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Equal Opportunity Knocks

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by Tom Steward

If there’s one thing Dancing with the Stars is in dire need of – apart from a decent house band, a competent co-host and, y’know, stars – it’s an equal opportunities seminar. I don’t know how many sensitivity courses you’ve been on, but they’ll all tell you (and if they don’t you should) that equality isn’t about treating everyone the same. One of the best teachers I ever had, the film writer and sociologist Richard Dyer, once explained equality to me using male and female public toilets. Men rush in and out, while women take longer. So while giving men and women a bathroom each with the same number of facilities might superficially seem to be giving them identical resources, the sexes are not being treated equally.

I'll give it 5.

I’ll give it 5.

This struck me two seasons ago when Judge Len Goodman told contestant Amy Purdy, who has prosthetic limbs below both knees, that he was going to score her like everyone else in the competition, and that she’d prefer it that way. For the entire competition, Purdy was judged against able-bodied dancers (and Billy Dee Williams) rather than on a scale of achievement that befitted her unique body type. It wouldn’t have been easy for the judges, especially as Purdy herself kept changing the rules of what was possible with her body week by week, but they never had any intention of taking her different abilities into account. To not even attempt this, and to assume Purdy wanted this kind of judging, is to ignore equality.

The Judges have continued to score disabled contestants in this fashion, even when they are physically prevented from competing at the same level as the other dancers. This season features Noah Galloway, who has both his left leg and arm missing. While the Judges are happy to gush and cry for the cameras over Galloway’s overcoming of the odds (and he’s a veteran too, so nothing but conspicuous sentimentality will do), they give him decidedly average scores, reminding us that that they are painting two more limbs on his body in their minds. The Judges’ rhetoric seems to have some idea of how equality works. Carrie Ann Inaba talked of how Galloway ‘challenged’ her judging. But there’s no evidence of this in the competition itself.

But Dancing with the Stars is already a show that seems designed to give Shami Chakrabarti nightmares. It asks people of different ages, genders, bodies and professional dance experience to compete against each other, with no consideration given to how there should be different judging criteria for each group. Doubtless there is some ideological undercurrent of the cream rising to the top regardless of adversity here and whoever said entertainment was a level playing field? However, if the show wishes to bask in the glory of giving a national TV platform to minorities and a diverse range of people (as it has referred to itself doing on several occasions) it cannot simply work around the fact that democracy is just as much about positive discrimination.

I’ve talked about the show’s objectification of female bodies before – and it’s getting no better – but in recent weeks we’ve actually seen feminist perspectives on Dancing with the Stars being written off live on air as ‘cyber-bullying’. Contestant Charlotte McKinney received harsh criticism and, let’s face it, personal abuse from social media after the star of sexist Carl’s Jr. commercials appeared in the season premiere. Her experience was the basis of the pre-dance ‘package’ (although why we have to all use the industry term here, I don’t know) in Week 2 and following her dance, the negative Twitter comments read-out on air were all dismissed as body jealousy by the judges Julianna Hough and Bruno Tonioli and then as body fascism by co-host Erin Andrews.

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Benny Hill guest-judges on DWTS!

Now, I’m not saying that the sinister forces of the internet comments feed weren’t at work here and I don’t approve of targeting someone who is as much a victim of the sexist culture as the women it leaves out (as opposed to, say, the people who sit down and write the Carl’s Jr ads). That said, it’s clear to me that many of those comments, however personally directed they were, were aimed at McKinney’s participation in advertising that demeans and degrades women, and to disregard all the criticism directed at her as troll-grudge is to silence a protest against television’s ongoing celebration of women as sexual objects. Dancing with the Stars cannot continue to swim in these choppy waters without changing its body politics.

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No Sets Please, We’re British

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV advertising with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by Tom Steward

There are endless reasons why I’m happy to be with G but I’ve always been especially grateful that she’s not an Anglophile or fangirl of British pop culture. I find G’s nonplussed reaction to most things British, including accents and the sights of London, oddly comforting.  I suppose it’s just reassuring to know that it’s me she interested in not my country of origin. I say this because you Americans are obsessed with us Brits. Actually, it’s truer to say you’re obsessed with what you think we are. American television is fanning the fires of this fascination like a Pudding Lane bake-off…and you can’t get more British than that!

There’s not a show I’ve seen on American TV that doesn’t either have in it a British performer or someone pretending to be British, often both given the lax standards of background research for writing British characters. It doesn’t even have to be a show. Various American companies have British spokespeople and mascots in their TV advertising. Why am I not flattered? Because the fascination somehow never extends to actually finding out what the diverse and varied life and culture of Britain is like. Instead it’s an incredibly narrow, dated and ignorant version of our national culture (royalty, the swinging sixties, Victorian cockneys) that is continually reproduced across American television.

A Cockney lizard is the Geico mascot…for some season!

I’m sure all non-Americans (even ethnic-Americans) and American minorities have much the same beef and I’m not saying the British have any special claim to reductive racial stereotyping on TV. It’s the inverse relationship between the interest taken and the research done that makes American TV’s obsession with the British so bemusing to me. Why go to the trouble of inorganically adding a British person to the cast of an American-set show or concept and then not do the requisite due diligence to give them a chance of convincing at what they’re supposed to be?

A cynical answer would be that Americans know so little about Britain that TV viewers wouldn’t know the difference. But why then are Brits so prominently placed in American television as leads or major supporting characters, presenters and stars, and commercial representatives? Why are we not marginalised like so many other nationalities that American TV knows next to nothing about?

‘You make one more crack about pocket-rocket and I’ll paddle you!’

There are doubtless innumerable political and historical reasons for this (the need to keep us arcane and aristocratic seems pretty closely related to an age-old American view of the British as colonisers from the old world) but in the superficial now I think it has a lot to do with Britain being a major producer and exporter of TV to an extent not seen before. The US, traditionally a powerhouse of global TV distribution, has to find methods of coping with this new threat and slotting British actors and characters into TV shows (often for no good story reason) seems as good a way of joining the competition as any.

There’s also something about always having to laugh at or undermine British people appearing on TV that means however high up in the pecking order they are, their one-dimensionality will always be more important than their function. Think about how many American shows sacrifice character development for a couple of cheap shots at cross-cultural misidentification or excuses for vicarious swearing (the British obscenity ‘wanker’ frequently passes Broadcasting Standards unnoticed). On Dancing with the Stars, Len Goodman has been hired to impart his technical opinion on dancing, drum up the crowd and occasionally play the pantomime villain. Increasingly, however, he’s been there to provide British slang for the other presenters to mock.

The British wing of the CIA.

There’s a quieter British invasion going on (we don’t like to make a fuss) in TV casting. Most of your favourite American TV shows will boast British cast members, many or all passing as natives. I’ve never quite got over Mancunian Egg from This Life as an Atlantan sheriff’s deputy in The Walking Dead or Homeland’s marine double-agent Brody being as British as the head of the CIA. Often producers are calling on past prejudices about British actors to inject a note of taste but it’s also about an Anglicisation of the American acting workforce taking root over recent years.

All the way from Ian Fleming to yours truly, Brits have recognised that keeping your accent quiet is how to be taken seriously in America. British actors playing Americans may have blended in to TV without a trace but those who chose to wear Britishness on their sleeves will remain the rodeo clowns of television.

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