Saturday, February 18, 2006

Racial Stereotypes and Voting Politics in "Dancing With the Stars"

Over at BlackProf, Devon Carbado writes about the racial stereotypes shaken off in Dancing With The Stars:

For several weeks, my siblings having be pressing me to watch "Dancing With the Stars." Yesterday I did. And what really stood out was Jerry Rice's bad dancing--I mean really bad dancing. This three time Super Bowl Champ can't seem to move his legs, let alone his upper body; he is, as my mom would say, as stiff as a broom stick. But perhaps his presence on this very popular show is performing anti-stereotypical work, disabusing people of the idea that all Black people can dance. I understand that Master P's performances (he is picture below) was even worse. One of Master P's reasons for being on the show was to send a message to "people in the hood" that ballroom dancing is something that they, too, can do (even, I suppose, if he wasn't quite up to the task).

I generally hate "Reality" Television (besides, I'm waiting for Umberto Eco to write a book on it called Travels in Hyporeality), but I LOVE Dancing With The Stars. Unlike other reality shows, the emotions exploited here for entertainment value are not the image insecurities of homely people, or the bizarre belief of some that they can sing despite all evidence to the contrary, but rather the fierce desire of B-Level celebrities to make a coming (they ain't coming back) to fame. Besides, Dancing With the Stars is a fascinating lens with which to view racial stereotypes (not every Black man can dance like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson) and voting politics.

In Season One, of the five B-Level celebrities, only one was Black--Evander Hollyfield, champion heavyweight boxer. He was clumsy on his feet, but by God he tried-at the jive no less--and he wasn't the first to be eliminated either, despite being the worst. He was eliminated the second week, but the first to go was the Bachelorette Trista Sutter. It's always the least popular to go first, not the worst (although that factors in more heavily as the weeks go by and voting for them becomes less defensible as both talent and popularity combine at the top). In Season Two, of the ten B-Level Celebrities, two are black--Master P and Jerry Rice. It would appear that the larger the sample size, the greater the chance for diversity--although it's still a 1/5 proportion in both seasons. It just looked like there were more black people dancing for once. Again, Master P and Jerry have demonstrated staying power, despite sucking on the floor. Master P was notable for his invocations to his "hood," how he was "representing," and how he was "here for his hood and because of his hood." It got to the point where after weeks of this (he was the fourth to leave, after Kenny Mayne, Tatum O'Neal, and Gisele Fernandez, long after it became ludicrous for him to stay while decent dancers were booted off), George Hamilton would also exhort "his hood" in Bel Air and Beverly Hills to drive out the vote for him, even taking the cameras to document his public plea to a retirement home. Master P was even worse than Jerry or Evander--he didn't even try to dance well, and would not take off his Pumas. This week, despite wooden, awkward performances (although, to his credit, Jerry seems to really try hard, he just lacks the fluidity and talent), Jerry made it to the Semi-Finals, and it was another white woman who was sent home--this time, Lisa Rinna, a superior dancer.

Now, you know I support affirmative action, and I do not compare the above examples to argue "reverse racism" and undesirable outcomes that result when you destroy "meritocracy" for more populist forms of admission/retention. As in any admissions decision, there are a multitude of factors that weigh in--effort, personality, background, creativeness--in addition to pure dancing chops. For DWTS, it's 50% meritocratic determination--Judge's scores, and 50% audience voting--a proxy for "background", "popularity," and "personality"Just as "socioeconomic background" and "obstacles overcome" would weigh into admitting that farm boy from Iowa or that kid from the projects over WASPy privilege, so too do Master P's and Jerry's "this isn't what I normally do, but I'm trying really hard and I'm representin" figure into why they stayed so long. In fact, "representing" is really central to "Dancing With the Stars." Representational identity politics are probably a driving factor into how Master P and Jerry had such staying power. People voted for them because 1) they just liked them and were fans, 2) they identified with them as being part of their "hood," or 3) they wanted to vote for the earnest effort against the sea of natural and privileged talent (Stacy Keibler is a trained ballet/tap dancer for example). Plus, Tatum O'neal was so annoying (I'm an Osar-winning actor! I will mention that I use my acting in my dancing every chance I get, despite the fact that the last time I acted, Reagan was president, and my Oscar win was at age 10 and is no longer relevant!), that I was glad to see her go despite her decent dancing. Master P and Jerry may not be great dancers, and I am sorry to see Lisa Rinna go (because I sympathize with her "I'm over 40, a mother of two, and I can do anything and you can to! representational ideology), but this is what happens when you see democracy in action--the people speak, and despite having some elitist restraints (the 50% judges scoring, the electoral college).

It's not as though ABC disregards the popular vote or attempts to obstruct it--in this way, they're giving the imprimatur of approval to representational politics. If more people identify with Master P and Jerry and vote for them because of that, well, fine. In the same way, Republican-controlled state election officers could say "we know that Blacks tend to vote more heavily Democratic, so we won't impede that." No, instead they enact racially discriminating gerrymandering, voter intimidation at the polls and HAVA (Help Americans Vote Act) violations. It's no secret that the felon-restriction codes in Florida disparately impact African Americans. Or that those "Voter ID" requirements are intended to restrict minority voting, not promote the "One person, one vote" maxim (which the newest Justice Alito inexplicably was against). I'm not saying that representational politics is good, desirable, or even perfect. For example, the NAACP supported Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, and gave Condolezza Rice the President's Award. I'm not making any proscriptive argument for one type of voting behavior over another--rather, my argument is a descriptive one, my point being that for one reason or another, representational politics will come into play for any kind of choice. That's the whole point of targeting demographics, "courting" certain constituencies, and professing certain bona fides with respect to any group--be they "soccer moms," "security moms," or Black people. The entire field of political psychology is devoted to understanding why people vote the way they do, as if any sense can be made. Clinton was thought of as the first "Black" president, Bush was elected twice, for some reason people wanted Master P to keep dancing--if there's a reason, I'd like to know why. I'm just not sure there is any one reason. Sometimes, people just like who they like (Master P), sometimes, there is racial crossover voting (Clinton), and sometimes, elections are handed over to the wrong person thanks to a corrupt system (Bush II). Voting outcomes are hard enough to explain, let alone the personal motivations underlying each vote.

My vote? It's for the white boy Drew Lachey, he of background member of a mediocre boyband demi-fame. Stacy Keibler is female, and is my age, but unfortunately I don't identify with her much (also, no Vietnamese dancers on DWTS). She's about a foot talller than me, extremely hot, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and a female professional wrestler. I hurt myself thumb wrestling, and my entire body is only 20 inches longer than her legs. Not much I can relate to, although I admire her greatly. I know it'll be a showdown between her and Drew, and I support Drew because 1) he's consistently the more imaginative and passionate (and thus better, e.g. a paso doble set to "Thriller") dancer, and 2) he's the shorter, less accomplished younger sibling who has always lived in the shadow of his elder, and is only beginning to achieve recognition on his own merits. And I identify with that.