Moving culture, one dance step at a time
CHAZ BONO’S inaugural cha-cha-cha on “Dancing With the Stars’’’ last week was so very . . . “Dancing With the Stars.’’ The mildly-awkward toe points. The wiggly hips. The jazz hands.
When the show first premiered in 2005, I wasn’t the only one who doubted it would last. In an age of dark crime dramas and cynical sitcoms, it didn’t seem possible that America would go for a show so broad and un-ironic. What can I say? I was wrong.
For all of the hand-wringing about cynicism and rancor in our culture, “Dancing With the Stars’’ stands as a striking counterexample. The ratings prove that there’s a huge national appetite for entertainment with the “Dancing’’ sensibility: straightforward and old-fashioned, cheesy without camp. So it was only a matter of time before the show would become a medium for social progress, too.
When it comes to ending discrimination, progress comes about in two complementary ways: sweeping changes to the law, and subtler changes to the culture. Bill Cosby and Ellen DeGeneres belong in the civil-rights pantheon because of how they’ve cheerfully, good-naturedly moved the social ticker, extending the boundaries for what people understand and accept.
Chaz Bono deserves similar praise for agreeing to be the show’s first transgender contestant. But the bigger player is “Dancing With the Stars’’ itself. Yes, the show is still too dizzying and dazzling, with over-shouty judges and inane interviews from hostesses in low-cut ballgowns. (Only chief host Tom Bergeron seems to truly understand what’s happening, delivering his lines with the slightest of winks.)
But those old-fashioned trappings might be precisely what makes the show such a great vehicle for progress. The whole affair is so mainstream, so aggressively un-hip, that it neuters the cultural warriors from the outset. There are some reasons to be wary about the boundary-pushing shows that usually get warnings from the “family-friendly’’ groups for shoving sex, and drugs, and violence in our faces. All that “Dancing’’ shoves at us are sequins, strobe lights, and celebrity self-promotion.
And because a high-profile plug is the contestants’ true goal - far more important than making a political statement or meeting a personal challenge - the show feels that much safer. On “Dancing,’’ Chaz Bono is another celebrity with a book to sell. Of course, the “Dancing’’ producers are using Bono, too; they know quite well how much controversy maximizes ratings. (That’s why they gave Bristol Palin a platform last season, despite her recent entry into the celebrity world.)
But onscreen, “Dancing’’ doesn’t overplay what it has. The show treats Bono matter-of-factly; he’s just another male dancer struggling with his footwork. And his isn’t the only storyline this season with an underlying message. If you want to get pinheaded, you could see Carson Kressley’s routine this week - with a partner whose outfit you might have expected on JWoww of “Jersey Shore’’ - as a commentary on how gay men have long played straight in the entertainment industry. You could see David Arquette’s performance as a statement about the flexibility of families; his estranged wife was in the crowd, cheering enthusiastically, along with their 8-year-old daughter.
Of course, it’s Bono who is getting the most attention, from the most obvious sources. Dr. Keith Ablow, fresh off a courageous stand against boys wearing toenail polish, has been making unfounded noise about how Bono will somehow prompt a nationful of kids to change their gender. “He’s being touted as the second coming of Gandhi!’’ Ablow griped on Fox News recently. In some circles, sure. But in most living rooms, Bono is something far more mundane: An overweight 40-something guy who, through the peculiar magic of TV, is now someone we feel like we know.
And when an issue moves from abstract to personal, the calculation changes. Consider the bill, still stalling in the Massachusetts State House, that would prohibit discrimination against transgendered people. Fearmongering has blocked its passage so far: Opponents have raised the specter of strange people entering public restrooms.
But what if people saw the bill’s beneficiaries differently: not as strangers in bathrooms, but people next door, trying their best at the cha-cha-cha? That’s how it works. The ticker moves. Sometimes, it even dances.