Game, Narrative, and Bristol Palin in ‘Dancing With the Stars’

I know that I usually just talk about video games in this blog, but I feel compelled to address Dancing With the Stars here anyway. Largely, this is due to the game-like qualities of the show, which is obviously a competition of sorts leaning more towards sport, perhaps, than the kind of games that I usually address. However, it seems to me that there are so many odd intersections of sport, performance (of several sorts, physical as well as more intellectual or emotive forms of performance), aesthetics, and even narrative that I feel that I need to unpack the odd mildly interactive experience that is the Dancing With the Stars phenomenon.

Additionally, Dancing With the Stars feels like a kind of game within a game, since what motivates its “players” seems a game only tangentially related to the competition that they are a part of. As Dancing With the Stars draws its competitors from a pool of “celebrities” (of varying qualities of fame, leaning often enough more towards a leaner form of notability than not), there seems some interest on the part of the performers in using the show as a means of playing at something else that at least resembles a game, public relations and marketing (especially of the self in this instance).

Dancing With the Stars has gathered its celebrity casts from a broad variety of occupations that require some ability to capture the attention of the public eye. Actors and actresses, models, athletes, reality television personalities, musicians, stand up comics, and even politicians have graced the stage, assumedly with some interest in being a part of a dance competition for reasons beyond merely thinking that getting a crash course in ballroom dance and then demonstrating those hastily acquired skills to millions would be a whole lot of fun.

Washed up actors seek to get their name and image back in the public consciousness, while actresses newer to the mediums of television or film might seek a kind of introduction to same. Some musical performers are promoting an album that is about to drop. I think that athletes here may be seeking to increase the possibility of more endorsements by drumming up interest in their personalities and personae. Some here simply seek redemption in the court of public opinion, a certain reality star that made an appearance last season comes to mind as does a politician from a few back, both of whom have made some effort to shake it on the dance floor to possibly humanize themselves.

This metagame shares some qualities with the “real” game of the competition itself. This is a show that requires athletic and aesthetic performance that is then evaluated by experts. Scores from the three judges matter but so too do votes from the public at large that augment those scores and determine who will be eliminated from week to week, and while it might be nice to think that voting in the show is an evaluation of the dance performances alone, it is clear that focusing on execution of a dance routine is not a sufficient strategy for winning the competition. Swirling around the performances themselves are all kinds of layers of “competition” that players in the grander game must be mindful of.

For example, the video clips that proceed a performance, showing how a competitor prepared for the dance this week alongside their professional partner, seems significant as well in determining votes from the audience. Someone who acts like a crybaby while learning a difficult dance may benefit from audience sympathy, as we witness them struggling to succeed, or may cost a competitor votes if they appear especially petulant. Now these stars don’t fully control these images, as editors have arranged clips representing these bits of “backgrounding” of dance preparations and have done so with the thought of constructing a narrative of sorts about that celebrity. Nevertheless, what folks say and do during these bits have to matter to folks at home. At least, given that any number of clearly awful dancers have somehow managed to survive in the competition far longer than their actual dance acumen should allow for, seems to clearly demonstrate the truth of this idea. Working the ol’ charisma muscles helps, alongside a few other tactics.

Being funny, introducing your four loving kids, or getting a little too personal with the attractive pro (when the audience knows you have a wife of 18 years) can have some ability to draw viewers in or repulse them. While edited, being aware of their performance on camera in these “personal” moments should be handled with care by the stars. Likewise, the same rules apply to the follow up “debriefing” interviews with Brooke Burke (or previously, Samantha Harris) as the competitor and pro wait for their scores. Brattiness can hurt here, humbleness or some self deprecating humor may help. Of course, the inverse is true as well. Sometimes audiences hold on to rotten dancers merely to witness the train wreck of their performance or personality on television. This may or may not aid one in the larger metagame (evidence that you can win the hearts of an adoring public that might carry over into better gigs), but it may keep that face out there that much longer, which may be equally valuable.

Again though, many qualities of the game and the fickle voting public exist independently of persona management and dance skill. Certainly, some folks have pre-established fan bases, and indeed, the professional dancers that make up the regular cast of the show have become celebrities in their own right (in many cases, this celebrity may even be greater than that possessed by the “star” that they are dancing with, or at least, may be less fleeting than that of a Bachelorette). Being paired with more popular dancers helps and that dancer’s behavior is also going to effect the overall chances of receiving votes as well (Is Louie being generally sorta creepy again? Derek is pretty iconically all American, but he does get those grabby hands sometimes, doesn’t he?).

Costuming (too skimpy or too prudish?), fighting through an injury, or just dancing to a particularly appropriate or popular song, all of these have the potential for swaying votes. Not all of them are manageable by the “player”, but when they are managed fairly well and a few of the right cards fall into place, you may in the long run and the metagame just score yourself a gig as spokesperson for a Weight Watchers campaign despite your lack of real dance skill.

All of which brings me to the real issue that has me thinking about narratives and metanarratives, games and metagames, image management and lucky breaks in Dancing With the Stars. Very simply put that is: Bristol Palin.

What is she doing here? Okay, that’s not actually what I mean to ask, but it is definitely related.

Basically, this is a game, and I generally know why the players are here to play. This one is troubling though given the nature of the game and what motivates the player of such a game.

Bristol seems fairly unique in the history of Dancing With the Stars (which I sometimes refer to as Dancing With Someone That You May Have Heard Of At Some Point or Other), given that as lackluster as some of the shows “stars” might be, she really is a celebrity of a very different sort. All of these folks are in the public eye by choice. Bristol is the subject of a scandal, only in the public eye because she is related to someone who has some celebrity.

Now, this may, of course, answer my question about what she is doing here to some degree. Certainly, Bristol may exist as part of a larger PR machine, though I’m not clear what the take away for that machine is here. Bristol’s presence is supposed to show the elder Palin’s pride in her daughter, despite scandal? Or, it is supposed to promote a teen abstinence advocacy program that Bristol is being associated with heading up (though a comment from Bristol in one episode on the weirdness of being on television, since she has been serving as a receptionist recently kind of muddles the idea of clear association with such a group)? This is supposed to show that young women in Bristol’s circumstance are still vital social creatures?

The message of Bristol’s narrative is confusing, as is its strategic qualities, as is its end goal. In the first episode in which Bristol performed, Bristol was costumed like her mother in a jacket and skirt before revealing a red hot cha cha cha dress, replete with fringe and appropriate shimmying. This moment made me uneasy. I can’t quite figure out what it is intended to signify, though it clearly does signify (there’s a doubling with her mom, a sexual reveal, but what does this mean put together?). Too many weird narratives revolve around this performance that seem contradictory and a bit cruel.

Notable overall is the cultural narrative that suggests that American culture has shifted in relation to the concept of unwed mothers. Gone are the days of arguing whether Murphy Brown is a good or bad role model for wanting to embrace single motherhood and a career when a woman who became pregnant in her teens can still acceptably shake it on Dancing With the Stars. Yet, in Bristol’s first two performances on the show, the musical accompaniment for her dances were ironic “jokes” at the expense of Bristol that are also especially moralizing in their tone. “Mama told me not to come / That ain’t the way to have fun” was crooned throughout her first performance, while “But Mama said / You can’t hurry love / No, you just have to wait” was the refrain of the second. Seriously?

Which is she, empowered teen or soiled dove? In either case, the 19-year-old has been infantilized by this perverse choice of songs.


Which really brings me to the question that I really want to ask because I assume that a 19-year-old single mother is an adult, why is Bristol herself playing this game? Awash in weird signification, I don’t know how any of this plays in terms of getting votes, staying on the show, or improving her image with her audience. But what is to be gained by the game for her at all?

I get these other players and what they want, how it is to their benefit as performers, be they musical, dramatic, or political, but what image does Bristol want to sell and why sell one at all? I’m not sure that allowing production or her mother or her handlers or whoever has some interest in this game to send confused messages about who she is is useful to the cause that she has been associated with, to her mother’s political career, or anything at all.

It just feels like bad play for a player that has no clear stake in the outcome of the game.