Sunday 22 July 2018

Comment: Why sexism is all part of the curious appeal of 'Dancing With The Stars'

Broadcaster RTE knows that to bow to a feminist re-imagining would be to forgo a proven ratings hit, writes Donal Lynch

SPARKING SEXISM ROW: Comedian Deirdre O’Kane — who claims the show is ‘infected with gender bias’ — and John Edward Nolan take to the floor on RTE’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
SPARKING SEXISM ROW: Comedian Deirdre O’Kane — who claims the show is ‘infected with gender bias’ — and John Edward Nolan take to the floor on RTE’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It was as though, for a brief moment, RTE had forgotten its lines. When a big organisation like this is accused of sexism - as so many (including the national broadcaster itself) have in the past six months - the acceptable response has been to don the proverbial sackcloth and ashes, institute an internal inquiry, and publicly promise to do better.

Instead, when Deirdre O'Kane and Maia Dunphy claimed that Dancing with the Stars was infected with gender bias, RTE released statistics proving that four fifths of the highest scorers on the current series have been women and judge Brian Redmond chimed in, pointing out that, on average, women score three points higher than men on the series.

It was an unusually combative response, and it perhaps belied the niggling audience impression that women on these dancing shows do have to be perfect - witness the horror at Anna Geary's slight missteps during American Smooth - whereas men, like the leaping Rob Heffernan, can look very much like an uncle having a go at a wedding afters, and still earn warm applause just for trying.

To be fair to Redmond and RTE, citing statistics was probably the only acceptable response when the real truth was largely unsayable: sexism is actually an integral part of the appeal of shows like Dancing with the Stars.

Here you have a genre of programming that reinforces gender stereotypes with relish - the strong man, leading the garishly beautiful woman, the men dressed in suits, the women's bodies joyfully exposed (male chests are not as welcome).

The dancers themselves play up the flirtation and traditional roles of the sexes - the women coquettish, the men protective and powerful. It's all princes and princesses and, in fact, these tropes mirror the appeal of amateur ballroom dancing.

Researchers at the University of London several years ago published a paper showing that the sanctioned adherence to these traditional roles is, in fact, part of the reason people take up this kind of dancing - people get a thrill out of playing those roles in a world where differences between the sexes are being eliminated.

It's perhaps also little wonder, then, that an audience entranced by this kind of spectacle is also inclined to give men the type of free passes they receive in real life. This is why you get male contestants whose bumbling attempts are considered adorable - remember John Sergeant hopping from one foot to the other on Strictly Come Dancing? - whereas women are largely unable to pull off failure as part of their style.

This is not sexism that DWTS, Strictly or any of the other shows invented. It's there in our own public life, it was there in the last American election - the seemingly hopeless messy Trump triumphing over the meticulously prepared Hillary - and it's driven by the public more than it is by institutional male fides. RTE knows that to bow to a feminist re-imagining of DWTS would be to forgo a proven ratings hit.

This week there was also, perhaps, on the broadcaster's part, a sense that enough is enough with career-based victimhood. As tempting as the MeToo movement has made the conclusion, it's not always gender- based discrimination at play every time a woman doesn't get promoted or get her way.

In the media in recent months we have seen a fair bit of careerism re-packaged as social pioneering. And while Dunphy and O'Kane may be right on a level, complaining about this kind of sexism seems to miss the point of this kind of television as completely as Germaine Greer did when she registered her disgust that there was no privacy and constant scrutiny on Celebrity Big Brother. 'Of course there wasn't', you wanted to shout at her, 'you knew that when they signed the cheque'. Idealism doesn't go very far in light entertainment. Dancing shows may serve up the sexism, but it's us who eat it up.

Sunday Independent

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