So You Think You Know Beauty Gender Norms?

2010 August 9

Despite my own documented inadequacies in the moving-in-time-with-music arena, I can’t resist the summer guilty pleasure that is FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance? Actually, the fact that I’ve had the idea for a post about the show’s illustration of social gender norms on my mind for a couple of weeks now clearly takes SYTYCD? out of the realm of bubble gum entertainment and into valuable research, yes?  Or so I tell myself as I pout about the impossibility of ever executing a perfect jete in this lifetime.

The show  has undergone multiple format and judging changes this year, but the most interesting part of the season for me has been the gender disparity, the recalibrations this has prompted and the subtle but important object lesson about masculine behavioral norms that’s been evident in the voting. The female dancers were picked off quite quickly (Lauren being the one holdout), but this isn’t particularly surprising. Although, with fewer finalists this year, the drop-off seemed more dramatic and has made for some interesting choreographic challenges as it relates to developing guy/guy routines that are intended to be firmly heterosexual at all costs (to varying degrees of success). The popular assumption when it comes to reality shows involving audience voting is that it’s young female viewers who hold the sway and that said young female viewers largely prefer attractive male contestants to ones from their own cohort. The results don’t always bear this out, but the trope persists. In the case of SYTYCD?, front runner Kent seems almost as if he were custom-manufactured in a lab (the same one that produced Justin Bieber perhaps) to appeal to young female voters in just the right way – cute, but not too cute, wide-eyed, from a wholesome small-town family, respectful of the judges and tooth-achingly earnest.

While Kent’s popularity surprised no one (thankfully, he’s a decent dancer), the judges seemed downright baffled by the inability of other male contestants to find a similar following. When early fave Billy was eventually dismissed, judge Nigel Lythgoe (he doubles as the show’s executive producer) speculated that America never warmed up to his “androgyny,” as if he were a dancing David Bowie and not simply a very talented but not overtly masculine performer of which the show has had legions over its seven season run. The judging panel was more stymied by the failure of contestant Robert to catch on with the audience. A great dancer, ridiculously handsome by any conventional standard and seemingly a hard worker and generally nice guy. How was this not a recipe for success? And yet, Robert ended up in the bottom three for weeks on end, leaving the judges scratching their heads at why America wasn’t voting for the hot guy with the right moves.

Eventually, their lavish and obvious praise paid off and Robert managed to pick up steam with the voting public*, but, by then, I’d had the source of the audience disconnect pegged for weeks. Robert wasn’t playing his part. He wasn’t  treating his good looks with the self-awareness and gravity that we expect from men of his level of attractiveness, straight or gay. Instead of comporting himself in a manner that acknowledged his genetic good fortune, he acted like your goofy 12 year-old brother who forgot to take his Ritalin and this both confused and annoyed America. It’s obvious that he knows he’s possessed of a matinee idol appearance and takes some care in his grooming and presentation, so why the hell won’t he just man up and get with the script? Good-looking men aren’t supposed to duck the power that their looks afford them, they’re supposed to inhabit it, embrace it, if not wield it as a tool of outright social assertiveness (George Clooney is a total pro at this). To do otherwise, isn’t simply flouting convention (for that we can look to Brad Pitt’s penchant for hobo beards or Joaquin Phoenix’s penchant for hobo everything), it marks the perpetrator as one who  lacks canniness, shrewdness, a mature sense of how the world is and the ambition to use all of his assets to conquer it. And who’s gonna vote for that?

Of course, it’s exactly the opposite for women. If men assert, women must signal. You learn to embody or approximate the traits that encapsulate heterosexual female beauty at this moment (always subject to change, bien sur)  and wait for that tag to be bestowed on you for a job well done.  It’s not only perfectly acceptable for a woman to be seemingly unaware of her beauty, it’s actually the societal preference. Recently, someone told me I was cute and not only was I cute, but that the cutest thing about me was that I had no idea how cute I really was. In essence, I was being lauded for not only conforming to a socially acceptable standard of attractiveness, but, more importantly, for appearing to be ignorant of this standard and my conformity to it. Exactly what doesn’t fly for the menfolk. And if you are rewarded for ignorance (in that it adds to your demure allure), you are punished for knowingness, both when it comes to beauty and to the assertion of other power traits (intelligence for example). I could (and did in the first draft) go into a long-winded discussion around the media treatment of Angelina Jolie and Hillary Clinton as typical of this paradigm, but in the interests of brevity, just name-dropping them more or less allows you to connect those dots for yourself.

Bottom line? Whether it relates to beauty, brains or a host of other traits, men are aware, while women are oblivious (but not so oblivious that they don’t make an effort!). And both are punished for defying convention and refusing to play their parts, in the form of reality show vote tallies or otherwise.

*This coincided with host Cat Deeley mentioning that he was celebrating a birthday that week and would be turning 20. Once America figured out that this guy had been  just 19 throughout the majority of the competition (despite looking a heckuva lot older), I think they were more inclined to cut him some slack on not yet having fully grasped the implicit lessons around the bearing and knowingness that masculine beauty demands.

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