Tube Tied: Dancing With the Stars and the Notion of the Has-Been
I wonder if there truly is any fate more depressing than ending up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. I’ve only watched the show intermittently over the years—usually under duress, because someone else had laid claim to the remote control—mostly because I get embarrassed for the participants. I hide my eyes when they misstep, and when their smiles falter while the judges offer them harsh criticism, or when I can see the feigned indifference of their shrugs when the scores come up. I’m not claiming to be nicer than anyone who enjoys this show, mind you, but there’s a quality to watching it that bothers me, namely the gleeful schadenfreude of watching people cling to fame with expensively manicured hands. After all, I’m not much convinced anyone watches the show for the dancing; it is built on the conceit that the talent can be taught, and well, maybe it can, but I think it isn’t likely, for most of us, as late in life as these people are. And in any event, were these “stars” more successful at it, the learning to dance I mean, I suspect the show would be less popular.
The “stars,” after all, of the title, are has-beens, and that’s no surprise to anyone, it’s explicitly part of the show’s allure. The show basically winks it at you. And although there’s usually, from what I can tell, gender parity among the contestants, it’s curious that the people on the show who seem to garner the most derisive commentary, the ones people resent the most as “talentless,” are women. It’s not that all of the female “stars” are hated, of course, just that the ones that are receive scoldings of a very particular level of fury. Last season, for example, a “grassroots” campaign arose to “Free Tony” Dovolani, who was partnered with former “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” “star” Kate Gosselin. Gosselin, according to the tabloid narrative, was insufficiently grateful for the “opportunity” that DWtS had granted her, didn’t smile and say please and thank you, I guess, for the opportunity to become an object of national snickering, and to do this sort of thing to raise money for her family. And this season, most of the muttering I’ve been hearing has been about Bristol Palin who, as of this writing, is still in the running, although Joy Behar of The View has been advancing the theory that her longevity owes to Tea Party callers. True or not, it all seems a little mean, and mean in a gendered way, to me.
Admittedly, these people get paid to do this, and many of them are what the Internet likes to call “famewhores.” No one’s holding a gun to their heads as they form their humiliating two-person conga lines. They’re making a little money, a few of them do genuinely seem to enjoy it, and the harm is intangible at best. It’s not like anyone physically or economically suffers as a result of appearing on this show, and there are, of course, bigger fish in the world to fry. But personally speaking, I have a hard time reconciling what feels like the meanness of the overall enterprise with personal principle. I am admittedly a critic myself, and I’m not averse to negativity, when your target and your method are well chosen. But just plain making fun, or revelling in the desperation of others—it seems unfair. And, as I said, kind of anti-feminist.
I think you could do a reading of DWtS that took a different approach, of course. Take, for example, what I find particularly tragic about this season: the presence of Jennifer Grey. The media narrative is that, week after week (though not this one), she’s sauntering in and winning, to the point where the rest of the cast is annoyed with her. You could call it a vindication, I suppose. She’s been parked in a Hollywood garage somewhere, for so long, that I even wonder if younger readers of this blog will intuitively know who she is. (Is renting Dirty Dancing still a sleepover standard?) In any event, she looks very different now, and her old dancing partner is dead, and both she and I are a lot older than we once were, and it’s hard to forget about that, watching her do this sad echo of what made her famous. And no matter how good her performances have been, it won’t be the same. And I feel bad for her, because in a way, I can understand the appeal of what she’s done here, even dancing to some of the same songs from the movie. But the fact that she’s one of the few people on this show who once had a real glory makes it all the harder to watch her do the ersatz, crass, product-placed version. Because it almost seems like she’s forgotten that most of her audience is thinking about how much better she used to dance.
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