Dancing With The Stars will crown its champion tonight, and no matter who wins, normative expectations of gender and sexuality will be challenged. Our three contestant offer alternative masculinities and femininities to a public reared on Barbie and Ken. Let’s look at our contestants: Olympic champion speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno is the sex appeal of the show. There is something eternally boyish about Ohno in spite of this insistence on his sexiness, and on DWTS, his boyishness is played up, along with the girlishness of his partner, Julianne Hough. The two are the youngest and the judges are continually surprised by their ability to dance sophistacated dances. When the two sex it up, the judges come down hard on them, but the audience responds with enthusiasm, pushing them, so to speak, to the top of the leader board. They are the favorites tonight. But Ohno ultimately refuses aggressive and highly sexualized expectations of masculinity. One has the sense that Hough is directing this show, for she is the one who designs their dances and orchestrates the sexual tension. Ohno comes across as a nice guy, one who is willing to fill that role for Hough, and remains concerned mostly with her pleasure. And yet Ohno remains the heartthrob of the show, perhaps precisely because of his queered masculinity.
Joey Fatone, former N*SYNC boy band member and now Broadway star, on the other hand, is the show’s resident goofball. He and his partner Kym Johnson specialize in what the show gaily calls “razzle dazzle,” and they are the real crowd pleasers. From the outset, Joey’s weight has been an issue. His first costume read “Fat One” in sequins, and he is regularly admonished by the judging panel to “watch his bum” so that it doesn’t stick out. His dancing is sometimes so over the top that the judges call him “too feminine,” particularly when he makes a show of flirting with audience regular Lance Bass, his former bandmate who came out of the closet last year. His is an exceedingly queer masculinity, one that is athletic, powerful, in charge of the stage, but also just plain sissified. This is a guy who wears yellow suspenders, does the splits, sings along to Broadway tunes. Fatone’s heterosexuality is continually marked by many camera shots of his wife and kid in the audience. The show seems to be telling us that yes, sweet, chubby-faced goofs are men too, and straight ones at that. Maybe. Fatone, like Ohno, occupies a kind of queered masculine space, one that works against dominant forms of masculinity in unexpected ways.
The final contestant is world champion boxer Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali. The show is open about discussing Ali’s size–she is a big, strong woman–and has acknowledged that she does not share the characteristics of the professional female dancers. She is not a waif or a doll, she does not let herself be tossed around or play up a kittenish sex appeal. The show does not, however, as one might expect, mark this as a lack of femininity. On the contrary, Ali is always shown as the consummate woman. She is classy and sophisticated, elegant and sexy. The judges like her Latin dances, but they love her waltz, her foxtrot, her slow, romantic dances. Her size becomes an issue only when she and her partner Maxsim Chmerkovskiy choreograph their “freestyle” dance. They acknowledge that Chmerkovskiy can’t lift Ali, but this is not seen as a detriment to their dancing. In fact, her strength is their strength.
Chmerkovskiy is the closest the show comes to featuring a stereotypically masculine character. His is a sexually aggressive masculinity, one that refuses the authority of the judges. He is the self-proclaimed “bad boy” of Dancing With The Stars. And yet his tenderness with Ali is remarkable. She seems almost oblivious to the ways she’s seduced him; he seems to have fallen in love with this strong, feminine woman. His love redeems both her femininity and his masculinity.
So tonight we’ll crown a winner, and that winner will offer the audience a vision of a different sort of masculinity or femininity, one that pushes us to rethink our assumptions of what it means to be a strong, sexy man or woman. Of course, this is just one reading. One could also argue that all three couples work only to redeem dancing, and ballroom dancing in particular, from its own gay taint. And these three contestants, all occupying, for deeply raced and gendered reasons, the margins of masculinity and femininity, might just be dancing their roles in a thwarted effort to move to the center. It depends, like any viewing, on what you want to see.