Compiled by Special Correspondent Thea Lim, with Guest Contributors Robin Akimbo, Alaska B, Michelle Cho and Elisha Lim
For a show that’s had us raising our eyebrows over their representations of race, gender and sexuality for over a year, Season 4 of America’s Best Dance Crew (ABDC) kicked things up a notch by showcasing Vogue Evolution, an openly gay crew featuring a trans woman – on mainstream TV nonetheless. Yet representations on ABDC are often fraught with racism, homophobia and transphobia. And then Vogue Evolution (VE) got kicked off ABDC on Week 5, after judge Lil’ Mama attacked VE’s anchor (vogueing god and trans woman Leoimy Maldonado) for not being enough of a “lady” on Week 4 saying:
Leiomy, come on. Your behavior… it’s unacceptable…I just feel that you always have to remember your truth. You were born a man and you are becoming a woman. If you’re going to become a woman, act like a lady. Don’t be a bird, like ‘Oh my god, I’m not doing this!’ You know what I’m saying? It gets too crazy and it gets confusing. You’re doing this for America. Even though you’re the face for transgenders, you’re the face of America right now with this group and it’s not about anybody else. It’s about y’all. You know what I’m saying? So do it for the team. Do it for the team.
So I decided to get some of my queer community of colour together to figure out why ABDC works — and why it fails.
So why do you think Vogue Evolution decided to go on ABDC – considering how queer and trans folks are treated on TV?
Elisha: Leiomy from Vogue Evolution said three times that for her it wasn’t about winning, but about breaking barriers. So I went to check out their bio on MTV and here’s what they said:
This year, on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a new wave of revolutionaries is born. The historic House/ Ballroom scene, which dates back to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, has been on the cutting edge of pop culture since its commencement. Its ever present influence has been observed in American fashion, culture, and entertainment, yet mainstream audiences have yet to accredit the origins of this influence.
Our style has been replicated by so many people that do not execute the specific steps correctly,” says Dashuan Williams. “We as a crew selected the best from the scene to show the mainstream where it’s from.”
Thea: So it’s clear that VE were very explicit about using this platform to reclaim the roots of dance, so much of which originates from queer venues. So this big time reality TV show is willing to let a queer dance group be very open and political about their motivations.
Michelle: It’s pretty amazing in a lot of ways.
Thea: Yet representations wind up being skewed.
Michelle: I have to say that as soon as I saw that they were being featured I was terrified for what the commentary was going to be.
Thea: So why did MTV have them on the show? Because MTV is sooo invested in queer culture?
Robin: It’s reality tv, and Vogue Evolution are sick dancers, MTV’d be stupid not to include them…but MTV sensationalizes VE’s personal experiences, they become “entertaining” points for the typical mainstream audience of nuclear couch sitting families.
Alaska: I think that the [reality] nature of the show both helped and hindered VE’s goals. The reality aspect allows competitors their identities: queer, trans, fat-positive etc…But the sensationalist aspect of also hinders their style.
Robin: It’s about exposure. But there is the consensual exposure of their talents, and then the presumably less consensual evaluations and opinions of the insensitive judges.
Michelle: Ugghhh….the judges. They’re awful and make me wanna hurl everytime.
Do you want to talk about little bit about the Lil’ Mama scandal?*
Alaska: I think Lil Mama directly caused their elimination.
Elisha: Wow! That’s interesting. How?
Alaska: Well they had never been into the bottom two until she called Leoimy out.
Robin: I find it really unbelievable that a crew can come onto a show and declare the foundation of their work being about exclusion – from the fashion world, from racial class barriers (Vogueing in the ’80’s) and being ostracized for their gender and orientation – and then go on ABDC only to be constantly “othered” in the exact same way. MTV made a circus out of Vogue Evolution sometimes.
Elisha: True. What about the unfair way that their “clips” started getting skewered? (Note: Lil Mama told Leiomy off after a clip was shown of Leiomy apparently throwing “temper tantrums” on set. ) Suddenly the clips started portraying Leiomy Maldonado as a selfish narcissist who almost sabotages her group, instead of as a transgendered black woman facing the most homophobic, transphobic, racist public scrutiny. I think that hurt them a lot.
Michelle: Not to mention the fact that Leoimy’s trans identity has nothing to do with her dance skills. It’s not like any other group gets put on trial in that way, where their dancing ability is conflated with other issues about their identity.
Alaska: So to start the trans boogey man myth up in the audience’s minds seem to influence a lack of votes. Once VE were put into the bottom two, and demoralized by the scandal, their performance was actually pretty mediocre compared to early in the series.
Michelle: Most definitely. They looked so defeated in the following episode and really didn’t have the best performance.
Is this a pattern in representations of trans folks on reality tv?
Alaska: Reality TV shows push the trans woman forward to gain kooky cred, and then humiliate and disqualify them 2/3rds in. It’s happened on ANTM, Janice Dickinson’s Modeling Agency…And 4 or 5 other stupid series all over the world…the exception being one big brother or something in the UK.
Thea: And Paris Hilton’s New BFF…So we are seeing a trend here, where a trans person is used on reality tv shows as a hook, presented in neutral light at first…and then halfway through the season everything gets turned upside down.
Michell: For sure. Like Isis from America’s Next Top Model.
Thea: It’s becoming a formula. The trans person’s transness gets tied to “bad behaviour,” and the kind of treatment the show gives the trans person impacts their performance.
Alaska: Well and let’s be honest, being trans can be like 8 full time jobs on top of your ‘day shift at the graveyard and the graveyard shift at the Days Inn’ and when you’re getting beat on, your performance will definitely suffer or at least make you act crazy.
Thea: I think that’s really worth considering – that folks who experience various kinds of marginalisation might have so much more on their plates than say, Afro Borike.
Michelle: Think about the way Caster Semneya or Isis and Leiomy’s bodies are taken up.
Thea: What do you think Caster and VE have in common?
Robin: They are very brave. Their personal physical beings are being examined in front of the world. Brutal.
And what about Lil Mama’s apology to GLAAD, after the backlash in response to her attack on Leiomy?
Michelle: It was weak. And it was NOT followed up by an on camera apology on camera on the next episode. She actually didn’t even say anything on the next show…
Robin: “Endeavors,” meh.
Michelle: Where is the place for her accountability?
Thea: Did y’all notice that MTV actually RE-AIRED Lil Mama’s transphobic comments from Week 4 during Week 5? The fact that they RE-AIRED it (after the apology) makes it seem like no one was sorry. But why do you think MTV didn’t air the damn apology? Wouldn’t that make good tv?
Alaska: Lil Mama didn’t even make a real apology. There was nothing to air.
Thea: Why do you think she made the apology? Like why bother?
Michelle: I think she did because she probably got a lot of complaint letters, and MTV did as well.
Thea: But why do Lil Mama or MTV feel beholden to make nice to the queer community?
Alaska: A lot of their dancers are gay?
Robin: Because she knows that homos run tings in the dance world. She does.
Elisha: GLBTQ is becoming stronger, more conservative and more commercial all the time. I think she apologized for consumer interest, not justice.
Robin: Blech. Downer.
So, did Shane and JC support Lil Mama’s transphobia, or did they try to call her out for it?
Alaska: JC seemed a little uncomfortable.
Elisha: Yeah I agree. Shane Sparks especially seemed to try to downplay Lil Mama’s comments. He emphasized that it “doesn’t matter what happens offstage.”
Michelle: Fair enough. And he said that after JC’s cryptic comments about how some of us “can’t always control who we want to be” but that what we can control is how we perform.
Michelle: I thought that was also a low blow dig to Leiomy.
Robin: JC’s not done “cleaning his closet” I think.
Michelle: Hahahah!…Yeah, except Shane Sparks is also incredibly sexist and tends to give positive feedback only when the girls are really sexualizing their dancing.
Elisha: I like Shane.
Elisha: Sometimes he surprises me with his sensitivity to class and race, and now queer issues just a little. Like he was the first one to mention Leiomy’s reputation – that’s she’s a god in her own scene. During Week 2 he said that all anyone had been saying to him was “I can’t believe you have Leiomy Maldonado on ABDC!”…I think he’s plugged into the queer scene.
Alaska: Let’s not start any Shane downlow rumours, Elisha.
Michelle: Although, Shane also loved Afroborike’s crazy dance moves where the girls got flipped over and were doing dance moves that mimicked fellatio.
Thea: But did you notice that during Week 4, when Shane was talking about VE’s dance routine, he said that what VE did with their scarves was “really sexy.” I thought that was so interesting – a man who is totally coded as straight (not sure how he identifies) told a bunch of queer folks they were sexy.
Robin: I caught that tooo! I loved it!
Michelle: I was surprised about that too.
Robin: Coming right after what Lil Mama said to Leiomy, that was a one step back, two steps forward moment.
Thea: ABDC is the mixiest of bags.
Elisha: Well, I also just think Shane’s a dish.
Alaska: Yeah, I was waiting for that.
Thea: Ha! Hellllooo Shane…
Tune in tomorrow to read the end of the chat, including: cultural appropriation on ABDC; from Paris Is Burning to Vogue Evolution; and ABDC: To Watch or Not to Watch?
* This is a ref to Lil Mama’s transphobic comments towards Maldonado, not her whole jumping on stage with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hijinx. That’s a whole other roundtable…
Robin Akimbo is a multi-disciplinary artist currently residing in Toronto. She has written and produced
original work for performance in Montreal, Toronto, New York and San Francisco. In 2007 she toured the United States extensively on the Sister Spit: Next Generation Tour, in promotion of the anthology Baby Remember My Name edited by Michelle Tea, pub. Carroll & Graf.
Alaska B is an artist, dj and musician based between Montreal & Toronto. She is one of the founding members of YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a multidisciplinary diasporic/indigenous experimental arts & opera collective.
Michelle Cho is a Toronto-based community organizer but would rather be reading, YA novels, singing Dolly Parton songs at karaoke and eating Melona bars.
Elisha Lim co-hosts Fresh To Def, Toronto’s queer people of colour weekly danceparty with Royal Newbold and Kalmplex Seen. Her graphic novel 100 Butches documents queerness, race and gender and will be published by Alyson Books in 2010.
Vogue Evolution portrait courtesy of Elisha Lim.