The danger of Operation Bristol
November 16th, 2010
Bristol Palin is not a star. She is a girl who is the daughter of an influential politician, one that sharply polarizes the American public.
So her inclusion on Dancing with the Stars seemed contrived to me. Yes, DWTS has had political figures in the past – generally conservative Republicans – but they were of sufficient accomplishment to be considered public figures in their own right. Bristol, on the other hand, is only known for her mother’s political activism and only distinguishable from her siblings due to an unplanned pregnancy.
But televisions shows thrive from attention, and having Bristol Palin participate certainly does appeal to some viewers. So fine, let her dance.
I don’t hold Bristol’s parentage against her. I certainly don’t wish to be judged by the opinions of my relatives. We should give her the chance to prove her grace, agility, courage, connection and commitment and if she is the better dancer she should get our support.
But the problem with Bristol is that her support seems not to be based on the merits of her dancing, but rather on the merits of who she is.
And lets be real. Bristol Palin’s dance performances have been consistently lower in quality than those competitors who have been eliminated. Yes, she has improved and this week she was pretty good. But it isn’t her technique or entertainment value or “musicality” that has brought her back week after week.
By now, many of us have become aware of the gloating of social conservatives over Bristol’s continued presence on the show. Tea Party activists, and others, have touted what they call Operation Bristol, an effort to get viewers to ignore the dancing and vote for Bristol to “send a message” and flex their political power.
This week the show addressed the persistent rumors that Tea Party and other conservative watchers have been giving their votes to Bristol as a political statement in support of her mother. Bristol denied that motivation, offering her own:
“No offense to anyone else, but I’m not fake,” Bristol said in one of her pre-dance interviews. “People connect with me because they feel I’m real and I’m not typical Hollywood.”
But this is less of a denial than it is a rephrasing, use of a social code and terminology that would appeal to her supporters. It is an appeal not to blatant partisanship, per se, but to social divide: the “real” people v. the “Hollywood” elites. It is a form of class warfare that pits rural “values” against anyone that isn’t “like us.” This is the realm in which Rush Limbaugh excels – the division of people based on gut-level, but poorly defined, distinctions.
Nor does the language seem accidental or coincidental. Last week, entertainment gossip reporters were attributing nearly the same words to Sarah Palin.
“Sarah is making it very clear that she wants Bristol to win,” a show insider tells me, adding that Palin is tickled by the idea of taking votes away from the more “Hollywood liberal types” on the show.
“This is her chance to get even and show all those Democrats that a regular girl with conservative values and common sense” can win it all.
And, should anyone wonder, those who support equality for gay people (or who question continued institutionalize discrimination based on race, gender roles, or other identifiers) are “elites” and “Hollywood types” and not “real.” In fact, contempt for “Hollywood” is one of the central themes of anti-gay activists and those who object to entertainment’s embrace of gay people and lack of enthusiasm for religious conservatism.
It is no accident that all of Bristol’s competitors are “Hollywood.” This is not, after all, Dancing with the Common Folk. It is without question that Bristol sees herself in a different category from the other dancers, one that holds different perspectives and different social values.
And it is to those values that she appealed, in language that the “real” folk understand. Sending Operation Bristol into high gear.
And it may well put her into the finals – or even make her the winner.
But it also may kill the show. Few people – including “real” folk – want to watch a television entertainment show which evaluates and elevates competitors based on their political ideologies. And those in which class warfare determines support tend to eventually only have as viewers those who support the winning ideology and then, as “winning” becomes pointless, no one at all.
The producers of Dancing with the Stars gambled with Bristol Palin. By selecting someone whose “star” status was based solely on her political relationships, they may have drawn in some new viewers. But they may have also unleashed a dragon that they cannot control.
UPDATE: Talented dancer Brandi was kicked off the show by Operation Bristol. Rush Limbaugh has been gloating. Those who see the world strictly through the prism of the Culture War care little about merit or ability and are delighting that “their side” is shoving it to the “Hollywood Left.” It’s a rather sad reflection on the state of things.
I predict that Dancing With the Stars will lose ratings in the next season as people become disillusioned with the manipulation by producers and by partisan shenanigans.