Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hope Solo, on her toes

Could they please just let her dance in flats? That's what I thought as I watched Hope Solo fight her way through a jive in high-heeled converse sneakers. Letting Solo dance in flats would make this whole Dancing With the Stars thing less anxiety provoking. Who isn't worried about her turning her ankle? Those joints are of national importance! 

I have been so preoccupied by her feet I've scarcely noticed this season's gender drama.

A few bloggers have already critiqued the big deal the program makes about Solo's strength and her struggle to get what reads as feminine grace into her movement. One judge couldn't help himself, and declared that Solo has "thighs that could crack a walnut." He basically called her a ball-breaker. Before we make a federal case of this, let's remember: This is Dancing with the Stars.

Everybody on that show is in drag. All contestants whose personae are at odds with ballroom comportment appear to be at sixes and sevens with their own bodies. This is especially true for certain kinds of athletes - those for whom appearing to float, for example, might go against everything they know about their bodies. Exit Metta (formerly known as Ron Artest).

Although this season features entertainment royalty transman Chaz Bono and the Queerest Eye for the Straight Guy Carson Kressley (whom we all hoped would be allowed to dance with a man), the most explicit gender panic has fallen on Hope Solo's magnificent shoulders.

Solo, stepping over her partner.
Much is made of Solo's musculature and power. There are lots of jokes about who is stronger, Solo or her sleek bear of a partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy. He quite visibly thrills at being so near to a woman who can top him.  This was the explicit content of their last dance number, in which he basically plays her water-boy. The number opens with her shoving Maksim to the ground and then stepping over him with those high-heeled shoes.

Hope Solo must surely be up there with Anna Kournikova, now, as the woman guys would most like to lose to. Steve Nash, for example, is on board for the ride. 

EA knows that we like watching women beat men. They seem to know, in fact, that men like watching men be dominated by women. In very contained forums.

Dancing with the Stars is an interesting case, for although men and women compete directly against each other, that competition is mediated by their partners - and also by the fact that they are all competing as intensely unnatural, stylized versions of really specific embodiments of femininity and masculinity. It makes interesting television.

What makes Solo's presence interesting television is the fact that her physical power and ability allows for the pleasures of the spectacle of female domination to be played out with her dance partner in particular ways. Is this the week when Solo plays it like a Bond girl? Is this the week she elbows Maksim Chmerkovsky in the face? Or is this the week she does both?

Solo can move, she makes nice lines out of herself, and she is tireless. She partners well with Maksim: they both have a physical style, and it will be interesting to see how they explore their collaboration. Watching them dance, it is hard to see who leads. She seems to push him back - and I suspect their choreography will work best when they go with that tension. Even if they are awkward, they are a genuinely sexy couple precisely because they seem to be constantly negotiating who is leading whom.

Theatrical play with the idea of female domination is a staple of Dancing with the Stars choreography. Over and over again, a dance arcs from combat to submission, as one seduces the other. As the producers of the show make a big deal out of Solo's athleticism and physicality, they help create the script for her performance - a context for reading this pair's dynamic.

The judges help us to understand, too, that a successful performance of one's gendered role here is an intensely regulated physical performance.

People who play this particular game straight don't do well. This is especially true for the male dancers, who are always at risk of becoming little more than props. Chaz (son to Cher, the world's most famous Drag Queen) and Carson (pioneer gender coach) both know this, and thus have the sense of the showmanship required for the male dancer to be even visible when paired with a woman dressed like a trashy Tinkerbell.

An athlete like Solo will have such a different relation to her body than most of the women who appear on the program. Her movement is rooted in years of practice - it has a physical economy. How she knows where her center of gravity is, how she turns a foot, or claims the space around her - this is all developed through a body keyed to a purpose - that purpose being the opposite of feminine comportment. She is agile - a goalkeeper is usually the most athletic, most agile player on a team. But she is solid: she is not a bowl of cream, a cloud, a feather - to cite the language used by the judges to describe those dancers who successfully perform ballroom grace. But she will also understand her movement, her bearing as technical - the rehearsal footage is interesting, for the ways that she and Maksim talk to each other. (M: "What are you looking at, when you have your head down like that?" H:"The ball at my opponent's feet.")

I can roll with the gender drama played out around Solo. But I also can't help but wonder if what we are seeing is a general working-though of the nervousness people feel when confronted by a woman whose unnerving confidence is not anchored by her spectacular beauty.

I don't see Solo as compromising herself by playing with what she can do in this media format. I would rather the show play her strength and athleticism up than play it down.

Her appearance on Dancing with the Stars seems to be of a piece with a multi-platform attack on the public consciousness, in which USWNT players appear in contexts that embrace their athleticism - that, in fact, treat them as athletes without, however, losing sight of the interest-value that attends to almost all female athletes. By which I don't mean their femininity - but rather the way that the image of the female athletes surfaces gender itself as a thing.

Sports Center has been producing amusing ads around the USWNT. These bits play with soccer and gender drama. Take this video, in which a pre-haircut Abby Wambach responds to a hallway "dive."

Part of its humor is her cold indifference to his shouts of pain. He's the wuss here, and it's a woman who is calling him out on it. (Abby Wambach's importance to the team also means that the team can't be represented only by its more girlish players - much as the media would love to edit boyish players from the picture, they can't - and the public doesn't want them to.)

In another "This is Sports Center" spot, Solo and Alex Morgan play keepie-uppie with the Miami Dolphins mascot. Their vibe is ruined by anchor Stuart Scott, who plays the part of that guy:

The problem here is the man who thinks he can keep up with the women and the dolphin. Which is to say that gender isn't the main problem: it's the sense of authority that a sports anchor has in relation to the game - a sense of authority that he loses the minute he tries to enter into it. One can't help but wonder if he feels entitled to enter into this conversation because he underestimates the skill required by it. Gender might have something to do with that - not because the players are women, but because the sportscaster's sense of entitlement is rooted in little more than his masculinity. The joke, in other words, is on patriarchy. And there is a real pleasure to watching Scott participate in making that joke.

Gender enters into the story of Dancing with the Stars because the competition is only a few degrees shy of RuPaul's Drag Race: It is completely fair for the producers and the judges to underscore the ways in which various performers struggle to channel the light footed nobility of Fred Astaire and easy grace of Ginger Rogers, and to use a language of masculinity and femininity in offering their critiques.

It would be nice, however, if dancers had the option of playing their part in a cute pair of ballet slippers.
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