I am so happy to move beyond the humiliation teasers on So You Think You Can Dance? and into the real competition. Cuts, dancing for your life, focus on how people manifest their talents through exhaustion and pressure. You know, the real reason one might tune in if one imagines oneself as not a complete jerk. I’m still a little traumatized by the humiliation thing, but I’ll pretty much leave it behind. Except to say that it is totally unnecessary. This is a compelling and exciting show without juvenile antics. Seriously.
So now we have names and faces – almost. (Yo Fox, an update please?) Even though I have written and will write about “ideas” in relation to the show, I’m also a fan. And so I feel a bit of pressure to pick a winner. I’m thinking the guy deemed “too strange” (Ricky) and the guy who abandoned the family vineyard (Jesus) will be the finalists, with “too strange” Ricky winning out. Sadly, as I write this the Fox people haven’t posted names with faces and my memory is bad. Names may be incorrect, though I’m pretty sure. What is wrong with Fox? How could they not keep up? Huh?
The reality of reality television was on display, starting this week. Well, kind of. And the reason behind this hesitation – that is, the attempt of the show to work both inside and outside the reality component – is so interesting to me. The obvious reality moments: frustration and exhaustion which seemed to me completely honest and real. Not sleeping, working with others (how much do we all hate that, really?!), actually wanting to win, and so on. I don’t doubt the authenticity of this human drama stuff. But there were also two moments I found interesting, where the show had some anxiety about how to balance the entertainment component with the reality component.
By anxiety, I hear mean Freud’s classic formulation: the failure to be master of your own house. The show has a lot of fumbling with such mastery. And that fumbling, that anxiety, is directly related to the fact that it is a show about dancers. As a show, it is compelled (or lets itself be compelled) by both heteronormativity and a lot of conventions of femininity and masculinity. Men and women are paired, so a man and a woman are eliminated each week, whether or not that makes sense in terms of the best dancers. We can’t have men dancing with men, women dancing with women – perish the thought! In the past, this hasn’t been too glaring, hidden by the fact that the skills are at a very high level throughout the final twenty, but imbalance in one sex/gender or another could make the question very interesting. Alas. It is always there, hidden or not.
Proper masculinity and femininity will of course continue to surface, as it already has in really hateful ways – like when Wade Robson disgustedly said “you dance like a girl” in a prominent scene last week. I wrote it up a bit. This one is disproportionately on the men, typically. We shall see. But it is such an odd thing to ask of dancers, really, as many of the dance formats require men to move with gentle fluidity and expression (something conventional masculinity can’t contain) and women to be insanely strong (something that pushes the envelope of conventional femininity).
In fact, I think you can catch sight of the trajectories of gender politics in just this anxiety. For women, there is no small risk in bulking up and being muscular, forceful, and so on. But it is a risk, which means it is not an automatic loss. I think we can look to the Williams sisters in tennis for an important site in which strength and femininity blended into a feasible mass culture aesthetic. Lest we get too optimistic, we need only look at the Rutgers women’s basketball team “controversy” for a big ol’ kibosh. (Setting aside the way heteronormativity plays out in these risks.)
For men, I’d almost call the situation a transgression of masculinity – how dare a man move with grace and beauty, yet not be ashamed or apologetic, even to the point of arrogance! I fear masculinity is sliding backwards, actually, so the show’s anxiety about “dancing like a girl” or various other codes that say either you’ve transgressed masculinity or “just seem too gay” don’t really surprise me. They disappoint me, yes, and I guess my real hope is that the show challenges some of this backward sliding. Despite itself, probably.
And therein lies the anxiety for the whole show. There can be no control over the reality of dance and the stress of gendered normativity. Irreducible anxiety. Thus, the pharmakological character of the show’s very idea. By pharmakological, I am evoking Derrida’s evocation of Socrates: the pharmakon is that which cures and poisons, at one and the same time. In order to be more than America’s Got Talent, which is truly stupid and non-aspirational, So You Think…? needs real dancers. The show has real dancers; the performers are fabulous, really. No fakes. There is the curative moment of the pharmakon at this moment. The success and distinctive character (the cure) of So You Think…? depends on transgression of femininity and masculinity. That’s also the poison, of course, as it puts the show in a precarious place: contesting yet contested by ideologies of sex/gender. Mass appeal means you have to keep things in order (or so they’d seem to think), but you can’t. The very Freudian sense of anxiety, no? The fact that the show erupts in such anxiety with regularity – valiantly and pathetically trying to regulate all sorts of expressive connotations – makes my point for me. Really.
In the end, So You Think…? tries to sedate this anxiety and purify this pharmakon by drawing a distinction between the person and the performance, which is nothing other than an attempt to hold a distinction between reality and entertainment. You can be effeminate or diesel, gentlemen and ladies, but just don’t perform that way. Yet, the structure of dance is such that person and performance must come together, must be at the same time, in order for dance to be authentic. So, the recurrence of anxieties, pharmakons, and the like. Thanks, So You Think…? You sustain this blog.
So, calling that contestant “strange” last night – warning him, really, that his strangeness might trump his mighty skills – was just so revealing, saying so much more than intended. It is of course his strangeness that makes him a great dancer. I don’t doubt that, really. Being that kind of dancer means a lot of genetic chance, sure, but it mostly means an insane obsession with perfecting precise physical moves. It means undertaking that obsession without the big paycheck or fame promise one gets with, say, doing the same with a sport. Strange? Yes. Unexpected? Hardly.
I say get your freaky selves on, dancers. Because you know you can’t really do it, really do it well and authentically and fabulously, without getting that self into the body, that body on the stage, and the body on stage in fullest presence and expression of self. Which just might be, always, a strange self.
Did I mention that I love this show? Anxieties and pharmakons aside, it is just fun and beautiful. How often can you say that about television?