The Israeli version of hit show Dancing With the Stars has just announced that a contestant on this year’s show, TV host Gili Shem Tov (a woman), will be paired with a female professional dancer, Dorit Milman. Shem Tov, who is a lesbian, has helped bring international attention to Israel’s version of the show. But instead of asking “why is Israel doing that?” I would like to ask “why isn’t America?”
The US version of Dancing With the Stars loves to use stunt casting for ratings. They had a deaf contestant (actress Marlee Matlin), a contestant with an artificial leg (“charity campaigner” Heather Mills), and enough reality show crossovers to make their own season. But there’s one thing they’ve always shied away from – same-sex partners. When Lance Bass was on the show a few years ago, there was a lot of pre-season buzz that the openly gay singer would be assigned a male dance partner. The rumor didn’t pan out, and Bass was paired with dancer Lacey Schwimmer. Considering how the show loves to cast WTF contestants (Kate Gosselin, I am talking to you) and change the rules constantly, it seems like a same-sex couple would have been just the thing to spice up a season. So why not?
Dancing With the Stars is one of the highest-rated shows in the country, and their ratings aren’t coming from viewers in major urban areas. The average DWTS viewer is not like the average Mad Men or The Wire watcher. As a successful mainstream show, the kind of program that gets talked about on Good Morning America, having any kind of gay subtext – real or perceived – on the program could result in a boycott or other negative publicity. Sadly, as much as gay and lesbian Americans have fought for visibility and inclusion, network television has not always followed suit. So as much as it’s okay for US DWTS to bring a politician’s daughter who has accomplished nothing of note in her own life to be on the program for tabloid material or encourage a woman in her 70s to be bawdy and sexually suggestive in her dances, I wouldn’t bet money on ever seeing a same-sex pairing on the show. DWTS regularly features “showmances” between dancers and contestants, hoping that speculation about whether a couple is doing it in real life while also doing the lambada onscreen will bolster ratings, simply having two men or two women dancing together seems to be more risky for a mainstream TV channel.
That said, if the Israeli same-sex pairing gets a lot of media buzz or international press pickup, it’s possible the American edition will want the same kind of attention for their own show. But something tells me they’re more likely to tease it instead.