On the May 28 episode of So You Think You Can Dance, a dancer named Anthony Bryant’s audition offered an unfortunately clear case study for how gender policing works and why humility is a privilege.
Let’s be honest, SYTYCD is not exactly a bastion of social justice to begin with. Their treatment of “Ribbon Boy” is far from unique in terms of sexist incidents on the show. And don’t even get me started on the apparent glee with which the costume department partakes in racial stereotypes, appropriation and orientalizing. Oof.
BUT. I am a sucker for the dancing, so I still occasionally catch myself watching the show. We all have guilty pleasures. Mine, unfortunately, led me to witness some pretty explicit gender discrimination.
Anthony Bryant had auditioned in past years, including with this ribbon dance, which Nigel Lithgoe, SYTYCD producer, judge, and chief of the gender police force, deemed “not masculine enough.”
This year, Anthony delivered a stunning audition piece, presenting the judges with undeniable skill, body control, artistry, and talent. I’m no television dance competition judge, but to my untrained eye this was an equisite work of art, and certainly strong enough to earn him a ticket to the callbacks in Las Vegas. Instead, the judges told him he was brilliant but needlessly strange, and yellow-lighted him for choreography. Anthony replied, “Oh. I actually don’t want to continue then.”
The show made him out to be a drama queen, ignored any legitimate reasons he might have had for refusing to go through choreography, and even encouraged viewers to make fun of him on social media using the hashtag #inawhilecrocodile.
So You Think You Can Dance in general, and producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe specifically, constantly repeats the idea that women dancers must be feminine and male dancers must be masculine. Choreography that juxtaposes the “manly” and the “feminine” (in the narrowest sense) is exhalted, and individual dancers are praised for their adherence to traditional gender roles.
The reactions to Anthony are no exception to this rule. The judges object to his “dress” costume as being too weird. In their flashback of past years we see explicit gender policing as Nigel informs him outright that the reason they aren’t choosing him is that he isn’t masculine enough. When he speaks out against this criticism, the show mocks him by echoing the word “ribbon” (ribbon, ribbon).
And as if that weren’t enough, in the very next segment, the judges make fun of a guy wearing high heels. “I loved your dancing… from the waist up.” In the past, the judges have also denigrated partner dancers who didn’t follow a male/female pairing. As part of a dance community that consciously rejects gendered dance roles, that irks me.
Look, SYTYCD is a TV show, but it’s also a job. It’s the promise of a steady gig for a year or more if you can make it into the final ten and go on tour. That means this gender-based discrimination isn’t just hurting the dancers’ feelings; it’s hurting their job prospects.
The privilege to be humble:
Shortly after Anthony’s audition, they had an audition from another brilliant male dancer, whom they equally praised. They told him they were sending him to choreography, and when he accepted without a fuss, they gave him a ticket to Vegas and explained they were just making a point about how important it is to be humble.
As Peggy McIntosh pointed out over 20 years ago in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“ (which is a classic and you should read it right now), it is a privilege not to need to question whether something negative in your life is caused by bigotry. This other dancer, the “humble” one, had never been subjected to the judges’ antagonization about gender presentation, and thus had no reason to suspect their judgement was based on anything except his skill.
Let’s explain this with an overwrought analogy: Your sense of self worth is a glass of cool, sweet water in your hands. This water gives you life! Then, someone tells you it’s muddy, there’s debris in it, it’s no good. People who live near creeks, rivers, aquifers, can afford to dump that water out without too much thought- there’s more around. But if you live in a desert, you’re gonna take a damn close look at that water yourself to decide whether it’s ACTUALLY potable before just taking someone’s word for it and pouring it on the ground.
Let’s not underestimate the bravery it takes to insist upon your self worth when a world full of bigots continually shames you, denies you employment (as in this case), calls you a freak, and threatens your safety for a part of your identity that hurts no one. When you’re facing discrimination you don’t have the privilege of being humble, because no one is going to stand up for your value unless you do it for yourself.
When people tell you to be humble, they’re really telling you to accept their oppression. They’re wrong. And like Anthony, you shouldn’t listen to them.