Politics as Pop Culture

The Non-Scandal Of Bristol Palin's 'Dancing With The Stars' Success

Bristol Palin on Dancing With The Stars

Bristol Palin may not have made it to the Dancing With The Stars finals based on her dancing, but she's certainly not alone there. Adam Larkey/ABC hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Larkey/ABC

Tonight, Bristol Palin is one of the three finalists who will be competing for the ugliest trophy on television: the one they give out for winning Dancing With The Stars.

Now, look: Bristol Palin was not one of the three best dancers of the season. Bristol Palin was probably not one of the six best dancers of the season. Bristol Palin might have been one of the three worst dancers of the season. It's absolutely true, based on my experience with this show (which, for purely professional reasons, is extensive), that it's pretty rare to survive a dance where, at times, you simply stop dancing. That will usually do you in, if not then, then soon thereafter.

But the accusations of "cheating" (at Jezebel, for instance) ring hollow to me, because there's nothing about using invalid e-mail addresses (which is the accusation) that is remotely sophisticated enough to surprise anyone who follows this sort of thing. Internet sites that use e-mail addresses for any kind of public opinion or public voting purposes have had to decide whether to validate those addresses (that is, make sure they're real) since the Internet was in diapers; if ABC doesn't validate them, it's because it doesn't care enough to validate them. That's part of the system the network chose, and the reason is that it doesn't really matter how they run the voting system, because one kind of popularity contest (allotting power to the depth of people's devotion to you by allowing multiple votes) doesn't necessarily have any more "integrity" than any other kind of popularity contest (limited votes per person, with validated e-mail addresses).

As for people being all agitated over the fact that Brandy, a much better dancer than Bristol Palin, was booted when she stayed around? Come on. This show has never, ever, ever been about who's the best dancer. Going all the way back to the show's very first season, when General Hospital's Kelly Monaco beat John O'Hurley (Seinfeld's J. Peterman), it's been clear that you can often get farther with the right kinds of fans than with the best dancing. The NFL's Jerry Rice wasn't the second-best dancer of the second season, but he finished as the runner-up, because people liked him. The voting part of the show is a popularity contest, has never claimed to be otherwise, and can't really be forced to be otherwise. There's a reason obscure people with no name recognition have such an uphill battle, and it's not because obscurity interferes with your dancing.

This particular brouhaha is a whole lot of nothing. Trying to outsmart voting systems by being willing to sit for two hours and devote yourself to the task is not specific to Bristol Palin or to people of any particular political stripe, and the fact that a bunch of message boards are taking credit for changing the result doesn't mean they're actually doing it. Voting system treachery and silly and exaggerated credit-taking are practically an Olympic sport among fans of American Idol, for instance, and bragging rights are paramount.

In fact, if you followed Idol fandom long enough, you'd find people on message boards claiming that they personally sent a contestant on to the following week by sending an extra five votes via text message after they learned to brush their teeth with their toes to keep their hands free. If there are two things superfans are good at, those things are (1) overestimating their ability to make anything happen and (2) later overestimating the degree to which they've made anything happen.

Without knowing what the voting margins are like and how many votes have come in for all the different contestants in all the different platforms, it's very hard to reach any sort of a conclusion about whether power voting has anything to do with why Palin has stayed, or whether she's just another person (among many) whose personal story and built-in fanbase are keeping her in the game longer than her talent would suggest she should be there.

And unhappiness about the fact that Palin's mother has political followers who are lending her their support has to be addressed to the casting decision to put someone on the show whose only claim to "stardom" is her relationship to her mother's political career. Once that decision was made, the fact that it played out as everyone knew it would? Well, that's hardly her fault. Had Tom DeLay not broken his feet a couple of seasons back, which forced him to drop out, his political supporters would have been voting for him, too. Political figures bring political fans, just like soap stars bring soap fans and football players bring football fans.

Yes, people who like Bristol Palin are trying to find ways to play around with the voting system to keep her around. This is what people do. People who like Bristol Palin, people who like Adam Lambert, people who want to make an online poll say Howard Stern is the sexiest man alive. Provide an online voting system; people try to game it, if they care enough. As the producer of the show has pointed out, as long as everyone has the same opportunity to be voted for in the same ways by the same people if those people are persistent enough, what does the show really care? It already allows five votes per person; who cares if it allows five or 200? This wasn't the discovery of a highly advanced security hole; this was using made-up e-mail addresses.

There's nothing wrong with not liking Bristol Palin, either as a dancer or as someone who seemingly can lose her temper on Facebook. But she's in the finals for the same reason lots of other not-great dancers have been in the finals: enough people decided to devote enough effort to voting for her in ways the network decided to leave available to them.

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