Dancing With The Stars As Political Metaphor

You probably heard something about North Korea bombing a South Korean island, killing two people and bringing the countries closer to war than at any time since the end of the Korean War.  But the American media doesn’t care about that.  So, since you probably won’t hear much about it in the coming days, let me tell you how this will play out.  South Korea will make idle threats.  The United States and Japan will condemn North Korea.  China will protect North Korea from any real retribution.  The United States, Japan, and South Korea will look weak and impotent.  New six-nation talks will be called for (Russia will be the sixth nation.)  Money will be secretly exchanged in the North Korean direction.  The talks will be held but called off by the North Koreans early in the process.  The insane, suicidal North Korean regime will continue, and the North Korean people will suffer.  Then the North Korean government will run out of money and bomb South Korea again.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Now to get back to something the American media cares about…

On Tuesday night Jennifer Grey won Dancing with the Stars.  Bristol Palin did not win on Dancing with the Stars.  The latter statement is far more significant.  For the past three months, Dancing with the Stars has become a stand-in for the political fractures in American society.

I have a confession to make.  I do not like Dancing with the Stars.  The title is deliberately misleading.  There are no “stars” on that show.  There are musicians, actors, entertainers, athletes, models, and random famous people who dance with professional ballroom dancers.  None of these non-dancers are in the public eye anymore, and some never were.  If the title were accurate the show would be called “Dancing with People Who Wish to Recapture the Spotlight”.  Any actual stars who appear on the show are the musical guest stars (some famous, some flavor of the week) that ABC gets to perform on elimination nights.

I have a second confession to make.  I like watching people dance.  When talented people are able to express themselves with their bodies in a graceful way the effect is heart stopping.  I love watching the old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and it isn’t for the ridiculous, paper-thin plots.  For that reason, even though I hate the show, I watch clips on YouTube of the performers who are actually good.  This season I watched Jennifer Grey, she of Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame.  There were honestly times I could not tell whether she or her partner was the professional.  I am sure part of that was the choreography, but it was also her talent.  (It’s probably inherited.  Her father is Joel Grey of Cabaret fame and her grandfather was the bandleader Mickey Katz.)

In the past I have watched clips of some other excellent celebrities, especially Kristi Yamaguchi.  The celebrity who moved me the most was Marlee Matlin. Her technique was far from pristine, but she is a very talented actress; she could convey emotion with her body in a way that most cannot.  When she danced the Viennese Waltz to Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman,” I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.  I was not the only one; one of the judges broke down and cried.  It was a stunning performance.  What makes Jennifer Grey great is that she is both actress and dancer.  She has the technique, and she can convey the emotion.  I have watched each of her dances.  Multiple times.

I always thought Dancing with the Stars got their whole premise wrong.  Some fans complain about the show using “ringers,” but I would prefer seeing more stars who are trained dancers.  I think it would have been great if the show existed decades ago.  Can you imagine a show where the stars were Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, Donald O’Connor, Debby Reynolds, and so on and so forth?  I am not sure who would today’s Astaire or Kelly, but there are certainly celebrities with dancing backgrounds.  Bebe Neuwirth and Kristin Chenoweth?  Madonna?  Perhaps Chita Rivera would come out of retirement.  (Maybe after a Broadway performer is a guest on the horror that is Glee, he or she can sign up for Dancing with the Stars.)  The joy would come from seeing great performers make great art rather than seeing mediocrities dance tepid tangos.  Judging and choosing a winner would be much harder when everyone is spectacular.

Which brings me to Bristol Palin.  I cannot think of a more cynical move on ABC’s part than asking Bristol Palin to be on the show.  The network was trying to capitalize on Sarah Palin’s fame, and they succeeded.  At the outset, I confess that I don’t like Sarah Palin (Like most of America, I have no opinion of Bristol whatsoever.)  Her battle against the “elites” smacks of anti-intellectualism.  She is a toxic, ignorant, shallow, vicious Know-Nothing who is even more cynical than ABC.  She preys on people’s fears and personal demons for money and her own fame.  Woe to this country if she becomes President.

Bristol was nothing more than her political prop, as all politicians’ families are merely props for political campaigns (I include Sasha and Malia Obama, Chelsea Clinton, and Jenna and Barbara Bush in this statement.)  Knowing this, ABC gambled that any Palin would come with a built-in audience/fan base.   Bristol Palin is a star in the same way that Paris Hilton is a star–in other words, not at all.  The people who voted for her do not know anything about her other than the whole Levi Johnson love child debacle.  To her fans (if that is the right word), Bristol was a stand-in for her mother, and they were voting for Sarah Palin.  It was a proxy vote: Bristol Palin for the trophy = Sarah Palin for President.  People suspected this weeks ago, but it was not confirmed until last week when Bristol beat out former television/singing performer Brandy (Norwood), who was far superior in every possible way.  So of course the political left got involved and voted against Bristol because voting against Bristol was a vote against her mother.  Jennifer Grey won; Bristol came in third.

Jennifer Grey deserved to win, which was the popular assessment since Week 1.  No dancer on that show has been as good as her.  Nevertheless, the whole experience leaves a nasty taste.  ABC was the real winner because people watched its tacky show.  But in the process, it brought to family television (not journalism or opinion television) the already raging political and cultural war that is being waged across this country.

The media, across the board, continues to exacerbate these tensions solely for ratings.  Bristol Palin is not a star; she’s a prop.  Her mother, possibly the most divisive figure in the country, is the star.  Every time Bristol Palin appeared on stage, she was a stand-in for her mother.  Every vote for Bristol or against her was a vote for or against her mother.  I have no idea what Bristol got out of this, but I know what ABC and her mother did.  ABC got television money.  Sarah Palin got even more exposure.  One television show was not enough; Dancing with the Stars gave her a second one.  She is also a contributor to Fox News.  She has a new book out.  The rest of the media covers everything she does.  And I feel dirty because I wrote about her.

In the meantime, North and South Korea are on the verge of war, and the European Union is facing serious financial issues…

Music I listened to: Robert Schumann “Fantasy Pieces, Op. 12” No. 3, No. 5, No.7; Billy Joel “She’s Always a Woman”.


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