Tube Tied: Dancing With the Stars and the Notion of the Has-Been

Jennifer Grey with partner Derek Hough.I wonder if there truly is any fate more depressing than ending up as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. I've only watched the show intermittently over the years—usually under duress, because someone else had laid claim to the remote control—mostly because I get embarrassed for the participants. I hide my eyes when they misstep, and when their smiles falter while the judges offer them harsh criticism, or when I can see the feigned indifference of their shrugs when the scores come up. I'm not claiming to be nicer than anyone who enjoys this show, mind you, but there's a quality to watching it that bothers me, namely the gleeful schadenfreude of watching people cling to fame with expensively manicured hands. After all, I'm not much convinced anyone watches the show for the dancing; it is built on the conceit that the talent can be taught, and well, maybe it can, but I think it isn't likely, for most of us, as late in life as these people are. And in any event, were these "stars" more successful at it, the learning to dance I mean, I suspect the show would be less popular.

The "stars," after all, of the title, are has-beens, and that's no surprise to anyone, it's explicitly part of the show's allure. The show basically winks it at you. And although there's usually, from what I can tell, gender parity among the contestants, it's curious that the people on the show who seem to garner the most derisive commentary, the ones people resent the most as "talentless," are women. It's not that all of the female "stars" are hated, of course, just that the ones that are receive scoldings of a very particular level of fury. Last season, for example, a "grassroots" campaign arose to "Free Tony" Dovolani, who was partnered with former "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" "star" Kate Gosselin. Gosselin, according to the tabloid narrative, was insufficiently grateful for the "opportunity" that DWtS had granted her, didn't smile and say please and thank you, I guess, for the opportunity to become an object of national snickering, and to do this sort of thing to raise money for her family. And this season, most of the muttering I've been hearing has been about Bristol Palin who, as of this writing, is still in the running, although Joy Behar of The View has been advancing the theory that her longevity owes to Tea Party callers. True or not, it all seems a little mean, and mean in a gendered way, to me.

Admittedly, these people get paid to do this, and many of them are what the Internet likes to call "famewhores." No one's holding a gun to their heads as they form their humiliating two-person conga lines. They're making a little money, a few of them do genuinely seem to enjoy it, and the harm is intangible at best. It's not like anyone physically or economically suffers as a result of appearing on this show, and there are, of course, bigger fish in the world to fry. But personally speaking, I have a hard time reconciling what feels like the meanness of the overall enterprise with personal principle. I am admittedly a critic myself, and I'm not averse to negativity, when your target and your method are well chosen. But just plain making fun, or revelling in the desperation of others—it seems unfair. And, as I said, kind of anti-feminist.

I think you could do a reading of DWtS that took a different approach, of course. Take, for example, what I find particularly tragic about this season: the presence of Jennifer Grey. The media narrative is that, week after week (though not this one), she's sauntering in and winning, to the point where the rest of the cast is annoyed with her. You could call it a vindication, I suppose. She's been parked in a Hollywood garage somewhere, for so long, that I even wonder if younger readers of this blog will intuitively know who she is. (Is renting Dirty Dancing still a sleepover standard?) In any event, she looks very different now, and her old dancing partner is dead, and both she and I are a lot older than we once were, and it's hard to forget about that, watching her do this sad echo of what made her famous. And no matter how good her performances have been, it won't be the same. And I feel bad for her, because in a way, I can understand the appeal of what she's done here, even dancing to some of the same songs from the movie. But the fact that she's one of the few people on this show who once had a real glory makes it all the harder to watch her do the ersatz, crass, product-placed version. Because it almost seems like she's forgotten that most of her audience is thinking about how much better she used to dance.

by Michelle Dean
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10 Comments Have Been Posted


As you admit, you don't watch the show, so I question why you're so critical? I do watch, and I watch for the dancing. I watch because it is gratifying to see people who haven't done this before actually learn to do it. People can get up and dance at any point in life - maybe not become pros, but enjoy themselves. I thought the criticism of Kate Gosselin's parenting during the show was very harsh, but not so much the criticism of her dancing. Nor do I think criticism of Bristol's dancing is too harsh. She's not just not good, but she forgets the steps. And Florence Henderson was sent home this week instead of her - a 76 year old woman who was not just the "old" person on the show - she was GOOD. And lack of fame? Florence Henderson, Kurt Warner, Rick Fox, just on this season. What about the Pussy Cat Doll at the height of her career? The point is - and is often made - that many of these people are still working and do have active lives. Honestly, this post doesn't even seem to be about the same show that I'm watching.

Margaret Cho

Actually, Margaret Cho still has a career. I saw her maybe a week or two before the show started. Everyone else, for the most part, needs the boost.

Margaret, Oui

Now that she's gone, I have one less reason to stop on DWtS while channelsurfing. IMO as well she's mid-career, not a has-been. I think she's been under a lot of mainstream folks' radar for a long time, not so much broke it big and then dropped off the radar (which is what I more commonly think of as becoming a "has-been"). I also appreciated her candidness in talking about not having been the typical pretty girl and wanting to take on dancing as a challenge. It seemed like more than the 'prove to America that I can dance' line that contestants have used in the past.

Also Florence Henderson, like Cloris Leachman, IMO has had a long and successful career already, that it's cool to see her do pretty much whatever she wants. I don't think of either of them in a famemongering light.


Hmmmm, as soon as I saw Margaret Cho on DWTS my first thought was, <em>"OMG, her career is actually over."</em> She's jumped the shark.

Kate Gosselin

I don't watch DWtS and I never watched Kate Gosselin's show, so perhaps I have no right / no basis to comment on either of them. However, I did feel badly for her when she appeared on DWtS because of the way she was being treated -- sure, she's made mistakes, but haven't we all? And yes, she might be a bitch, but her character is what the media makes it -- and haven't we all been bitchy at some point? I didn't understand what made her so unappealing and the target of so much hate. And to be critical of someone because they're talented, as you mentioned some folks are angry at Jennifer Grey for being good at what she does -- that's no excuse, and we should be able to recognize envy when we feel it. A lot of this reminds me of high school, actually... All of this is one of the big reasons why I don't watch reality competition shows. That, and they're simply vehicles to advertise, advertise, advertise. Gack.


The irony here is that whether you agree with the judges or not, their criticism and praise is based on actually watching the performances.

If you want to base your opinion on intermittent watching and entertainment blogs, go ahead, but I don't call that feminist or pop culture criticism--I call it lazy.

And while I question whether you've made your case that the show is anti-feminist, what I do find anti-feminist is when someone takes her opinion and suggests that everyone else thinks like that.

The author's intent was not

The author's intent was not to make an exhaustive study of the show (that would be tantamount to that horrid sciene in Clockwork Orange) or to critique the dancing--the latter, at least was a tangential issue. The point is to talk about how the show operates mainly through schadenfreude by choosing controversial "stars" or those that have not been on the A or even B list for awhile or ever.

In any case, I agree in that I find the show cringe-worthy. I like to watch good dancing like that on So You Think You Can Dance or that MTV dance crew show. And it is pretty sad to see celebrities of 10 to 20 years ago on the show. Perhaps others can wax nostalgic about them, but seeing these faded stars is pretty damned depressing.

I'm really not even sure

I'm really not even sure where to begin with this post. I enjoy most bitch postings, but I think that much of the well-reasoned arguments you make are watered down by a) your admission you rarely watch the show; b) your incorrect assertion that all of the participating "stars" are dimming; c) no one watches the show for the aesthetics of the dancing.

To the first point, as a critical blogger myself, the idea of critiquing something that I have no familiarity with makes little sense to me. How can you hope to convey your ideas and opinions if the subject is one you admit right away to have little knowledge of? You might have pulled it off if you had said something to the effect of, "Having rarely watched the show itself but nevertheless finding myself bombarded by an endless onslaught of commentary from entertainment blogs, tabloids and newscasters, I can only conclude..." That, I think, would have kept some of the criticism of this particular blog post at bay.

Secondly, while "Dancing with the Stars" certainly seemed to be the final destination where careers go to die when it began, we're 11 seasons later and I think that this cast might be the one that such an accusation just doesn't make sense. To your point, look at Bristol Palin. I don't know why she's considered a "star" (oh, yeah, that guest spot on "Secret Life of an American Teen Mom"--that's what it's called, right??) but nobody can say her time in the spotlight is ending. She graces tabloid covers every week, something that began during her mother's presidential campaign and has never let up. I gripe every time the show calls her a teen activist (usually screaming at the screen, "You mean PROPAGANDIST!") but if we determine star simply by staying power in the spotlight, Palin fits the bill.

Finally, a number of fans do watch the show for the value of the dance. As someone that generally despises reality TV, I wouldn't label myself a fan (especially since I only just started watching this season) but I do tune in every week now, and it's for the choreography. As a former dancer who had dreams of going professional but had feet that couldn't, I could not possibly care less about which celebrity is actually on the show. I care about the dances the pros come up with and the technique delivered by the couples, and watching a person with two left feet ultimately develop into a soft shoe, which I do think is more common than most people think. A number of dancers do have natural talent, and this is what keeps them interested in the activity long-term. But there are many who didn't, who worked at it, and have become great. This isn't the case for everyone, and there are some people who will never be even decent, despite how hard they try, like myself and, frankly, Palin. That Henderson was voted off before her may be political, or it may be due to ageism. Who knows?

While I would never argue that "DWtS" is an embodiment of Feminist ideals, but to hold the show accountable for the cultural attitudes abounding outside of it as striking against women seems, well, kind of intellectually misguided to me.


I'm curious about the notion that because someone is no longer at the peak of their career, their beauty, or their childbearing years, they are not worthy of attention. That seems to support a competitive model in which only those who are at the top should be seen and heard.

Dancing with the Stars is quite consistent about honoring grace, sexiness, and beauty that transcend the usual pop culture standards. This isn't done in a patronizing way, but in a way that reminds the audience to look beyond the glitter that usually passes for star quality.

I find it refreshing that 20-year-old Bristol Palin isn't pushed to wear outfits that are too skimpy for her comfort zone and that 75-year-old Florence Henderson can shock the judges with her raunchy routine. This to me honors the feminist value that each woman can decide for herself how she wants to display her sexuality and sensuality.

And let us not forget that in much of our world, young men who embrace any form of graceful dance form have a pretty hard time being considered "masculine." If just one young man is safer pursuing ballroom dancing because a "has-been" Superbowl quarterback shows that it's OK, that would be great.

I second what others have

I second what others have said, feeling troubled by your narrow interpretation of a show I love and watch (and <a href="">write recaps for at I Fry Mine In Butter</a>). Most people who watch the show love ballroom dancing and there are some magical transcendent moments of dance that happen, if you let put down your snobbery about it.

There are valid points and critiques in this post, about the double-standards and treatment of women on the show (as well as gender stereotypes and mixing of both camp and heteronormativity), but unfortunately they are lost because of not enough DWTS expertise to speak with authenticity (not just authority) on the matter.

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