It's pretty boring to complain about reality TV. Every time I read an actor or singer come out with some comment about how we're all stupid for following the antics of the Kardashians, like they're telling us something new, I roll my eyes and think: who called the fun police? Most reality television is trash, but it's also good escapism. Sometimes all you want is to kick back on the couch after work and recharge whilst watching dumb people do dumb things. And that's okay.
But when I came across an episode of Dance Moms recently, I definitely felt like I was watching something that was pretty tasteless, maybe even kind of cruel. If you don't know what Dance Moms is, it basically follows the exploits of Abby Lee Miller, a borderline insane dance instructor and choreographer who has her own dance company and teaches girls from a pretty young age to dance everything from lyrical to tap and hip-hop to contemporary, whilst also readying them to participate in various competitions. Doesn't sound like a big deal, right?
But because scripted reality TV needs antagonism to survive - just ask the Real Housewives franchise - Miller acts like a dictator. She frequently gets into slanging matches with the "dance moms", all of whom seem to despise her, because they make great cliffhangers for TV. And if you know anything about the archetypal "pushy parent" who lives vicariously through their kids' showbiz dreams, that's pretty much every dance mom on Dance Moms. These women have trained their daughters to be great from a really young age, and to them the world of dance and competitions and fame is everything. It's kind of entertaining, but mostly just unsettling.
The real problem with Dance Moms - a problem you can't level at other shows like The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians - is that the real lives it's manipulating are those of girls as young as nine or ten.
Easily the breakout star of the show is 12 year old Maddie Ziegler - watch this clip of Maddie being taught by Abby and her mother Melissa to channel emotion into her performance by remembering "what you did when you found out the first person you ever knew died". It's pretty effective...
...and also kind of brutal. In the show's defense, a lot of the criticisms you can level at Miller and the dance moms' treatment of their kids has nothing to do with the show itself and everything to do with the world they inhabit. It's crazy competitive and super difficult for a girl Maddie's age to stay sane amidst all the pressure, alongside all the usual hormonal difficulties of growing up.
Maddie, other than the occasional moment of acting spoiled, seems to have handled it quite well, and you can't deny that the boost this show and her success in dance competitions has given her career is massive - since 2013 she's starred in three music videos for Sia which collectively have over a billion views on youtube. Watch the video for Elastic Heart and you'll see that she's a superb interpretive dancer who's almost definitely got a long career ahead of her.
But there's a fine line between celebrating and exploiting young girls' talents, and Dance Moms doesn't seem to know where that line is. In the clip below, Maddie is beaten to a gold medal by her younger sister Mackenzie and has to settle for silver. And to her credit, she seems to take it pretty well.
But later in the episode, the girls' mom Melissa stirs the pot by insinuating that Maddie isn't pleased for her sister, and then, to the other moms' horror, admits that she'd rather Maddie had won (because she looked "fabulous"). Young kids competing against each other need support - they don't need to feel like they're in competition for their mother's love, or that they're the victim of parental favouritism. In this episode Dance Moms proved itself to be a downright taste-less TV show which the producers are happy to manipulate at the expense of the young girls' feelings.
The Real Housewives are grown women. They are, by and large, mature enough to deal with catfights and tensions manipulated by TV producers. They can handle themselves. But when you're twelve years old, being put in that environment is only going to be hurtful in the long run. We've seen a million times child stars go off the rails once they grow up, from Drew Barrymore to Lindsay Lohan. Some get through it, some don't. But all Dance Moms seems to care about is ratings and controversy, and that's really not okay.
Abby Lee Miller and Dance Moms will return for season 6 on Lifetime. What are your feelings on the show? Is it crueller than other reality TV series or is it just reflective of the genre in general? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.