You’d be forgiven if, like me, you spent several years avoiding ABC’s ballroom dancing contest show, Dancing With the Stars. It belongs to that saccharine genre of reality show geared toward “families,” which usually means it’s sterilized and scrubbed until there’s nothing left to either like or be offended by. It’s a cousin of the ready-to-be-euthanized American Idol. Its pen pal is the British show Britain’s Got Talent, which gave us Susan Boyle. This genre has a lot to make up for.
But one night not long ago I caught the 13th Season on Hulu. The moment I was hooked came in week three, when J.R. Martinez, a former All My Children actor who had served in the Iraq War. (SPOILER ALERT: Martinez won last night). When he was 19, his Humvee hit an IED. It burned half his face, and on the show he’d already talked about his 32 surgeries. On this episode, he dedicated a Viennese Waltz to all of the soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Watching it, my pasta turned into a soggy mess on the stove because I was a soggy mess on the couch, crying into my pillow like my dog had just died. This country struggles to admit that we’ve killed untold American men and women in two pointless, endless wars, but here that point was driven home during a cheesy dance show.
That’s how it goes with much of the show. Broken into a performance night that airs every Monday and a results night with live music and professional dance that airs on Tuesday, it’s easy to imagine families designing their week around it. Unlike Idol, it doesn’t get cheap laughs from being mean. It’s so sweet that trying to dislike it feels like punching a baby in the face. This is especially the case during the feel-good spotlight dances aired four times a season, when the audience is introduced to a young person who’s had his or her life changed by dance. This year, we met a cancer survivor, four high school boys teased for loving ballet, and a young woman who grew up in Compton, California, and paid for college after she toured with Madonna.
The show would feel coated with treacle if it were always like this. There are a healthy number of contestants who've triumphed over adversity in their lives, but on the dance floor they’re usually less successful. Carson Kressley, the fashion guru from Bravo’s long-cancelled Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, said as much when he was voted off the show in week five. “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is having the courage to say, ‘Yeah I’m going to do it,’” he said. “And maybe you’re not the greatest at it. But you’ve done something that you never imagined you could do, because it encouraged you to try other new things.”
Kressley’s performance, though, also showed how “Dancing With the Stars” pushes buttons in a quiet way. There’s something about the rigid gender roles in ballroom dancing that allows contestants to break them easily and, surprisingly, the audience for the Disney-owned ABC show cheers them when they do. Masculinity is assessed on the show on a sliding scale. Football stars—from Emmitt Smith to Hines Ward—consistently win. This year Rob Kardashian, the bro-ish younger brother from his family’s reality show, played the role of what would normally be the skeptical dude who’d scoff at wearing ribbons. But for the most part, he didn’t. Kressley, on the other hand, worried that he wouldn’t be masculine enough. But he made the performances his own, and developed a real, friendly chemistry with his partner.
It worked less well for women, namely Gold-medal-holding soccer star, Hope Solo. Hope is tall, muscular, and lean, and the judges routinely criticized her—she lacked “musicality,” she lacked “fluidity”—all code-words for “femininity.” She attacked the dance floor as if it were a court, and she had a hard time fighting against this impulse. The week she was voted out, one week before the finale, she said to one of the hosts, Brooke Burke Charvet, “I’m fierce! Let me be fierce.”
Still, there’s hope. Chaz Bono, who, of course, very publicly entered his life as Sonny and Cher’s daughter Chastity, persisted through week six despite being a genuinely terrible dancer, fueled only by goodwill and grace. His entry into the contest had drawn a backlash from conservatives even before the show began, but ABC didn’t cave, and Bono’s probably done more for transgendered rights in a single season of television than anyone imagined he could. When he exited, he told host Tom Bergeron, “I came on this show because I wanted to show America a different kind of man,” he said to 10 million Americans. “I know if there was somebody like me on TV when I was growing up, my life would have been different.” Bergeron replied, “You get all tens for that my friend. All tens for that."