Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"So You Think You Can Dance" and the Renormalization of the Male-Heterosexual-Dancer Identity

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the role that schools play as sites for the (re)production of the normalized narratives surrounding socially constructed gender identities, and one counter-narrative force found in the mainstream television culture that functions partially to expose certain aspects of these socially constructed identities.

I will begin by recounting the personal narrative that brought me to consider the subject matter of this essay. For the past five summers, the Fox television network has featured a "reality" dance competition series called, "So You Think You Can Dance?" (SYTYCD). My initially exposure to this series came in the summer of 2008, during the show's fourth season, followed by the Australian version of the show that aired in the winter of 2009. But it was not until the currently airing season (summer 2009 in the US) that the following question struck me: regarding the male participants in the show, why do a disproportionate number (as compared to the overall US population) seem to self-identify as homosexual? Is there something inherent in the genetic makeup of homosexual males that makes them have a predisposition towards dance and human expression through bodily motion? Certainly not, as even the thought of that question seems a bit ridiculous. But yet, the observational data - at least as far as SYTYCD presents material for observation - does suggest that the percentage of male dancers that are homosexual is much higher than the percentage of males that are homosexual in the general population. What might explain this observation?

The "breakthrough" insight -- and the connection to the notion of the social construction of (gender) identity -- came with the profile and back-story of one male contestant that participated in earlier rounds of the current season. This male contestant, who appeared to self-identify as a homosexual, discussed the pressures he faced in high school, as the athletically-built son of the high school football coach, to play football instead of pursuing his own interest in and passion for dance. Fortunately he was able to battle the pressure to play football, and, with the eventual support of his father the coach, pursue his interest in dance, progress through the initial rounds of the current season of SYTYCD, only to be cut before reaching the Top 20. To reconnect this male dancer's story to the topic of this essay, the insight generated from his story came in the form of the following realization: There must be quite a few male althletes (irregardless of sexual orientation) out there on the fields and courts that would make wonderful dancers, but that, due to the pressures on males to play "traditional manly sports," are never able to even consider dancing as an activity, hobby, or even career.

But at this point we must ask, How does this connect to the observation that a disproportionate percentage of male dancers are homosexual? I would hypothesize that perhaps male homosexuals are already aware that they do not, cannot, will not, and/or refuse to fit into and conform to aspects of the currently dominant socially constructed narrative surrounding male gender identity, and are therefore in a position that makes it easier to resist and reject the social pressures to only play the "traditional manly sports". It could be that a certain percentage of all males, regardless of sexual orientation and apart from social pressures in one direction or another, have some sort of predisposition that is connected to an interest in dance and self-expression through bodily movement. The difference may come, however, when societal pressures are introduced that define what are "appropriate" and "inappropriate" physical activities for "normal" (heterosexual) males to engage in. If one wants to be seen as a "normal" (heterosexual) male, and "normal" (heterosexual) males - according to the socially constructed gender identity - do not associate themselves with the realm of dance, then, regardless of natural disposition towards creative expression through bodily movement, dance will be rejected as an "inappropriate" activity for the socially "normal" male to engage in.

Let us now reengage the discussion thus far with the question of the role that schools play as sites for the (re)production of the normalized narrative surrounding socially constructed gender identity. Educators and administrators in the K-12 arena should be aware of how the structure of the schooling experience -- in general as well as in regards to physical activities, sports, and "arts" education -- functions to reproduce the normalized (and socially constructed) male gender identity as described above. How do sporting opportunities and other extracurricular activities function to embody and reproduce the normalized, socially constructed gender identity? Do we think of certain activities and sports as "appropriate" or "inappropriate" for either boys and/or girls? Why? How is it that the structure of the schooling experience - particularly in high school - (re)creates as desirable the ideal archetypal forms of the all-star male athlete and the sexually attractive female cheerleader? How do we, as individual educators, administrators, and policy makers, contribute to the (re)production of the normalized, socially constructed gender identities? What "acts of resistance" can we take in order to work towards dismantling the rigid bonds of these socially constructed identities so that our male and female students may be more free to pursue their natural inclinations and interests?

As we reach the conclusion of this essay, perhaps the final question asked above can benefit from a closer look at the counter-narrative embodied in "So You Think You Can Dance?". In the structure and composition of the show, indirectly and directly (particularly in the comments of on-air judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe), the (counter-)narrative that is continually (re)produced is that dance, in all of its myriad of forms, is appropriate for all human beings - irrespective of gender or sexual orientation - as both a form of human expression through body movement and as a social activity that brings people together in the physicality of the embodied human experience. In this sense, the very title of the show itself ("So You Think You Can Dance?") is an invitatory question that beckons all who hear it to participate in one way or another - even if just by watching and enjoying the show - in the universally human activity of dance.