Dancing with Democracy

November 23, 2010
By | 2 Comments

Bristol Palin is both the exception and the rule.

Rarely has there been a reality contestant as polarizing as Palin, whose lineage has created both fervent fandom and intense ridicule during her surprisingly long tenure on Dancing with the Stars. On tonight’s finale she was labeled as “the shy girl next door who has transformed into a dancer and become a surprise contender,” but in truth she’s a weak dancer who beat out stronger competitors thanks to substantial voter support. That support have been broadly labeled a right-wing conspiracy (without much “real” data available to justify this), while her detractors have taken to shooting their televisions in protest.

However, this sort of controversy is a regular occurrence on shows like Dancing with the Stars or American Idol. In fact, the very first season of Dancing with the Stars in 2005 created a similar controversy when Kelly Monaco, an ABC soap star, defeated John O’Hurley despite many viewers feeling he was the superior dancer (as would be natural in any close vote). ABC, of course, capitalized on this fairly innocuous controversy by airing a special “Dance-Off” for charity, which O’Hurley won. American Idol, meanwhile, has had numerous contestants who “went home too early,” including eventual Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and eventual multi-platinum recording artist Chris Daughtry.

These controversies are natural, I would argue, considering reality television’s tenuous relationship with the basic principles of democracy. Ryan Seacrest refers to the winner of American Idol as “Your American Idol” to suggest a sense of ownership, while So You Think You Can Dance? crowns “America’s Favorite Dancer,” as opposed to its best dancer, in each of its seasons. Both shows suggest that they are turning over a life-altering decision to the American public, as agency over the future of a young singer or dancer is transferred to the voters’ telephones (and their parent’s texting plan).

And yet this agency is seen as problematic when mixed with larger questions of credibility. If the process of voting has viewers exercising their democratic rights, then the existence of judges is meant to introduce some level of meritocratic consideration of talent. While shows like American Idol wholly turn the vote over to the people, shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars give judges considerable power over the outcomes – in the case of Dancing with the Stars, 50% of the power – because dancing is considered to be technical enough to require an expert’s opinion (whereas singing is something we all think we can judge, even when we are actually tone deaf).

This all seems particularly silly for Dancing with the Stars, as we’re talking about democratic engagement and legitimacy in a series about C-List (at best) celebrities competing to win the mirrorball trophy (which is exactly what it sounds like). However, we can’t deny that this particular season became a legitimate national media event, with Palin’s supporters emphasizing their democratic right to support their candidate while her detractors argued that her inability to actually dance makes her continued presence a detriment to the series’ “integrity.”

Of course, this is no different from the original concerns over Monaco’s victory on some level, but the political overtones are exaggerating this controversy. It is the overlaying of real democracy over fake democracy, a microcosm of national political tensions within a dancing competition featuring a daughter of a politician (Palin), an actress (Jennifer Grey) best known for a movie released over twenty years ago (however timeless it may be), and an actor (Kyle Massey) best known for his stint on That’s So Raven who the media has completely forgotten about (or, more likely, didn’t notice in the first place).

The stakes for tonight’s results show were non-existent, in reality: the series has too little legitimacy for an “undeserved” Bristol Palin victory to substantially alter its future prospects, and a Bristol Palin victory is not going to be a sudden turn in the tide of popular opinion surrounding her mother (or have any real democratic meaning, as James Poniewozik argues).

But the show, already a bizarre mix of hyper-seriousness and campy excess, was forced to address allegations of voter fraud and attacks on its legitimacy; the show even opened with an explanation of how the voting process worked, explaining the 50/50 model as if they were 24-hour newscasters discussing why Florida meant everything in 2000. For two long hours filled with novelty dance routines and advertising disguised as musical performance, the audience’s faith in democracy depended on the envelope in the hands of Tom Bergeron.

And then, in a single moment, it all fell away. Bristol was revealed to be the competition’s Ralph Nader, a spoiler rather than a contender, finishing in third place and denying ABC the final moments of tension which would have divided the nation along partisan lines. Instead, Jennifer Grey steps out of the corner to take the mirrorball trophy, a victory for dancing and for the series’ own twisted meritocratic democracy.

Bristol, meanwhile, steps back from the political edge: while she told the camera early in the episode that her victory would be a middle finger to those who hate her mother, her loss becomes a personal tale of the shy girl next door coming out of her shell. Like many politicians, she weathered apparent death threats and substantial critics to prove to the world that anyone can run for office or, in this case, put on colorful costumes and compete for a shiny disco ball on a stick.

And isn’t that what democracy is all about?


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2 Responses to “ Dancing with Democracy ”

  1. Nick Marx on November 24, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    Thanks Myles. This season’s DWTS was the first that didn’t compel me to keep my laptop open the entire time just to slog through its 2 hours (has any primetime reality competition gotten more screen time out of so little actual stuff happening?). I became fascinated by ABC’s increasing proficiency at using the long interludes between dances or Brooke Burke’s stilted interviews to show us the crowd in very strategic ways. To be sure, this is hardly new, but shots of the DWTS crowd have become less a way to sway our opinions a la crying-Sanjaya-girl, and more a bizarre simulacrum of syndicated entertainment news shows like ET and Extra.

    This is what makes Sarah Palin’s presence on the program so troubling. We’re used to “politicians” like her popping up in infotainment settings like The Daily Show, SNL, et. al., but her recurring role on a massively popular, primetime series portends many of the bigger things you’re alluding to, methinks. That is to say, it’s clear her 2012 Presidential campaign will be colored much, much more by Mary Hart, and much, much less by Katie Couric.

    It kills me to say it, because I hate her with every fiber of my being, but Sarah Palin is a great television character.

    • Myles McNutt on November 24, 2010 at 12:42 PM

      Appropriately, Mary Hart was actually in the audience last night.

      I think considering the elder Palin as a television character is apt, and her role here matches comfortably with SP’s Alaska – she is the Mother Hen, the support system for her family. This is particularly common in these settings: how often does American Idol cut to a contestant’s family as soon as their elimination fate is decided?

      Dancing with the Stars, as with most of its situations, simply becomes the glitzy, commercialized equivalent. American Idol parents are wearing homemade t-shirts and hold poster board; Dancing with the Stars has, you know, Sarah Palin. It becomes an extension of celebrity, which really does essentialize certain (likely helpful) parts of Palin’s public persona.