November 11, 2010

Dancing with Gender Norms

SR_20081011_100p By Sally Raskoff

Have you watched any of the Dancing with the Stars television shows? Or So You Think You Can Dance? Or any of the other dance reality competition shows? We’ve been enjoying them in my household for many reasons. My main source of joy rests with the shows’ reflections of our culture’s definitions of gender.

Gender norms include standards of behaviors and appearance that feed the traits we expect from each gender. Masculine men are supposed to be powerful and in charge while feminine women are supportive (of men) and passive yet sexy. Men are free to be sexually explorative while women are to both protect their sexuality (virginal) and perform sexually for their male partner(s). Men hold the power in society thus they are expected to strictly conform to these norms while women, who have less power, may be more free to vary or improvise their realities albeit within limits.


Let’s focus on Dancing with the Stars. On that show, the three-person panel of judges and the two hosts walk us through the competition in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers. Each season, the celebrities reflect a range of ages, ethnicities, entertainment industry niches, and start out with equal numbers of men and women. For example, there is typically an older person, a younger person, one or two in their 40s or 50s, with the rest in their 20s and 30s. Their professions range from musicians and singers to reality show characters, actors, and athletes. The competition consists of learning and performing new dances and gaining votes from the judges and viewers. Each week the couple with the lowest votes leaves the show.

Sociologically, the show is fascinating! From the judge’s scoring and comments to the way that the celebrities leave the program, it is a microcosm of our society’s culture.

From my observations over the past eleven seasons (yes, I’ve watched them all), the contestants who conform to traditional societal definitions of gender stay the longest and get the highest scores from the judges. While the judges are sometimes careful in their criticism of those who present less conformist images of their gender, they are clearly harsher with their judgment of their performances.

For example, if a woman doesn’t have an hourglass figure (hips and bust larger than the smaller waist) or a man doesn’t have the expected inverted triangle body shape (shoulders larger than the slimmer waist and hips), they do not often make it into the finals. They may also be more deeply criticized for lacking the correct ”form” of the dance since their body appearance defies expectations of what professional dancers typically look like.

The clothing reinforces traditional gender norms, as the women’s bodies are exposed while the men are fully clothed in suits. When the women wear costumes that are more revealing than usual, the male host or judges make comments, often growling or purring in approval. When the men dare show their chest, as some do to get viewers’ attention, the judges do not always approve. Len Goodman, head judge, often shows his dismay at such displays although he is the first to appreciate the scanty attire on the women.

The professional dancers all conform to the female hourglass and the male inverted triangle shapes. The men are much larger than the women and while the women are smaller, they are by no means less athletic. However, the women are lauded for their grace and elegance while the men for their power.
It isn’t mentioned or doesn’t seem to occur to many that the women are just as powerful in their body expression and are just as athletic as the men.

Sometimes the power of the women is demonstrated in the dance numbers in which they take on a dominatrix role (and dress the part in black leather) to subdue the men but, of course, that is embedded in a context of sexuality and sometimes ends with the tables turned and the man overpowering the woman. In episode 11 of season 11, Jennifer Grey (an actress) was chastised for being out of control and showing too much power while Rick Fox (an athlete) was complimented for showing a lot of power.

All the couples have been heterosexual pairings, and thus the show conforms to a heterosexual normative structure. When they do group dance routines, the couples may stay intact or the genders dance together but typically in relation to the other group.

The one show that I’ve seen vary from the heterosexual norm – sort of – is the latest seasons of So You Think You Can Dance. They have had some same-sex pairings do some types of contemporary or Broadway dance yet no ballroom dances. In the bloopers or failed auditions shown for comic relief they have shown dancers who have auditioned as same-sex couples doing more traditional couple dances. It is to their credit that they did include these on the air yet they often frame them as either comical or grossly incompetent.

While the competition is about an appreciation of the fun and difficulty of dance, the scoring seems tied to issues of body control, “musicality” or artistic movement, sex, and gender. If you watch who is eliminated and when, those without any body control are the first to go. I will not soon forget Master P in Season Two especially since it seems that he didn’t appear to want to dance at all.

It’s interesting to compare the bodies of the women who are professional dancers with those of the actresses who are contestants; the lack of stamina on the part of the actresses seems to suggest that physical strength and proper nutrition aren’t as valued in their profession as an extremely thin body is. Practices in one industry (low body weight in acting) may not foster success in a different albeit related industry (the athletics of dancing).

After weeks of dancing, some contestants undergo a physical change much akin to weight loss reality shows .. Some of these contestants lose some of their individuality as they gain these new dancing skills. One of the celebrities who experienced a personal transformation even came close to winning the competition: Joey Fatone who placed second in Season Four.

I’ve focused on gender, but social class and some other dimensions of our society come through loud and clear on these dancing shows. How does Dancing with the Stars reflect these and other sociological issues?


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It may interest you to hear that the producers of DWTS may be considering including a same sex couple for next season.,,20440874,00.html

This is a very well written blog by Sally Raskoff and she is right about how some dance shows are "microcosms of our society's culture." These shows show how our society values physical appearance, when it comes to being judged on how they the dancers look on stage and also how females should wear skimpy outfits to show off their sexy bodies, while men should keep covered up.

This article discusses the “norms” of gender roles represented in shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” such as that masculine men are portrayed as masculine and powerful in the dances, while the women are passive and supportive, while wearing skimpy outfits. This is a very common gender norm present in today’s society, the idea that woman’s role is to be supportive, while men take control. Another gender norm portrayed by dance reality competition shows like such, is that is acceptable for men to be sexually explorative while women are to protect their sexuality, yet still performing sexually. It is expected of many women to be sexual beings, yet if they act on their sexual urges and actions, they are judged for being unbecoming and unpure.

This article is about the norms of gender roles in dancing, It's stating the way the girls dress so they can show off their body while the guys wear clothes that cover their bodies. This is showing that the woman is being supportive while the man is taking control. This is a very common norm. Its even used on T.V shows like dance your a** off where the guys wear clothes that cover them but the woman wear clothes that show some skin. Another example would be so you think you can dance.

This article discusses the norms of gender roles in dancing shows such as "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance." The author states that the norms are very present in these types of shows because of the way that the contestants act and dress. As a frequent viewer of these shows, I would have to agree. The women are always represented as sex symbols. They were revealing costumes and are always told to act sexual and dance with passion. They also seem to be just there as support to the men. The men are always portrayed as very masculine, and are told they need to be in charge and take the lead. This is a direct representation of stereotypical sexual role norms. People always used to go by the rule that men were in charge and dominant, and women were only there for men's benefit. Although those thoughts have changed much over time, shows like these seem to take us right back those norms.

This was a very interesting read! It is interesting how much shows like this can represent the underlying beleifs of a culture. The women are not seen as attractive unless they are being controlled by their partner. Is this some sort of instinctive thing that has been carried on from thousands of years ago, or is it simply a product of socialization? Either way, the world is changing, the population is growind and becoming different. It's time for attitudes like this to start dying off.

I think what you said about "Dancing With the Stars" being a microcosm of our society's culture was very interesting. I noticed what you said about how if the contestants do not fit in to their gender norms, or norms set by professional dancers, that they do not score as well or make it as far in the show. Your example of how when women show more of their body than the standard they score higher, but when a male contestant shows more chest or wears more feminine clothingthey do not score as well. This is an example of the roles we are expected to play in society as males and females.

I have watched a couple episodes of Dancing with the stars and everyone I have turned off at the end and was just angry with what the judges or other viewers have said. I think that their comments because most have to do with the gender roles. I have seen men get yelled at for their outfits who were showing too much skin but the women will get praised for being half naked. They expect these "stars" to pick up dancing in the first couple weeks but don't try out themselves. I would like to see the judges get up and dance and wear those outfits and see how they would feel. It's easy to make comments about gender and other things when your onlooking but its different when your're actually out there.

I enjoyed how you said that the contestants seem to have conformed shapes. The women are more of the hourglass figures, where the men are more inverted triangular shaped. I think that Jennifer Grey, a women, was punished for being too over powering, but when Rick Fox, a man, was too over powering he was congratulated. This just seem very unfair.

I enjoyed reading your article tremendously. I agree with what you said, and in someways it bothers me. For both sexs. There is too much expected from us. Let people be who they want to be.

It is true that in dance, what people tend to believe to be gender norms are enhanced. It is true that in dance the man is usually the one in the lead, this suggests that his is in control and makes the decisions. The woman follows his lead and therefore suggests that women should listen and are their to follow their partner. Also gender roles are portrayed in the way that they dress. Men are mostly covered and women are portrayed as sexual objects.

This artical is touching on the topic of gender norms. On the dancing shows the men are strategically portrayed as the masculine powerful figure in contrast to the submissive graceful feminen partner. The idea of men being the leader while women are followers is suported in this view of primetime telvision.

I found your outlook on gender very interesting. My family tends to watch Dancing with the Stars too, however, we have never really picked out what you have now pointed out to me. On this show women are hourglasses and elegant. Men on this show must lead and be the one with power. The women almost seem to be delicate. Now that I can notice these things I will be able to point them out easier.
Thanks, Paige Kushion

It's interesting how much casual human eyes never notice such things, because it's such a norm in our everyday lives to see tiny woman flaunting their body. Even I didn't realize everything you pointed out to me, because seeing half-naked women and fully-clothed men is just normal to me. Getting voted off on Dancing with the Stars because of physical appearance would certainly be an informal sanction. It'd be a punishment for not doing what is expected of you, for the celebrity or professional dancer that dresses in ways the judges and society don't approve would make them a deviant.

Your view of gender stereotypes was very interesting, and the example you used of Dancing with the starts was very creative, I had never thought of comparing the two. I agree with what you say, and have also noticed how the judges seem to agree with more "traditional" standards and appearances.

I love watching these dancing shows! I most watch So You Think You Can Dance. Although in the dancing the typical stereotypes of males and females are fulfilled, I think it's great that the true personality of the dancers are what get them far. In one season, Comfort, a female hip hop dancer, was not what one would call a "girly-girl." She was rough and tough! But when she had to do a soft ballroom, supporting the male, she was able to pull it off. She made it very far in the competition because people voted for her and liked her. They saw the rough and tough and still voted for her even though she doesnt fit the idea of what a lady should be. The same is true for males. The last season, my favorite guy was Kent, a contemporary dancer. Off the stage, he was slightly feminine and sensitive, but if he was called to do a bull fighter dance, he'd be able to put on the bull fighting face. America saw both the powerful side and the soft side and still loved him. It seems that this show does emphasize the stereotypes through the dance styles and such, but it also supports males and females for however they truly are.

This post is really good, I agree with the post on how its bias depending on the looks of the dance. Judges do only pay attention on the looks and not on the actual dance. Some times the judges go too far on the criticism but the truth they were really good in the dance routine but they do not have the body. I think that the post should be read by everyone so that they know eh truth behind the show and the judges.

When it comes to competitions it is all about apperance. No one wants to admit that it is a big determinging factor, but it is the way that you look and present yourself that could be the cause of how far you make it on one of these shows. Everything that you have said has been proven right. For gender if the male does not have the square shoulders and slim waist he is critisized for not having the right form while the woman is the same for not having an hourglass figure. At the end of the day, in these sorts of competitions, it does not matter about your personality or your celebrity, it all comes down to how well you look and the way that you stick to gender and age norms.

I find that the older show participants don't do as well on the show as younger ones. Does that mean that the judges discriminate against younger contestants? Could ageism be to blame? As you mentioned, most of the constestants are in their 20s or 30s. I feel that implies that people over 40 aren't able to perform well on Dancing With the Stars, which of course isn't true. Dancers that are younger sometimes have much worse coordination skills than older dancers. Another point to bring up is that judges criticize and discriminate against men or women that don't conform with gender norms, such as Jennifer Grey for being too powerful, and give them lower scores.

You make very good points in your blog. I liked how you pointed out how these shows are hypocritical to the different gender. How being more traditional will get you the furthest.

I find your research to be very interesting because it points out the fact that men and women are specifically perceived in dancing shows the same way that society might see them. With the men dancing as strong and in control while the women dance very sexily and yet submissive. The way that you point out these qualities is just another example of how our society wants us to see gender roles and differences. Also, it's true that the women are showing off their bodies while the men are more covered up, making women seem more like an object through sex appeal.

This article shows that shows such as Dancing with the Stars closely follow America's gender norms when it comes to body image and how the contestants carry themselves. Men do far better on the show when the posses the triangle body style and the same goes for women when the posses the hourgalss body.

I have also watched a few of the episodes of " Dancing with the Stars". i have to agree, they are sexist when it comes to the starts clothing. They always have the girls in these partially see through top that are skin tight on them. While the men are fully clothed. The women are always described as being graceful and frowned upon for taking on a dominant attitude. While the men are expected to lead. I feel society should be more open to allowing women to take on the leading role. Not make them always follow the men.

Great read. I have to agree about the clothing deffinitly. I never really thought about how the final couple is always "attractive" in the wayy that we hold up body figures. Men traditionally lead the fmeals who are almost powerless in the dance, whereas the males dominate the flow. I think women really adjust how they dance to the males rather then the other way around. Having a same sex couple would be very interesting to see, and to hear how the judges react.

I have not thought of the show that way but now that you brought it up I see it as a breakthrough. Men who are the idols of our society putting themselves out there and trying to break gender norms by dancing. Not that dancing is strictly feminine, but it is more socially accepted for women to express themselves in that way. This example is a small step but breaking gender norms would be a huge step for mankind.

It will be very interesting to see what comes of a homosexual dance duo for a number of reasons. First of all, dancing involves many sensual undertones that will be interpreted very differently should they be done by say, two men. Another part is the minority effect. Would a homosexual couple be discriminated against on the show? Will the judges show prejudice? Even if they don’t, it may very well be that the couple makes it about their sexual orientation. This behavior was seen infamously in the O.J Simpson trials. Either way, a homosexual couple on Dancing with the Stars would be a great indicator of America’s perception on homosexuality. Are we ready for a gay president? I believe that monitoring how these sentiments change over time is important for all sociologists to do.

Women are meant to be beautiful and elegant. which is what they should show throught their dance. Whereas men are to be strong, and in control.
This is very much shown, and needed in dance.

Very interesting article. I'd love to hear your take on it through season 22. There have been some changes for sure.

Very interesting article and I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing!

It was great reading about the blog! really informative learnt a lot about dancing
as well as the gender norms that are attached with it!

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