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‘Bunheads’ and False Promises of Progress

By Alyssa Rosenberg on July 11, 2012 at 8:38 am

"‘Bunheads’ and False Promises of Progress"

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I’ve been following Bunheads, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s kind of delightfully weird ABC Family show about a showgirl who impulsively marries a guy, moves to California with him, discovers his eccentric mother runs a ballet studio, decides to stay in California after her new husband is killed in a car accident, and starts spending time with her mother-in-law’s students. It’s a weird, fun, female-centric little show. And it got me thinking about an interesting question. We have a lot of shows and movies about people who defy the odds and make rigid, exclusionary institutions realize their potential. But are there situations where it’s unproductive or unrealistic to encourage a character to dash themselves against a norm or organization that’s unlikely to yield?

The character who occasioned those thoughts is Boo, a student who’s heavier than some of the other girls. She’s not fat by any means, but she doesn’t have a naturally willowy figure, and we see her improving as a dancer through the episodes that have aired so far, as she prepares to audition for a prestigious summer program run by the Joffrey Ballet Company (which is real, not merely an invention of the show). Boo’s nervous about her chances, but hopeful. “I’m a better dancer, I’m in better shape,” she tells her mother as they shop at a farmer’s market, only to be crushed when she finds her mother’s already ordered a cake with “Better Luck Next Year” iced across it. When she’s cut in the first round, rather than consoling her, Fanny whips out a wig and outfitting Boo as another girl, declaring “You were not cut. No one cuts one of my girls that fast. Now, you’re Trina from Simi Valley if anyone asks.” Boo gets cut that time, and another time after, telling Fanny that the judges have offered praise for her other identities, but not for her original self. She’s buoyed, even though she doesn’t get in.

I hadn’t really considered this until I talked to a friend who danced for a long time about the show, and she mentioned that she thought there was something cruel about suggesting that Boo could get in to Joffrey’s program. All the talent in the world, she suggested, would never overcome Boo’s body type. So is it misleading to tell a story in which she’s encouraged to keep trying, that suggests Joffrey might divert from the deeply established priorities of the ballet world? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stories that encourage people to pursue their dreams and changes to established structures that would keep them out. But there’s good drama, and perhaps fair warning, in stories that illustrate how difficult it is to make those boundaries fall, and that sometimes they stay standing.

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