The radical politics of “Dancing With the Stars”

The show unites right-wingers and gay-rights advocates -- and may be the most subversive show on TV

Topics: Dancing With the Stars, Television,

A chorus of boos seems to rise up in the presence of Sarah Palin — and America wants to believe. A teen mom gets in a pitch for abstinence. An outspoken comic declares: “It’s a tough time for the gay community. A lot of gay teenagers have committed suicide, so we want this to end now.” Welcome to the most insidiously political television show on the air — “Dancing With the Stars.”

Somewhere in all of the D-list rump shaking, the sparkliest series outside of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has become strangely meaningful. The show, which has showcased such unlikely hoofers as Tom DeLay and Kate Gosselin in its five years on the air, took a statement-laden turn right from its first week of this season, when Bristol Palin shimmied out of a gray suit to the strains of “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” Adolescent desire. Parental restriction. Metaphor! Then last week, as Bristol boogied  to — continued metaphor alert! — “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Mama herself showed up. And when the former governor of Alaska’s appearance seemed to coincide with the audience’s vocal disapproval of Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough’s scores from the judges, the press had a field day reporting that Sarah Palin had been jeered by a throng of politically outraged ballroom dance aficionados. But it was this week’s “storytelling” episode, rife with sequins and The Situation as it was, that sealed the show’s status as the embodiment of everything America cares about and stands for, circa late 2010.



Like a Fourth of July baseball game played with apple pie, Monday evening had Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson, dancing to a song from “The Sound of Music.” There was reality star and profession abdomen The Situation, getting funky to the Black Eyed Peas. There were quarterback Kurt Warner and the kid from “Corey in the House.” “Teen activist” Bristol Palin danced something about paying attention to the homeless, and Audrina Patridge waltzed with a dead Marine. War, what is it good for? And through it all, there was the Gay Agenda, made palatable for grandmas everywhere with rainbows and foxtrots and pure, undistilled camp. I’d like to believe that every time a viewer agrees with Bruno Tonioli’s judgment of a performance, a gay couple’s adoption goes through.

And when the indomitable Margaret Cho, yellow feathers in her hair and a rainbow dress cut down to there, said her story this week was about “pride” and “coming out,” it could not have been more poignantly timed.  On the one hand, one could argue that mixing “Copacabana” and teen suicide is a bit of a stretch. But Cho’s flamboyant, defiant performance proved “Dancing With the Stars” isn’t just about dancing: It’s about having the platform to say something to a captive, Barry Manilow-loving audience. Or as Bruno put it: “I praise you for waving the rainbow flag. Keep waving it, girl!” That’s why a “DWTS” audience might boo its judges, but not Sarah Palin. A “DWTS” audience is generous like that. And while television viewers may march in different rallies and choose their opposing heroes and villains on the nightly news, there’s nothing like a few crazy costumes and a little ridiculousness to cut through the divisiveness and tap-dance into our hearts.

When I look at Bristol Palin and see a young, awkward girl whose mama told her not to come, I can’t demonize her — no matter how much I disagree with her abstinence-only rhetoric. And likewise, maybe if someone who feels strongly about “traditional marriage” can enjoy Margaret Cho’s rainbow confetti cannon, there’s a chance of a little less homophobia in the world.

America was founded on the promise that this is the place where we can let in ideas that are different, where we can be open to possibility, and where Jennifer Grey can dress up like a naughty schoolmarm. That dream is never more evident than in a show that is as loud, tacky, and as eminently good-spirited as the best aspects of our national character. And when there is so much that divides our country every day, there’s something touching and hopeful about the notion that for a few hours a week, there is still one thing that can unite us. One nation, under a “stars”-spangled banner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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