I’m not a fan of reality-competition TV in general, because I’m already quite convinced that humanity is a pretty vile lot, and I don’t need endless footage of “backstage” drama as further evidence to that point. I also don’t watch celebrity-driven reality shows of any sort–The Apprentice, Circus of the Stars, Dancing With the Stars. But I have one reality TV weakness: I love Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance. Love. It. Though I started watching it intermittently during the second season on a sort of lazy lark, I quickly became invested, and for the subsequent three summers have eagerly anticipated Wednesday nights, when I can settle in with refreshments and a leetle bit of snark. Just a little, because the dancers are amazing athletes, stunning to watch for both their beauty (no matter what sort of beauty you fancy) and ability, and at least seem like genuinely kind, well-intentioned young people who are thrilled to be doing what they love. The dancing is generally delightful, the host, Cat Deely, is completely charming, and if I can’t be there to watch the show, I record it, and/or obsessively watch clips on YouTube. (Seriously, if you’ve never seen this show, go to YouTube right now and watch Katee and Josh do their Bollywood routine. Go. Now. The dance starts around 1:18.)
But every week that I tune in, I find myself wincing and occasionally throwing something at the TV. And it’s mostly because a show never passes but I hear multiple infuriating comments from the panel of judges based on ridiculous, offensive, outdated ideas of gender performance. The worst offender is executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who is completely obsessed with making sure everyone knows that he’s no poofter! by a) insulting any male dancer whose performance he deems insufficiently macho and b) openly leering at the female dancers in their revealing costumes. But Nigel is in good company with Mary Murphy and a rotating cast of choreographer/judges who seem to be as invested in policing gender lines as they are in critiquing dance.
A big part of the problem is the language of dance styles, particularly in the more traditional ballroom categories—rhumba, samba, cha-cha, tango, and the fucking paso doble, among others—which seem to always be built around one of three narrative patterns: conventional love story where man pursues woman; unconventional love story where woman pursues man, which perversion of nature comically alarms the man (and the judges); and the hate-fuck story, where the “romantic” relationship is figured as a Battle of the Sexes!!!, complete with faux violence and one dancer triumphing over the other.
But it’s not just the choreographers’ fault. Occasions where this heteronormative story is thrown away send the judges into a tailspin. An infamous number from Season Three, where the two dancers were supposed to be woodland creatures of some sort, was terribly received. The judges simply couldn’t understand what was going on, and they penalized the dancers for it. Now, I’m a big fan of narrative, but if you can’t just accept “they’re foxes! …sorta” as the conceit for a two-minute routine, your imagination is severely impoverished. Watch them move!
There are other problems with the show, too. A certain number of dancers who don’t have typical dancer’s bodies are always subject to mockery, derision, or special-olympics-style pity in the cattle-call audition episodes, and hip-hop/street dancers are often treated like idiot savants if they skillfully execute a quick step or Viennese waltz. Which is not at all based on racially-coded ideas about what “real” dancing is, no indeed. It makes me all ragey on a regular basis.
And yet I watch, because those kids (I use the term with affection) are, more often than not, thrilling.
I suppose I can’t be terribly surprised that a sexist, heterosexist, ableist, racist culture has produced a program that is sexist, heterosexist, ableist, and racist. But I still struggle with my desire to consume cultural products that embrace, along with things I value and enjoy, things that I find utterly repellent. A lot of them are easy for me to reject outright (fashion magazines, bad-mommy reality shows, celebrity gossip features, anything with Adam Carolla in it), but some–like SYTYCD–aren’t, and I’m never quite sure where to draw the line.
Is it enough to recognize the poisonous crap for what it is, to voice my critique of it, and enjoy what is good and valuable, or by watching (and consuming the adverts that fund the shows), am I tacitly endorsing the things I hate the most? I don’t believe that personal “purity” is possible, but neither do I think that pop culture is “harmless” or meaningless escapism.
Do you have conflicted relationships with shows, or websites, or other pop detritus? How do you decide what to consume, and what to reject? Where do you draw the line?