“Dancing with the Stars” is more important than you think

JoJo Siwa and Jenna Johnson on “Dancing with the Stars” (Youtube screenshot.)

Like some people, I tend to roll my eyes at reality television shows, including the competition shows. I’d rather watch professional athletes than amateurs like me trying to do things that’ll wind up causing a sprained ankle. But, perhaps in a fit of exhaustion or boredom or a combination of the two, I turned on the season premiere of “Dancing with the Stars.” I’d watched Suni Lee in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and Mel C with the Spice Girls on MTV in the mid 90s. And while the premise of the show has always sounded silly to me, it was better than sitting through yet another depressing night of MSNBC.

If you hadn’t heard, this year is the first time that a same-sex dancing couple has been featured on “Dancing with the Stars.” Pop star JoJo Siwa is paired with dancer Jenna Johnson. The two of them performed a quickstep dance and the judges voted them the highest scored pair of the night. In the video before the performance Siwa talked about how she came out earlier this year and she hoped that she could help other people be themselves. JoJo and Jenna looked comfortable on stage together. They looked happy.

It’s always a good thing when LGBTQ people break new ground. And the ground beneath “Dancing with the Stars” means more than you might give it credit for. While the show’s ratings have fallen dramatically since 2005 (when it was regularly getting over 20 million viewers an episode), it’s still watched by millions. Moreover it’s watched by a wide variety of people. Not just one city, not just one demographic. The show has a different kind of reach than cable news or late night comedy or Tik Tok. It’s going to reach people outside of major urban areas and, more specifically, outside of major liberal urban areas.

Chances are that someone saw JoJo Siwa dancing with another woman and were changed by it. And chances are that that person wouldn’t have seen a same-sex dancing couple otherwise. 

As scripted as reality television can be, it can still do good things for people. It can help people come out, or cope, or brighten their day. I’m sure the performance Monday night did that for many. We always need more visibility for the LGBTQ community, especially in areas that do not have nondiscrimination laws. The more we are seen in person and in the media, the easier it will be to explain to people why equality is important.

Some might think of the JoJo-Jenna pairing as a marketing stunt merely to get more viewers. To be honest, it probably is. But that doesn’t mean it’s also not a good thing, and that doesn’t mean that people can’t have a genuinely positive reaction when they watch the show. Just because something is not organic doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful. 

“Dancing with the Stars” might not be intellectual programming. It might not cause radical change. But it can still be a good thing for our community, especially in areas where we least expect it.