. After I assured her that there was no love lost, I asked her about the state of her mental health given the country's lack of care for the Black community.
"I'm practicing letting go this month. We're going to try and see how that works because I've been in a whirlwind of directing for the past year basically on Pose," she told me. "I'm just trying to get that 'telling people what to do' and stuff out of my head and just learn how to be for a little bit, but I'm good."
Firstly, I asked her about her self-awareness by asking who she is. Oftentimes we associate our identities with our jobs, aspirations, or relations to other people, but I wanted to gauge her thoughts on her being outside of all these factors. Aside from identifying as a "Black trans woman with indigenous Hawaiian blood," Mock dug a little deeper and called herself a storyteller.
"I'm dedicated to my own vision and creating visions for other people to better see themselves in a dream. I am committed to always being my sister's keeper," she told me powerfully. She credits Black women as the people whose words filled her and whose experiences guided her when she was being raised. "Their arms shielded me, embraced me, and allowed me to stand up taller in the world. I just hope that with the time that I have allotted, that I'm able to do the same."
And she is.
Photo: Juan Veloz
When inquiring about how her love for writing and storytelling first began, she took me back. "I fell in love with stories probably doing exactly the opposite of what my father always told me not to do, which is stay out of grown folks' business," she laughed. Mock would eavesdrop on conversations that her aunt and grandmother would have, whether it sounded tiring, gossipy, or, as she described it, "a bitch fest," but she recognized the sense of community amongst Black women who would share their lives and experiences with one another.
"I've seen these women—all single parents, mostly—navigate spaces where they, I'm sure, felt discarded and forgotten, but they never forgot themselves. They never discarded their people, their children, their sisters and siblings. Just hearing the oral tradition of probably what our most arcane foundational way of connecting and communicating is through just telling your own story to another person," Mock said.
Who would have thought that the intimacy of her own home and not minding her own business would lead her to her journey as a public figure and pivotal career in journalism and writing?
Speaking of pivotal, FX's Pose is just that. I couldn't even muster the words to describe the show's impact and ability to shake tables in and beyond Black culture, especially with Mock being the first trans woman of color to be hired as a writer for a TV series in all of history. I had no words. Though it's a celebratory time, it's a bit unfortunate that we've finally reached this milestone in Black television history.
As one of the core voices "shepherding and shaping" Pose, it's hard for Mock to really nail the cultural impact of the show without bias and recognizes the importance of the viewer's standpoint. When she does hear feedback from viewers, the common ground is that Pose is the show that they needed for visibility when they were growing up. "It's just an affirmation that I belonged and was deserving of taking up space in the world. What a show like Pose has done from the very first announcement where you saw those five Black trans women playing trans women on screen, specifically Black trans women, that alone..." she stopped herself mid-praise.
"When do you even see five Black actresses in the center of a show?" she asked.
You don't. Though I'm sure the question was rhetorical, I answered aloud.
"By just casting authentically and adding the writers behind the scenes, directors, choreographers, and all the other ingredients that fill out this unapologetically Black, unapologetically queer and trans world that's full of love," she said about the show's makeup that puts Black women's authentic narratives at the center of the show. "It's not about the bad things that have happened to us or the boogeyman that have come to degrade us. It's about our interior lives and our connections to one another [and] how we show up for each other."
The former People magazine editor continued to praise Pose as a cathartic experience for all of us to share. In every episode, there's some area of connectivity with somebody—to laugh, love, cry, throw shade with, dance, or sing. "The act of sharing space and welcoming these characters into your life shifts things and shows you what's possible, family is necessary and vital, and that you're not limited by who you were born to," Mock continued. "You can set out and live the life that you want to live. I hope that Pose gives that energy to every Black person, every queer person, every trans person that you see yourself and you feel more emboldened and to stand up straighter in the world."
Mock remembers the first time she was shifted by her own show. She was on set with Ryan Murphy when he was directing the pilot—specifically, the scene at the House of Abundance—and Elektra Wintour, played by Dominique Jackson, was in the scene. As she reminisced on Angelica Ross ad-libbing her lines and cracking up Murphy to the point where he spat out his water, Mock knew the magic of the show when she saw it unravel behind the scenes. "The magic of our people gathering together and that we had cameras there capturing it. Costumes, hair and makeup artists, props people, lighting and set design, and all of this stuff is there in order to create these visions that we had written in the room—that's when I saw the magic of the show," she reminisced. Even if the pilot never were to take off, Mock witnessed the magic herself and knew that it existed.
"I felt like that, and that to me was a win enough. The critical acclaim, the awards that we've gotten, that all has just been a bonus, but it wasn't expected," she admits proudly. "We really shot that first season in a vacuum. There were no episodes out. We were just doing it in a little bubble, and I felt the magic then. It impacted me personally, so I knew that it would impact people. It would make people feel. It would teach them something. It would shift the way that they thought and the way they moved around in the world."
Pose creates a fictional safe space in a real world where Black transgender women are not protected, uplifted, or empowered by any means, and in that topic, Mock and I transitioned into a conversation about something personal to us both. While people throw around the phrase "Protect Black Women," what does it really mean? We put it on bags, t-shirts, and make it a trending hashtag on social media, but are we actually doing it?
A few days prior to our phone conversation was International Transgender Day of Visibility, which allowed the conversation to go a bit deeper. Oftentimes when we say "Protect Black Women," all women are not recognized, and we can't pick and choose which Black women we want to protect. It's all or nothing. Trans Black women, straight Black women, queer Black women, Christian Black women, Muslim Black women—all Black women.
When it came down to her definition of protecting Black transgender women and making them visible, Mock added that it's about centering all Black women's narratives in the midst of this feminism movement that the world says we're in. "We often overlook the ones who are seen as discarded, the ones who are still engaging in underground resources and trades to take care of themselves. If you really look at who's forgotten, you'll see the same kind of names, figures, faces, and stories that bubble up, right? It's Black women," she notes.
She continued to point out, from poor, disabled Black women to Black women sex workers, whether it be the strip clubs or OnlyFans, Black transgender women are in the intersection of it all. Mock focuses on the idea of womanhood—or at least the skewed, limited definition of womanhood. "I think about the women who are oftentimes not the portrait of who we say a lady is and the lady that we put on a pedestal and the lady that we protect," Mock said. When she says that she's her sister's keeper, she means that shit. Her guiding compass is providing resources to those sisters who do without, those who may feel forgotten or do not have a safe space to go to.
"I'm constantly interrogating that notion, and I translate that right into my work. The women I'm most interested in are the women who've been existing for decades and centuries, to be honest, on the margin. Quietly living their lives, taking care of their people, still fucking being able to spin magic out of just discarded stuff—that's always the core center."
Though many have claimed to share the same sentiment as Mock when it comes to providing opportunities and championing women, she actually practices what she preaches. In contrast to leaving the door cracked or slightly ajar, she has busted the doors down, built new tables in conference rooms and invited everyone to sit. However, when it comes to trans actors specifically, she knows that there's more work to be done.
"I feel like we're just at the beginning of this work where we finally, for the first time, are gaining the institutional power, support, and access to be able to tell our own stories. What I'm excited about are all of the folks who have come in and boldly told their stories," Mock said. She even praised Pose thespians Indya Moore, who played a Black sex worker in Lena Waithe's Queen & Slim, and Angelica Ross for her role in American Horror Story for their contributions to mainstream entertainment outside of the FX show.
"We've got to continue to tell these stories and tell stories that aren't just there for pure entertainment, but what does it look like to be impactful in our storytelling? Making sure that we are bringing up and developing talent that we're deepening and widening the bench, and that we're consistently thinking outside the box when we're casting is super important to me. When we say 'woman,' what women are we casting in this role? How open are we to different genders and presentations and races and abilities and all of that stuff? We have ample opportunity to tell different kinds of stories with different kinds of characters," Mock said excitedly.
Amidst all this excitement, Mock has been working on making her mental health a priority through resting. Not just sleeping, but legit rest. She makes it a mission to communicate with her team when she needs time off, when she's taking time off, and when her schedule is absolutely clear for herself. From the ups and downs of the news cycle to being a New York Times bestselling author and media maven, she acknowledges that time for herself is not only well deserved, but well needed.
"I'm very clear with my team that, yes, we may have all these things on the schedule, but things may have to get shifted because I need to take priority. My health, my wellness, my mental state needs to be centered or else nobody gets fed, so let's just be clear," she said. And that's on period.
Her morning routine includes pouring herself a cup of coffee, journaling, and even adding in the practice of yoga with Chelsea Jackson-Roberts on the Peloton app. During the 20-minute class where she's not getting paid to make an appearance or bogged down by the stressors of life, Mock enjoys being connected to her physical health and well-being. "She lets you know that you're powerful, that you're on purpose, and that you're here. I had never really wanted to go to yoga because I always felt like it was for the new-agey white people. I was like, 'Do I really want to spend all this time in a room full of white people where I'm the only person?' But she gives you affirmation."
Though she hasn't always been the biggest practitioner of self-care and self-love, Mock took a moment to reflect on her mental and emotional growth by giving her younger self some sound advice. "The number one thing I would tell her is that you have more than enough skills and experience to do this job. Stop doubting yourself. You're not pretending. You're not an imposter. You belong here," she affirmed baby Janet. She would also tell mini Mock that the word no is a complete and proper sentence. "I would tell her to preserve her energy and time for people who fill her up. Keep telling the truth, focusing on your vision for what you want and making sure that that goes out into the world."
With Pose coming to an end and its final season premiering on May 2nd, I asked Mock what she would say to all the fans and supporters of the show watching it come to a tragic end.
"I'd say, 'Bitch, I'm sad too,'" she laughed.
"It's tough. You fall in love, and for the audience, I know that it is so tough to say goodbye after 25 episodes, but we have those 25 episodes forever. We have these characters forever. I promise that we send them off well and that you won't be worried about them."
The final sendoff of Pose will not have any "crazy cliffhanger" as we enjoy the last seven that she refers to as "the final supper." "There'll be no crazy cliffhanger as we take care of you. You're going to enjoy these last seven. When I tell you we've made it for a year for you, which is long, we made it for a full year, and we did it during a pandemic because that's how much these characters in this world mean to us. Please, take this offering, be nourished by it, be inspired by it."
Top photo: Juan Veloz
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