Monday, May 25, 2009

So You Think You Can Dance and NOT be heterosexist? Not a chance.

[image is from]

I'm a gay man.

One of the things that most means in my life is not that "I have sex with men" (I don't; I don't have sex with anyone) but rather that I stand--with lesbians, Two Spirit people, SGL folks, transgendered and intersex individuals, and other gay men, primarily--in a political-social-cultural place that is steeped in heterosexist violence which is part and parcel of the society in which I live. I have no expectation that this embedded pillar of racist patriarchal culture will be collapsing any time soon. But I also won't turn that lack of expectation into any form of resignation or apathy when encountering overtly heterosexist values and behavior.

While watching the first episode of the new season of So You Think You Can Dance this past week, something occurred which I had been hoping would happen since I first learned about the program existing: a same-sex couple auditioned to win a spot (well, two spots) in the final selection of dancers who will comprise this season's contestants. SYTYCD is a profoundly heterosexist program, as are all programs on TV featuring stage-floor dancing competitions; in the news this week was a story about a junior high school that is using thoroughly heterosexist ballroom dancing to get students more engaged with school, both socially and academically. It appears to be working well for some students, and will likely do additional harm to those of us who are queer youth, who are forced to dance with members of "the opposite sex". Why girls can't dance with girls, and boys with boys, is a question that has no reasonable answer from the dominant society; there are only bigoted answers, and cowardly ones.

About twenty minutes before the first two-hour premiere show ended, two white men came out (no pun intended) to perform as no two men had yet performed before SYTYCD's panel of judges, a panel that would determine their fate in terms of their progress on to the next round. Fox--the network/conglomerate, not the animal--has power. Judges, whether behind a courtroom bench or seated in groups of three or four at a table on television, have power. The kind of power they have is to reinforce social codes and conditions which make liberation for some oppressed people more or less possible, more or less likely. They can, as a part of dominant media, break new ground or fill in any foundational cracks with new concrete making sure the cracks don't deepen.

Two white men, one gay, one not, came onto the stage and performed a well-rehearsed piece, which was presented to three judges in an effort to advance to the next round of preliminary judging. The comments they got back were so outrageously heterosexist, so completely anti-lesbian and anti-gay, so utterly misogynist and masculinist, that I was stunned and furious. I, the gay man who has no expectation that heterosexism will be significantly weakened as a political force, was stunned and furious. (I'm glad that was my response; it means I have still have a political pulse.)

In case you're among the people who don't watch network TV, SYTYCD is the cooler cousin of ABC's "Dancing With The Stars". Unlike DWTS, SYTYCD actually embraces amazing and beautiful forms of dance that come from the street, not just the styles taught and practiced for decades in Western civilisation's studios and dance halls. Current contemporary forms ignored or ridiculed by "[white heterosexist male supremacist] dance purists" are embraced much more on this newer, hipper program. This show's success, in fact, has forced DWTS to loosen up a bit and welcome a more varied palette of dance styles into its own program, but on ABC these forms only show up in special segments, not as part of the general, week-to-week competition.

Same-sex dancing has occurred on SYTYCD in seasons past. But the way that the choreographers and judges portray "two women" dancing together, or "two men" dancing together, is always through a firmly set heterosexual lens. There's never "homosexual" eroticism or overt sexual attraction conveyed in the dances, unless you find two men "battling" sexy, which I do not. So when the show allows, just very occasionally, for two women or two men to pair up and perform, the assumption that they must be heterosexual is unambiguously established in the story of the dance created by the choreographers. What do two women have to express to one another in dance? Most likely a mother-daughter theme, or some sort of asexual sisterly affection. What are two men allowed to express? Feelings of competition and aggression. Girls can get along in dance numbers, and boys can fight. Those are the rules. When Fox appears to go way over the line, it might actually allow two women to show a bit of aggression, and men a bit of tenderness, but never to the point that we can think there might be "something sexual" going on between the two.

After the white male couple performed a competent if not spectacular routine, the judges displayed a level of befuddlement and confusion that seemed preposterously staged to me; they were, to put it bluntly, behaving incredibly stupidly. They had on their faces expression akin to those found on G.W. Bush and D. Cheney's face when they contemplate foreign policy that doesn't include bombing people of color. (Huh? You mean there IS foreign policy that isn't genocidal?!)

The judges, two white-appearing women and one distinctly white (and requisitely British) man, "didn't get it" or "couldn't follow it". What is it about two same-sex people dancing together that renders the judges emotionally illiterate? (The same question applies, of course, to the expectation placed on pairs with one woman and one man: why is their performance always presuming the impossibility of sexual interest existing between them?)

I went through a brief phase, when dancing at queer clubs, of refusing to dance with women, unless as part of a larger group. But in any pair situation, I would only dance with men. For most the heterosexist readers who come here, you probably know what I'm talking about: I was employing a similar standard that you do when you dance "only" with someone who is allegedly opposite to you sexually. Well, not the same standards exactly. Yours are socially supported and celebrated, if horrendously oppressive to women, while also compulsory and mandatory. Lesbian and gay standards, if not heterosexual that is, are not supported, and are the opposite of compulsory and mandatory. They are, in other words, forbidden or looked upon with disdain. Many queer-bashers often linger outside queer dance clubs and bars, only partly to get a kind of sex they consciously deny they want. Whether same-sex encounters happen or not, the gay- or lesbian-identified person--before, during, or after a sex act takes place--is too often beaten within an inch of their lives, as soon as the queer-basher remembers what their social function is: to police gender and instill terror in any queer person who doesn't wish to embrace heterosexuality as a normal or natural phenomenon. (And we thought all men just fall asleep after sexual encounters. If only.)

I won't take enough time here to consider the plight of the transgendered, intersex, and asexual dancers and choreographers, and members of the larger society. But suffice it to say there's no room at the Dance Hall Inn for any of "them".

I ended this phase because I realised it was silly: the way two men dance together is often grossly heterosexist (and masculinist) and can mimic, while not exactly replicating, the way many heterosexual men dance with a woman. (I must note that too often these men disregard women's rights of physical integrity by using such occasions to cop feels, overtly grope, and invasively press erections against bodies of uncomfortable females.) I'm not making this up: the women who come from the clubs tell me what they just endured, feeling they have no right to expect that they should actually be able to go out in a mixed gender club and have fun without being fondled and frisked by men who don't care about them as actual human beings.

But watching SYTYCD made me want to re-employ this policy, just as a form of cultural protest. I wanted to boycott watching the program, but know I won't. I really like the show, in many ways. But if the link above works, try and access the first program online, and jump to the last half hour of the two-hour show and watch how the judges mishandle an opportunity to help the viewing largely heterosexist audience understand that two men dancing together can be neither masculine nor feminine, don't have to be masculine or feminine, and write them an email reminding them that telling all male dances to be masculine, and all female dancers to be feminine--as they understand those terms--is profoundly and dangerously racist, misogynist, and heterosexist.