Pop Culture

Bring on the controversy: Casting Bono a win for 'DWTS'

Another season, another "Dancing With the Stars" cast announcement, another group of outraged fans who are never, ever going to watch one of the highest-rated, most popular TV series ever again. And this time they mean it. Just like in past seasons.

Somewhere in the "Dancing" offices, champagne toasts are undoubtedly being made on behalf of Chaz Bono, the source of the most recent controversy.

This is all par for the course for ABC's ballroom competition. Thanks to its loose definition of "star," the reality show about ballroom dancing has managed, in recent seasons, to generate enormous publicity and discussion just by announcing its cast list. Previous years have seen factions rail over who a gay man (Lance Bass) would dance with, and the alleged political implications of including the daughter of a controversial politician (Bristol Palin).

Pushing buttons
But since Monday's season 13 cast announcement and Wednesday's pro-pairing reveal, the expected lightning rod of having a second gay man in the lineup (Carson Kressley) has almost entirely been eclipsed by the casting of Bono, who is transgender. Bono, the 42-year-old son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, underwent female-to-male gender transition, and legally changed his gender last year.

"Reality TV producers love pushing our buttons," said Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. "This is a great button to push."

"Reality TV is doing what a lot of people hate by putting the mirror of ourselves up to us," Galinsky added.

Buttons are being pushed all over on the network's "DWTS" message board: Telisatelisa wrote that her family has watched the show for 11 seasons, "But sadly we have already watched our last episode…. I chose not to endorse ABC's decision to have Chaz Bono dancing on the show."

Msscpajunk is a four-year viewer who is also tuning out, and said on the message board that the show is becoming "LGBT correct." Yet others such as Mismochy wondered, "Why do you need to explain anything to your children if they never even knew Chaz used to be female?"

'Give Chaz a chance'
Show producers insist that choosing their stars is not a matter of picking the most controversial people out there — they are looking for an interesting story.

"It all started because I thought he was a nice guy," said Deena Katz, senior producer with "DWTS" and the major force behind the scenes when it comes to casting. "I'd met Chaz in life, and he was such a sweet, nice man, and I asked if he'd ever be interested in doing the show."

The fact that he was transgender didn't seem to be a problem to either Katz or executive producer Conrad Green. "I didn't see Chaz having any more or less controversy than other people on the show," said Green.

"We love to have people you think you know, or people you aren't as familiar with as people on our show so you can see them as real people and make up your mind about them," he said.

He hopes the audience will rise above the unfamiliarity of watching a transgender person. "It's sad if people feel like they don't want to watch the show. But if you've been watching for years, you'll know there are people who have come on the show before that you didn't like, but you came to know. I hope they will give Chaz a chance," he said.

Curiousity
As it turns out, Bono is not the first transgender person to appear on a reality TV show — and is not even the only one on a reality show this season. Isis King appeared on The CW’s "America's Next Top Model" in 2008, and is slated to appear in the upcoming cycle of "ANTM's" all-stars edition. "Top Model's" inclusiveness, along with having Kressley and Bono on "DWTS," makes this a banner season for organizations such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

"It underlines the fact that the majority of Americans are moving toward acceptance of gay and transgender people," said Rich Ferraro, GLAAD director of communications. "Americans are expecting to see the diversity of our country represented on TV."

Galinsky is empathetic with audiences who want to tune out: "This is confusing to some people. People get scared when they're confused. But people who say they're disgusted or not going to watch the show — that's absolutely not true. Those are the very people who will watch, because they're curious."

Industry insiders such as Roy Bank, president of television for Merv Griffin agree: "DTWS" will not lose viewers over this. "Someone like Chaz will bring in a larger demographic than if they had just gone straight down the line with singers or actors," said Bank.

The truth, said Bank, is that "Dancing" is already getting exactly what it wants out of casting Bono. "Their motives are transparent: How many people will talk about the new cast? How many people will watch? If people are talking, they've done their job."

'There's nothing to be afraid of'
Katz understood the audience's reaction. "I get that (Chaz is) transgender and we've never done this before," she said. "He knows this is tough, and there are people who are afraid, but we can show there's nothing to be afraid of."

Ferraro is more interested in the big picture: Exposure breeds familiarity, and with more transgender people appearing on television, there's a chance the ripple effect will make the lives of average transgender people easier. As he noted, in 35 states it's still legal to fire a transgender person solely because they are, in fact, transgender.

"I think once they see Chaz, they're going to understand that we all deserve to live our lives without discrimination," said Ferraro. "This isn't a question about sexual orientation — it's about gender identity."

So what happens if Bono actually goes the distance and wins the mirror ball trophy?

For Katz, that will send a signal. "It will mean you fell in love with this guy and rooted for this guy," she said. "Chaz is just a guy who's trying to dance. And if you can buy into that and vote for him, that's wonderful. And if he wins? Then God bless America."

Will you be watching "Dancing" this season when it kicks off Sept. 19?

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”

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