So You Think You Can Dance, Nudity Parity Watch: Season 11, Episode 6

Are female bodies displayed and objectified in pop culture more than male bodies? If so, how much?

sytycd logo
I’ve been watching So You Think You Can Dance, the mixed-style dance competition show, since about Season 4. I’m a fan: yes, the show is often cheesy and very gender-normative, but it’s fun, and much of the dancing is quite good, and some of it is very good indeed. Plus it’s interesting to watch dancers work in dance styles outside the ones they’re trained in, and to see their dancing grow (or not, as is sometimes the case) as a result.

But there’s a trend I’ve been noticing on the show that bugs me, and I’ve decided to start documenting it — partly just to see if I’m really right or if this is just confirmation bias, and partly because if I am right, I think it’s worth documenting. The trend is this: In choreographed performances, there’s significantly more female skin shown than male skin. Whether the dancers are partnered in male-female couples (as they typically are), or are dancing in group routines, the men and women either show roughly the same amount of skin, or the women show more skin than the men. It is very, very rare for the women to be more covered up than the men.

Here’s why this matters. A big part of sexist culture is the sexual objectification of female bodies. Insert standard rant: Women are routinely expected to be ornamental and to fit conventional standards of attractiveness: we’re often valued only when we fit these standards, and are dismissed when we don’t (while at the same time, in a no-win game, we get slut-shamed and trivialized when we do). Beauty and attractiveness isn’t just more important for women than it is for men — the standards are far more stringent. Women’s bodies are put on display in popular culture more than men’s, and this display is often objectifying, with the bodies being dehumanized (e.g., shown without faces), treated as interchangeable, treated as things to be owned or acquired, treated as tools of other people’s purposes without regard to our own agency, etc. And all of this often shows up in sexual ways: women’s sexuality in particular is often treated as more important than anything else we might have to offer, while at the same time is dehumanized, treated as interchangeable, treated as something to be owned or acquired, treated with disregard to our agency, more carefully watched and judged than men’s, more stringently controlled than men’s, etc. Standard rant over.

But it can be hard to critique all of this without seeming prudish, anti-nudity, or anti-sex. And it can be especially hard to critique this in dance, which by its nature is all about showcasing bodies and the beautiful, amazing things they can do. The art form is inherently physical, sensual, often sexual. So it’s hard to say, “Look, they’re displaying female bodies in an objectifying way,” without drawing the response, “Um…. they’re displaying everyone’s bodies. That’s sort of the point.”

Which is why I’m focusing here, not on whether women’s bodies are being displayed or even sexualized, but on whether women’s bodies are being displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s. If everyone’s bodies are displayed in much the same way, then I’m wrong, and in this instance my observation is just confirmation bias. But if women’s bodies are displayed and/or sexualized more than men’s, then I have a point.

And yes, I realize SYTYDC is just one small part of both the dance world and the pop culture world: this analysis isn’t intended, by itself, to be proof of the sexual objectification of women. This phenomenon has been amply and thoroughly documented elsewhere. This is just the example of it I happen to be looking at right now. (I also realize that this analysis is very much based on a gender binary: the show itself is super-gender-binary oriented, so that’s unfortunately inevitable, and that’s actually part of what I’m documenting here as well.)

So, with all that being said: Here is my data on nudity parity and the lack thereof in So You Think You Can Dance, Season 11 (the current season). I’m starting with Episode 6, since this is the first episode with most of the choreography and costuming chosen by the Fox network and its employees. (Until now, we’ve just had auditions, with costumes self-selected by the dancers: there are interesting nudity parity issues to be observed there as well, but with self-selection, the issue of whose perspective is being expressed is more complicated, as is the sex-positive feminist question of women choosing to display our own bodies and our own sexuality in a sexist and objectifying world. With routines choreographed and costumed by the network, I think we can fairly see the patterns as reflecting the viewpoint of the corporation, to the degree that a corporation can have a viewpoint.) And I’m doing this several days after this episode first aired because I was away for much of last week visiting family. I’ll try to be more prompt in the future, but I make no promises.

sytycd top 20 perform
Introductory performance with all top 20 dancers
All women are more naked than all men (women have bare thighs & midriffs, men are fully covered). (Sorry I couldn’t find a better still photo showing all the dancers’ bodies in this performance.)

sytycd Brooklyn & Serge 150
Brooklyn & Serge, cha-cha
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, bare back, hip cutouts, sleeveless, illusion netting sides, — he has partly unbuttoned shirt with short sleeves, otherwise covered).

sytycd Emily & Casey 150
Emily & Casey, contemporary
Rough nudity parity (she has bare legs and arms, plunging neckline with illusion netting, he’s shirtless).

sytycd valerie zack
Valerie & Zack, tap
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare arms, bare upper back, bare sternum, he has bare forearms only).

sytycd Bridget & Stanley
Bridget & Stanley, contemporary
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare arms, bare legs, bare upper back, bare sternum, he has bare forearms & calves, partly unbuttoned shirt).

sytycd Jacque & Jordan
Jacque & Jordan, ballet
Two women, wearing identical outfits, non-issue — however, compared to the male-male pairing (see Emilio & Teddy below), they’re showing more skin (bare legs, arms, upper back, sternum). Not necessarily comparable, though, since the routines were different.

sytycd jason derulo
Dance routine to Jason Derulo & Snoop Dog performance of “Wiggle”
Rough nudity parity (women in bare midriffs, some men sleeveless)
Performance very much about showcasing female bodies, especially butts, women’s costumes tighter, but from a strict “who’s more naked” standpoint there’s rough parity. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better still photo of all the dancers in this performance.)

sytycd Malene & Marcquet
Malene & Marcquet, samba
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, arms, back, midriff, side cutouts, he has deep V-neck but is otherwise covered with long sleeves).

sytycd Carly & Rudy
Carly & Rudy, contemporary
Rough nudity parity (both sleeveless with low necklines, otherwise mostly covered — her long skirt is sheer and flowy and shows her legs more than his trousers show his, and her neckline is lower than his, but rough parity).

sytycd Emilio & Teddy
Emilio & Teddy, hip-hop
Two men, wearing similar outfits, non-issue — however, compared to the female-female pairing (see Jacque & Jordan above), they’re showing less skin (bare forearms, otherwise covered). Not necessarily comparable, though, since the routines were different.

sytycd Jessica & Ricky
Jessica & Ricky, contemporary
Rough nudity parity (she has bare legs and arms, bare back, he’s shirtless).

sytycd Tanisha & Nick
Tanisha & Nick, cha-cha
Woman is more naked than man (she has bare legs, bare arms, bare back, side cutouts, he has short sleeves, partly unbuttoned shirt, otherwise covered).

In all performances in this episode, either there’s roughly equal skin being shown by both genders, or there’s more skin being shown by women. In total, there is significantly more skin being shown by women. (BTW, if you don’t believe me, most if not all of these performances can be found on YouTube with a little searching.)

P.S. I’d be interested to know if someone is doing a similar analysis with race, and whether black or brown bodies on the show tend to be revealed more, less, or the same as white bodies, or the same amounts but in different ways. I don’t have the bandwidth this season to do that project as well as this one, but if someone else is, or if someone else gets inspired to do it, let me know, and I’ll link to it.

So You Think You Can Dance, Nudity Parity Watch: Season 11, Episode 6

17 thoughts on “So You Think You Can Dance, Nudity Parity Watch: Season 11, Episode 6

  1. 2

    The only cautions I’d issue for this study are:

    1. That cultures are more the things being represented here in many cases. For example, insofar as cha cha and samba dancers are gender disparate in dress, this is because the costumes are dictated by the cultural assumptions accumulated in the history of the style. That cultural background might be sexist, rather than the costumer.

    This is most obvious in the samba, where the shirt the man is wearing is traditional for the style. That the shirt is entirely open appears in fact to be a compromise the costumer is making to satisfy both the cultural background of the dance style and a desire to sexualize the man. Whereas a shirtless samba dancer would be stark for its oddity and thus you’ll see it resorted to less often.

    There is something similar going on in the tap routine, whose theme was 40s-50s tap cinema, which dictates the costume gender disparity. It’s the same thing: this is an attempt to reflect the cultural history of the style. It would be bizarre to have the man in a tank top and shorts for the routine. Not that this show doesn’t at times do bizarre, for the artistic effect, but by its nature that won’t be the norm (otherwise it wouldn’t be bizarre). The norms are going to be dictated by the cultural history of the dance styles.

    Thus as you noted, the hip hop guy guy and the ballet girl girl show a gender disparity that results from the cultural history of the styles: girls are dressed fairly traditionally as ballerinas, and the guys are in male working class street costume, because that’s the routine.

    Notice that more equity starts to appear in the contemporary routines, where there is less cultural history dictating costume, and thus more expected flexibility for the costumer.

    And then, I think less importantly…

    2. You assume nudity is how we gender sexualize/objectify men. That might be true, but I’m not entirely sure, e.g. I know many a woman who is more excited by a man in a tuxedo than a wife beater and gym shorts. There may be a mild cultural sexism in that disparity, but it would in that case be an attribute of the audience, not the production. If you want to measure the intent of the costumer, a suit or tuxedo may qualify as sexualizing the man as much as a dress on a woman (I’m reminded of the Argentinian tango routine with Pasha a few seasons back). The fact that it would feel weird to viewers to have the woman in the tuxedo and the man in a v neck t and kilt is more a consequence of our culture than costumer decisions at Fox. There is only so much we can expect artists to defy their audience’s expectations (though I prefer shows that occasionally do that, so I’d love to see the costume set I just described at least once).

    That second point is less relevant, perhaps, since I assume that’s part of your point, to document audience expectations being met by the costumer as much as assumptions the costumer is making apart from what would be the actual audience reaction. But the first point seems more problematic, since costumers are statistically more likely to meet the expectations of the cultural history of a style than, say, what they would prefer to do if they had carte blanche.

    I think overall I’d predict your thesis will still bear out, due to all the considerations above as well as the assumptions costumers will make even when they have carte blanche, but the “effect size” will be a lot smaller in the carte blanche category than in the established cultural history of the style category. And it will be hard to tease out how much reflects the attitudes and values of the company, and how much instead is just a product of our culture (i.e. the average audience) as a whole. For example, why is a tux sexier on a man than hotpants and a garter? The answer won’t have anything to do with the FOX Corporation.

  2. 4

    That cultures are more the things being represented here in many cases. For example, insofar as cha cha and samba dancers are gender disparate in dress, this is because the costumes are dictated by the cultural assumptions accumulated in the history of the style.

    Richard Carrier @ #2: But that just begs the question: Why, in cha cha and samba culture, are women traditionally expected to show more skin than men? If it were just one or two particular dance cultures, I’d write it off as a cultural fluke — but it seems to be common in many Western cultures, if not most or all of them. (Yes, there was more nudity parity in the contemporary routines — but the balance was still in the direction of women being more nude than men. I expect that pattern to continue throughout the season, although I’m willing to be proven wrong.)

    You assume nudity is how we gender sexualize/objectify men.

    No (although I see your point). I’m not saying that nudity is how we gender/ sexualize men. The exact opposite, in fact: I’m pointing out that we don’t do that. I’m pointing out the fact that we treat women’s bodies as display objects, in a way that we don’t do with men. (Writing about how we gender and sexualize men is a different topic, one I’ve addressed elsewhere and no doubt will address again.)

    The fact that it would feel weird to viewers to have the woman in the tuxedo and the man in a v neck t and kilt is more a consequence of our culture than costumer decisions at Fox.

    I agree that audience expectations have a lot to do with this. But I don’t think it’s that simple a distinction. Popular culture, especially very mainstream popular culture, does reflect cultural expectations (or at least its perceptions of cultural expectations) — but it also shapes them. People have their cultural expectations, to a significant degree, because of what they see in popular culture. The cause and effect is circular.

  3. 5

    A woman’s body is treated as a commodity, a prize. A man’s body is regarded as a threat.

    I doubt this is just about television and advertizing. The cultural tonnage is practically immovable.

    Fox isn’t going to use male nudity when the underlying model is the flasher/molester.

  4. 6

    I’ll keep an eye on your analysis, Greta (though for reasons Richard discusses, I’m not sure what conclusions might be drawn other than what we already know: traditional dancing costume tends to more nudity for women than for men). My focus (when I’m not just enjoying the dancing and costuming) tends to be on the stories outlined by the choreographers and how much they support sexist assumptions, objectification of women, or enforcement of heteronormative roles, or themes that bolster rape culture narratives, versus a more feminist approach.

  5. 7

    it seems to be common in many Western cultures

    I agree that’s an issue. It’s just not a Fox Corporation issue. So you’d still need to keep those questions distinct.

    I’m not qualified to comment on the background of cha cha or samba. I know more about the background of 40s and 50s assumptions about how to display men and women in the tap routine. The sexism of that era is notorious. Although even many feminists I know are fond of the styles of women’s clothing and appearance from that era, and even to a lesser extent men’s. So one would still have to ask how much of that is just preference, or even art, and how much could be rethought in terms of how women are reduced to bodies more than men are by that fashion regime. I don’t really have an answer to that.

    Personally, I find women’s fashion from those eras often to be far sexier than, e.g. a typical cha cha outfit, and they are far less revealing, even though, as you note, still more revealing than their corresponding menswear–apart from, say, dressing a guy like a 40s stevedore. But when your options for evoking that era in a comparably revealing way for a man are so few, that seems more like a reflection of history than current values. In scientific terms, we’d want to ask what the alternative would be. If there isn’t one, or too few to be a normal way of representing a period, what is an artist to do? Again, I’m not sure what the answer would be.

    But thinking in terms of what you’d recommend to correct any problems you discern might be helpful. I guess that’s true about everything.

    we treat women’s bodies as display objects, in a way that we don’t do with men.

    I concur. But there’s still a difference between how a culture or a tradition (or audience expectation) limits an artist or a company, and how correctable sexism in the artist or company does. Like I said, I suspect your thesis holds up, but that the effect size will be a lot smaller when the past is not constraining the artist and the artist can let their own contemporary values more define their choices. (I have been assuming costuming on the show is dictated by artists, i.e. costumers, rather than producers who have no artistic credentials; the extent to which that assumption is wrong might make a difference.)

    Of course, dressing a man like a mannequin or magazine model is also treating him like a display object. And not necessarily in a bad way. But I think you are right that using the body itself as the display object is more readily resorted to with women than men (esp. by past cultures, e.g. 40s and 50s musical cinema, but still to a lesser extent now). I wouldn’t assume that is intrinsically bad (there is nothing wrong with the beauty of the human body), but it certainly can become so (e.g. your point about how this can be done in a dehumanizing way; my past blog about sexual objectification vs. sexual subjectification would pertain here), and when there is a gender disparity in how it is resorted to, that is certainly problematic, in more than one way. So I don’t have a problem with calling attention to that.

    BTW, I realized after the fact that my first comment was heteronormative. Note how what I said about the sexiness disparity for a man’s costume between a suit, and hotpants and a garter, would not be true for certain gay friends of mine (though notably not all of them). It thus just occurred to me that I haven’t questioned how much costuming decisions on the show do or don’t play to a heterosexual aesthetic vs. a homosexual aesthetic (I don’t assume either is a monolith, but they aren’t always exactly the same; I’m also not very well informed on either).

  6. 8

    I guess this would file under the Culture drawer, as well, but there’s also probably a non-trivial amount of homophobia that accounts for why networks don’t show more male skin. I can imagine there are a whole lot of American men who would complain if too much male exposure hit their tv screens (even on a dancing show where one would expect more sexy dress for all dancers.) Especially for a channel like Fox.

  7. 10

    I don’t think we can credit homophobia for this, since they do show a lot of male skin often enough, even with flashy costuming that would turn Rush Limbaugh white, so that fear of it can’t explain the remaining disparity in objectifying female bodies more than male.

    What’s more indicative of the production’s heteronormatism is how rarely they acknowledge gay relationships on the show (e.g. male contestants having boyfriends, gay men or women depicted as characters in routines, etc.). It hasn’t been completely absent, but you have to really look hard over the eleven years to find examples. I think to keep ratings up enough to save the show (a worry often explicitly voiced by the lead judge on the show itself, who is also the producer) they know they need the Bible belt watching. So I think this is a money motive, not actual homophobia, i.e. just a fear of losing homophobic customers. But then, isn’t that a kind of institutionalized homophobia? But I think the show pushes boundaries for a Bible Belt audience often enough that it can’t be completely faulted for selling out. It could push them further, but I suspect they fear getting canceled if they do.

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