Now, I love the show. I don’t especially care about the judging….in fact, some of the judges are much of the reason why I wish they’d release — even sell — high-quality clips of the performances alone in the way that music tracks are released as mp3s, so that you could just compile a video playlist of your favorite bits. (I tried suggesting this to FOX, but I got an e-mail notification that they deleted my missive without reading it.) I love watching the performances, though. Once upon a time, before my bones finished confusing doctors, I danced, and this vicarious edge to my enjoyment only adds to it. I am always torn, however, about watching the audition episodes. On the one hand, I’m hungry for the mouthfuls of stunning artistry that never make it into the final banquet. On the other hand, I typically become livid over how some of the entrants are treated, mocked in production editing if not also openly on stage. Sure, some of them make me a bit twitchy, and not in a Twitch sort of way. On the other hand, so many of them….not just don’t know better, but CAN’T know better, not on their own.
If you know what to look for — sometimes even if you don’t — I guess really, if you’re NOT simply looking for a cruel laugh — you can just TELL, you know? You can tell that some of the entrants are, for one reason or another, at a disadvantage in being able to realistically hold their skill and/or talent up against the standards of the show. Longtime fans of the show probably remember Dave Kenneth “Sex” Soller. I didn’t want to smack that poor man for continuing to come back. I considered whether or not I should want to smack his mother. On the one hand, I think she knew that she was setting her son up for annual, mass-media humiliation. On the other hand, I think she knew that he didn’t ever feel that humiliation as the rest of us saw it, only the persistent drive and confidence and joy at what he was doing there, that infuriated the judges so. In any event, he’s just an easy example. There have been others that, since I don’t remember their names and they didn’t keep coming back, they are harder to track down clips of. The thing is, these people….these PEOPLE….who have intellectual, psychological and/or neurological disabilities….they just keep popping up, on this and other talent shows. And you know what? That’s well and good, because I’d rather live in a world where they can test themselves against a challenge they aren’t ready to meet, than in a world where they don’t have that opportunity. My issue is that they are almost never handled with insight, or treated with respect, and it’s rarely because their personalities are horribly abrasive. It’s just taken for granted that they should know better, or that the only reason they don’t believe whoever surely told them better is because they are arrogant, or because they simply have no taste, no sense, for no reason, or perhaps because they get a kick out of “wasting other people’s time”…
Fast forward again to the SYTYCD Season 9 premier, and the audition (shown above) of freestyle dancer Sam Shreffler. The public at large is set up to brace themselves for a laugh at the young man’s expense, to begin their groaning and eye rolling before the commercial break and to look forward to finishing it. The judges, when he first takes the stage, appear ready to do the same. And then….THEN….then he clues them in on the fact that he has Autism. Well now. That changes things. They are AWARE. Their attitude towards him immediately changes. It is even just vaguely appropriate, and the whole theater backs them up. We don’t all have to feel foolish or guilty any more, we can all feel good about how things turned out.
Or can we? I feel pretty good for young Mr. Shreffler. He had a positive, affirming experience, a sense of acceptance and approval, and encouragement to pursue a form of self-expression that comes naturally to him and brings him joy. I do not, however, necessarily feel any better about the judges or producers of the show. I won’t until I see someone get up on that stage that DOESN’T hand them a societal instruction manual on how to be disability-conscious, and yet still gets treated in accordance with one.
They were thoughtful, but did it actually make them think?
Of course, it begs the question….at least, for those of us who are aware that we live in a world of invisible disabilities, it does….of how they could know, with rating-confidence, that they were always making the right calls about when to enforce such a new policy of NOT being *ssholes to disabled people, should they ever adopt one. They might have to take a real risk, and focus on fostering viewer appeal without actually being *ssholes to ANYONE.