A camera zooms in on a group of anxious girls clad in leotards and sitting among friends in a nondescript dance studio. In the background, stage mothers whisper frantically with one another. It is the day after a national competition, and each dancer and their mother wait to hear the teacher’s feedback on the girls’ prior performances. The camera pans to a woman as she chastises a youngster with, “You came in second at the competition. And you know how I feel about second. That’s the first to lose.” The woman then lowers the girl’s photograph to the base of a crudely drawn pyramid on the wall. As the tween sheds tears, her mother springs from her seat, threatening the teacher with her fists rolled up and ready to attack. Such is a typical scene from the hit reality series Dance Moms (2011-2019).
Once airing on Lifetime, a network whose primary demographic is women, and now finding new life on social media, Dance Moms documents Pittsburg-based dance studio owner Abby Lee Miller as she trains tweens and young teens for national competitions—all while under the watchful eyes of the scrutinizing dance moms. Win or lose that week’s competition, Abby harshly critiques the girls in front of their mothers and repositions each of their pictures on the pyramid. The student at the top receives a solo at the next competition, while the student at the bottom may not participate in the next event. The ceremony generates a hierarchy among the dancers, and their mothers as well. Immediately after the ranking ritual, confrontations and accompanying negotiations ensue between Abby and the mothers who fight on behalf of their daughter(s) for a higher position on the pyramid.
Who dominates these confrontations and negotiations, and by what means? A textual analysis—or close reading—of the first, last, and three random episodes across each of the series’ multiple seasons reveals Abby most often wins the negotiations—but only when exhibiting personality and bodily traits traditionally embodied by the idealized white western male. Such pop culture portrayals may negatively impact viewers but can also be meaningful teaching points or used for evaluation in better understanding society’s views of aggressive women. Does a woman exuding traits US cultural tradition has long prescribed to men indicate a male perspective or a new kind of femininity? Taking a social constructivist approach to Dance Moms provides a framework in which different forms of “alpha females” may be examined and understood as a deviation of the “woman category.” Traits, role behaviors, occupations, & physical characteristics do not automatically lend itself to a female perspective. Dance Moms is written and produced by one woman and six men, indicating a possible male perspective despite the program’s all-female cast and intended female audience. Many studies (Ward 2022, Alam 2021, Coleman 2020, Lenig 2017, Adney 2012) have illuminated exaggerated or stereotypical representations of gender on reality television and revealed how reality television endorses these portrayals. This study examines how a particular type of modern woman—one acting on television in a highly competitive, pop culture environment—attains agency in the current gender landscape in which shifting definitions of femininity and masculinity abound.
Despite increasingly fluid definitions of gender gaining steam in recent years, there is a durability of stereotypes in terms of how men and women differ. In 2014, Elizabeth Haines et al, examined gender stereotypes in the workplace. Despite an increasing number of women in the workforce and in leadership positions, female workers were not held in as high regards as their male colleagues. Males were also viewed as independent and competitive and women as warm and kind. Other studies such as that by Mary Kite et al. (2008) demonstrate similar results in that men were characterized as assertive and thus having agency and women as caring and lacking agency. The dance moms align with these aforementioned gender stereotypes but can overcome them and rise in rank, thus gaining agency, when they exhibit traits traditionally (and as sometimes currently) associated with white, Western men. It is as if the moms are betraying tropes of femininity.
However, the women’s aggression also hints at a third-wave postfeminist narrative in which not all women are seen as fragile and demure. Some women are “alpha females”—or at least trying to be, and the mothers on Dance Moms are no exception. These women desire power at all costs, even if it means hurting other women and girls. Their meanness is, “the logical extension of a naturalized, white, middle-class feminine subject” and “is bound to express itself through repressive, coercive, and masochistic tendencies” (Ringrose and Walkerdine 9). The mothers’ inabilities to disturb the boundaries of traditional femininity as Abby does is the cause of their aggression. As if they have had enough of society telling them how to behave as women, the dance moms must find a new sense of belonging within the limits of a new and emerging femininity still riding the coattails of tradition. In this new femininity, women are paradoxically both nurturing mothers and aggressive tiger moms more akin to a competitive father or coach. Whether taking on traits such as aggression signals male embodiment or a kind of “alpha woman”, the more the moms exude these stereotypically masculine traits, the more agency they have.
The series’ selective editing constructs another untraditional televisual female: Abby. Anyone could mistake Abby for a man due to her husky build and her low, rich, rumble of a voice. Appearance aside, her personality is more akin to characteristics western culture has attributed to the male gender: leadership, initiative, grit, and aggression (Beynon 8). The more Abby exudes these stereotypical male characteristics, or at least embodies traditional aspects of masculinity, the more agency she has. My definition of agency aligns with that of The World Bank which claims agency as “the ability to make effective choices and transform those choices into desired outcomes,” and is a key driver of gender inequality (2012, 3). Agency on Dance Moms manifest as the capacity; condition; or state of acting or of exerting power, action, activity, or operation. Women with agency have “power to” (Ohara and Clement 112) or “autonomy” (Gram, Morrison, and Skordis-Worrall 1367) making agency ubiquitous with empowerment and authority.
While both the mothers and Abby appear to gain some sort of agency with their stereotypically masculine behavioral traits, Abby reigns supreme, indicating aggression alone cannot be the sole means by which these women are granted empowerment. What else gives these women agency? The body. For Abby, her masculine build is threatening and a constant reminder of her strength and power—both physical and mental. However, her weight is a questionable handicap since her obesity prevents her from being a competent dance demonstrator. Instead, her slim assistant demonstrates the moves for the students—something the mothers are never short on reminding Abby about, thus weakening her position on the metaphorical pyramid. By using her body to externalize aesthetic codes traditionally associated with typical white western female ideals of beauty, the slender moms reposition themselves amongst Abby and one another so that their daughters can rise to the top of the pyramid.
Unfortunately, the young tween daughters are typical female sex symbols. Television critics and current fan communities on, for example, Facebook or Reddit, have compared their dance performances to striptease routines. They castigated the age-inappropriate costumes (made to look as if the youngsters are naked) enough for Lifetime to pull the episode “Topless Showgirls” from the season’s lineup (Nededog N.P.). With little voice about their dances, costumes, and dance training, these girls struggle to understand the dynamics among the adults and often question to whom they should direct their loyalty.
Bullying is a common experience shared across all ages and is reflected on the program.
This ‘mean girl’ discourse—the bullying and power dynamics among the females—coupled with the policing of popularity and heteronormativity undoubtedly portrays females in an unbecoming manner. Nonetheless, fans continue to watch reruns of the series and have built online fan communities to discuss their enjoyment watching the bullying noting,
For me it’s the epitome of “guilty pleasure tv” but not for the typical reasons like “reality tv is so trashy” or whatever. The drama is entertaining obviously and seeing others get to live out your own dead childhood ballerina dreams is fun…(Rasputinaturner NP)
However, female viewers are destined to be “worn down by media images that suggest that however much you do for and love your kids, it is never enough” (Daniels 2). The stereotypes portrayed on the series show mothers as feisty, emotional bullies who use their children to gain power and audiences can be affected by these images as they can lead to gender stereotypes or biases and therefore discrimination and increased sexism (Fernandez 123-124). These stereotypes and the overall negative portrayal of women prominent in this series and accompanying online fan communities prove the need for more diverse representations of women. Dance Moms garnered millions of viewers each week (Seidman n.p.), currently has a solid online following, and similar series are in pre-production. To shift attention away from negative portrayals of women and demonstrate how popular media pressures viewers to abide by an inequitable gender hierarchy, this flagship maternal television programs begs to be studied.
The Power Pyramid: Females of Dance Moms
Abby at the Apex
“In the West, alpha women have been described both within the context of masculinity and femininity. Masculine traits such as aggression, assertiveness, academic and professional achievement, confidence, being a supervisor or manager, and exhibiting a ‘ type A’ personality is often used to describe the alpha female” (Sumra 2). To maintain her status as an alpha female, Abby uses three techniques: boasting about her experience in dance, asserting her knowledge of the art form, and aggressive mental manipulation by way of shaming. Abby uses her experience to win over families who dream of their children becoming famous performers under her tutelage. In “The Competition Begins” (S1, E1), Cathy, a dance teacher from rival studio Candy Apples Dance Center, takes her daughter to Abby Lee Dance Company (ALDC) to Abby’s and the moms’ surprise. “If you have your own dance studio and you’re a dance teacher, wouldn’t you have the best studio for your kid and teach her yourself?” (S1, E1), quips one of the moms about Cathy’s choice to travel to ALDC. Cathy wants to give her daughter Vivi-Anne more advanced training that even she cannot provide, so she sends her daughter to train with Abby, who has produced countless Broadway stars. Abby’s reputation has given her a sense of entitlement that no one can or should try to override her because she and her business are a star-making factory. Despite Abby’s track record for success, she is aware others—particularly the cast of regular moms on the program—criticize her for what they consider abusive teaching involving, for example, long rehearsals and harsh critiques towards the children. Abby’s attitude, however, is, “They have to stand by and take it. Girls don’t like it. Moms hate it” (S1, E1), and she boldly says this, knowing students and parents will endure because those who do develop successful dance careers. The mothers submitting to Abby is more than just wanting to be successful and trusting her track record. Gender roles are at play here and explain why the mothers cooperate with someone they also despise.
Certain genders must adhere to certain expectations to not be an outsider. From a sociocultural perspective, men and women are expected to behave in a certain way according to their gender: “…Women are expected to be more oriented toward interpersonal relationships and therefore more prone to cooperate, whereas greater defection is expected from a man for whom an egocentric orientation, motivated by personal greed, is socially tolerated” (Garbarini E106285). Applying the same concept to Dance Moms reveals Abby’s inflated sense of self overpowers the mothers’ ensuing cooperative behavior.
Portrayed in the series as knowledgeable over the mothers, Abby pushes a stereotype Westerners have typically attributed to men (Sternberg 49). It is not uncommon for Abby to tell a mom that merely due to her position as an educator, she has more knowledge over what is best for the dancer. By reminding parents and students of her extensive knowledge of the dance industry, Abby coaxes them to stay at the studio despite her strict teaching style, for she knows their goal is to become famous, and she can make their dreams come true. “I want my kids to be happy, and Abby is the star-maker” (S1, E1), remarks mom Melissa on why she stays at the school despite Abby’s abrasive teaching methods. Melissa’s comment points to gender anxiety. Some women fear being seen as too intelligent. A woman outsmarting a man has long been stereotyped as gender inappropriate behavior making them anxious about losing their femininity and possible social rejection (Szymanowicz and Furnham 45). Thus, cultural sex-role stereotypes help Abby remain in a position of power. In contrast, the mothers—who have adopted traditional gender role stereotypes—are prone to the adverse effects of such a conflict.
Culturally determined stereotypes posit that Western society expects women to experience shame more than men (Ferguson and Eyre 134), and Dance Moms perpetuates this if Abby is read as associated with masculinity and the moms with femininity. One of the ways Abby creates shame among her clientele is with the pyramid. Each week, in front of the girls and their moms, Abby reveals the methodology for her rankings. The pyramid creates a sense of disgrace in the girls and their moms, making them vulnerable and empowering Abby. Galit Ferguson says shaming on reality television is common and has many effects, including expressing “both abject fears and hopeful fantasies about the family, parents, and children” (87) for home audiences, but the same occurs for the cast. The pyramid immediately sets up conflict. While the dancers jockey for positions after the pyramid ceremony, the moms start bickering about each other’s daughters, thus expressing their fury, qualms, or indignity about their new rank. Melissa, whose daughter is often on top, remains quiet to prevent further outrage from the other moms. Moms whose daughters are on the lower rows of the pyramid try negotiating with Abby for ways their daughters can rise the ranks, such as asking Abby to give them a featured part to perform so the dancer (and therefore the mom) can prove they have what it takes to be on top.
To reinforce her authority, Abby intentionally casts dancers in styles not their forte. As a result, parents are ashamed when their daughters struggle with a dance style they have not fully mastered. Abby does this when both the parent and child—but often solely the parent—behave in a way that angers her. “When a parent opens her mouth, they are ruining their child” (S1, E1), explains Abby, who rarely listens to anyone but herself and punishes children when the moms are at fault. Threatening and “scary to kids” (S1, E2) as well as adults, the dance diva uses her experience, reputation as an award-winning teacher, and the children to override what any dance mom dares to demand of her.
Meddling Moms Break Through the Sidelines
Abby’s dance studio is a site where primarily white, middle-and upper-class mothers perform their gender, meaning they exemplify gender through a stylized repetition of acts (Butler 187). These mothers behave as they do—purveying female-on-female aggression—to maintain or gain control over one another and jockey for positions within what winds up as a hierarchal gender system mimicking a White Male System. Anne Wilson Schaef defines the White Male System in Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System. Schaef explains, “It is the system in which we live, and in it, the power and influence are held by white males” (8). According to Schaef, this system controls our laws, economy, and many other decisions, including what constitutes knowledge and how it is taught. Women within such a system conjures a vision of the female as exploited and dominated, as described in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), and Simone De Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) (1949). Indeed, there is a feminine vulnerability among the dance moms, but there is also the embodiment of aggression used to negotiate their gender to gain agency.
While the dance studio belongs to Abby, there is one space that the moms have taken over and made their own to act out their aggressions: the viewing mezzanine. The space is similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon discussed in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, where those in powerful positions (the girls at the top of the pyramid) can view those in less powerful positions (the girls at the bottom of the pyramid), but not vice versa. Thus, the viewing mezzanine is a space where the moms can surveil Abby and their children, but not the other way around. While this would ordinarily indicate the moms have power over Abby and the children, this is not always the case. Yes, the mothers collectively surveil Abby and their daughters as a means of asserting authority. However, this space is also where the mothers compete against one another on this common (higher) ground over whose daughter is a better dancer due to motherly involvement. After the pyramid ceremony where the women learn of their status (by way of their daughter’s placement on the pyramid) they head to the viewing mezzanine where they vie for positions for the week because they “want to get [their] daughter at the top” (S1, E3). Conflicts arise when “mothers feel pride in their child’s accomplishments and recognize that others feel the same, but they are angered by mothers who advertise their child’s superiority” (Linney 113). In such instances, egalitarianism is upset, so the women compensate by turning to Abby for confirmation.
The mezzanine demonstrates how there is gender inequality within the female gender. In Framed by Gender Cecilia Ridgeway explains why gender equality exists in the modern world due to cultural and institutional pressures meant to level differences between men and women. Using social psychology as her backdrop, Ridgeway develops a theory of gender in which individuals are actors and classify one another through social interactions and experiences.
Such classification relates to Dance Moms in that the moms often act in a friendly way towards each other but are primarily looking for information about how they can overpower one another. Here is where the “mommy wars” ensue. As Kim Akass describes, these mommy wars are where mothers fight to be the best she can out of fear due to maternal guilt or feeling forced into a particular role due to misogyny (137). The mezzanine is where the moms learn how to socialize with one another, and mothers whom do not conform to the expectations of their peers are unwelcome. Arlie Hochschild’s work in “The Sociology of Feeling and Emotion: Selected Possibilities” becomes essential here. Hochschild also believes in the idea of social actors and that various social experiences trigger behavior. This ideology lends insight into how and why women act a certain way, causing them to fall into submissive positions (the sides of the pyramid) in the social order. Various episodes of Dance Moms portray the moms attempting to outdo one another in physical appearance and mannerisms. Each woman will, for example, act the part of a model mom in front of the other women to make them feel deficient or susceptible. The intent behind such conniving is that the other moms will tire of the torment and pressure and leave the studio along with her daughter, thereby freeing up space on the pyramid. While the moms’ ways of overpowering one another are relatively straightforward, they have more complex forms of overpowering Abby: motherhood, the feminine body, and money.
A means of power the moms use to overcome Abby—the one they despise for making them look inadequate in front of their peers—is their role as mothers, which they argue puts them in a position of authority over deciding what is right for their child. In the episode “Wildly Inappropriate,” when the students covet the sexualized costumes and the parents do not and therefore complain, Abby points out the smile on the child’s face only to have a mom state, “It doesn’t matter what the kid says. I’m the mom. I’m the protector.” Although Abby is dealing with children daily, she has none of her own. “She doesn’t have the ‘mom gene’… she doesn’t understand” (S1, E3), says Christi about Abby’s abusive ways of teaching, as the other moms agree. What Christi is alluding to is the age-old maxim “mother knows best.” The parents do not believe Abby knows as much as they do about their children since all the moms have something Abby does not: biological children. The moms’ disdain for adoptive mother Cathy propelling her departure from ALDC, and Abby’s constant negative status as childless, suggests being a mom is something biological these women lack. Such depictions also suggest what Susan Daniels and Meredith Michaels coined “the new momism.” The new momism is “the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mom, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children” (4). While the mothers fit well into Daniel’s idea of the new momism, they occasionally doubt whether they truly are the all-knowing mother who knows all about her child and does everything for them—and Abby has sensed this insecurity and uses it to her advantage.
Abby’s persona and actions allude to an alternative construction of motherhood that overrides traditional notions. She argues that she has coached the dancers since they could walk, and she essentially spends more time with them in rehearsals and classes than the moms ever do—deeming her some sort of parental figure and, therefore, authority. “I raise these kids,” she pronounces in the pilot episode as she recites a quote, “The best parent is one who teaches a child to survive on its own, and that’s what I do. From when they are three until they are eighteen and beyond, I raise kids to be professionals and have a career.” In various episodes, Abby repeatedly says that she raises these kids as if they were her own. The self-proclaimed surrogate mother continues by saying while dance may be an afterschool activity in the biological moms’ eyes, for her, it is a way of providing life. Such an argument causes the moms to doubt whether they or Abby are right about what is best for the child, and so to make themselves feel better as mothers, they spoil their children. The idea of spoiling children again echoes Daniel’s and Michael’s idea of the new momism, for a secondary aspect of the ideology is that good moms “learn to put on the masquerade of the doting, self-sacrificing mom and wear it at all times” (6). After being told they are horrible parents, the moms compensate by paying for all the dance classes the girls desire and staying at the studio for hours to support their child and prove Abby wrong.
When claims of motherhood do not sway Abby, humiliation by discussing the feminine body is another tactic the dance moms try with moderate success. The moms critique femininity in physical form, for they have an advantage over their adversary. In the episode “Liar Liar Dance Mom on Fire,” the moms must head to Abby’s home to clean out her garage full of nostalgic memorabilia. In an on-camera interview, Abby admits she brought the moms over and showed them the keepsakes as a reminder that “you’re not that special, and neither are your kids.” Her plan backfired when the moms discovered an embarrassing picture of hefty Abby. Obese even in present times, the old photo was still new fodder for the moms. Throughout the history of feminism, the body served as evidence of one’s hierarchical position, fatness being the sign that one had succumbed to modernism and was inferior to all others (Farrell 82). While women fought against these judgments in their quest for equality, the dance moms used them to their benefit.
The moms use Abby’s weight in excess of social norms in two ways to gain an advantage. The first, of course, is to hurt Abby’s feelings, making her vulnerable and more likely to grant a mother’s request. The second is to remind Abby of something the audience does not see: she is not the teacher the home viewing audience thinks she is. There is no episode of Dance Moms in which the home audience is privy to witness Abby teaching the children new choreography. Instead, Abby is seen finessing choreography the children have already appeared to learn. Clever editing makes it appear as if Abby has already taught them these moves, but with her corpulent build, it is nearly impossible for her alone to teach these children without a demonstrator. Occasionally, an assistant will be demonstrating or explaining techniques, suggesting Abby may not be choreographing these dances but rather an off-camera teacher is doing the work. The moms telling her she is too fat to execute the moves is leverage for undermining Abby because the slim and fit moms can demonstrate a step for their daughter when Abby cannot.
Susan Bordo’s work in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, helps to clarify what is occurring here. Bordo states that there is an equation of slenderness and success in this culture (63). The dance moms’ waif frames deem them powerful compared to Abby, and the mothers’ taunting demoralizes her. As Breanne Fahs writes in ‘The Dreaded Body’, “…regulating femininity was not only attached to identity regulation for fatness, race, class, gender, disability, and age, but also to the regulation of specific aspects of gender as imprinted onto the body” (187). It appears the moms and their weight advantage are enough to overcome Abby and what the moms regard as her dreaded or viscerally disgusting body. Although the moms do give themselves agency, vis-à-vis aggressive, masculine behaviors, and by maintaining a low body weight, the stereotypically masculine body ultimately triumphs. Abby’s masculine build and attitude, along with an active male gaze (portrayed by the camera work indicating her point of view), make her more like males ordinarily seen on reality television, thus allowing her agency the moms lack.
While aggressive behavioral practices were traditionally associated with masculinity (Gomez 380), times shift, and females like Abby take on this persona. Such a juxtaposition of roles denotes gender displacement or a more contemporary version of a woman. Abby’s large build, lack of romantic attraction towards men, and her brusque and aggressive personality give her an appearance and demeanor traditionally associated with straight males, thus setting her apart from the other women in the series. Furthermore, the hyper-feminine moms—decked out in high heels and stylish blouses—all have boyfriends or husbands, unlike single Abby, who hides her feminine body features in dark clothes and is distant from men. While the moms have tried to set Abby up with a man, Abby appears to have no interest in romance but instead focuses on her career. On one occasion (S3, E10), the moms dressed up Abby and took her speed dating. While Abby claimed she is attracted to men, she equated the night out to her career by comparing the experience to casting talent for a production and dominated submissive potential male suitors by barraging them with career-related questions before happily leaving the event solo.
Despite admitting the event was “a gift,” Abby put her career first, again aligning her with traits traditionally associated with men, but perhaps more recently, as a contemporary, independent woman. The fact she is single—which the moms attribute to Abby’s appearance—ultimately makes them feel powerful and complete compared to Abby. The moms uphold the cultural values and attitudes that endorse and perpetuate the ideology of marriage and family. There is a stigma about singlehood that reduces women from whole to tainted (Byrne and Carr 89).
While Abby behaves as if she does not care that she is single, there is another dynamic to consider: she is dependent on the moms for money. The finances provided by the men in the moms’ lives are another way they have power over Abby. These women are paying clients, and they are not afraid to remind Abby of this. “I pay your bills…you work for me!” (S1, E1) Christi exclaimed when Abby refused a request. Realizing she will be out of work and needs the money, the wannabe breadwinner succumbed to keeping her customers happy. Dance Moms is one of the many ways reality television “lays the groundwork of jealousy and insecurity between cast members and can convince the women and girls that every other female is their natural adversary” (Pozner 98). While Abby can easily replace a dancer, the clients she already has are the top payers, and the moms have realized this small—but essential—detail and use it to their advantage.
Intersectionality is a vital framework for understanding the system of power working on the series. “Woman” is not a catchall category. Everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression. Important to note is that one mother, Holly, uses a tactic for negotiation no other mom uses—her race. Holly, the only person of color in an entirely Caucasian cast, is ordinarily reserved and not one to negotiate with Abby unless racial stereotyping is involved. In the season two episode, “Guess Who’s Back?” Holly attempts to negotiate with Abby to stop making her daughter, Nia, perform ethnic dances in which she dons an afro while moving to “jungle music.” Holly proclaims, “That’s not the black experience we know….that’s not Nia’s experience, that’s not my experience.” While Abby admits that Nia’s dance, entitled “LaQueefa,” is a black stereotype, she claims the unfortunate reality is that, in the future, Nia will be asked to audition for such ethnic—and stereotypical—roles, and she must be prepared for this. “All the other girls get feminine, beautiful, whimsical costumes that aren’t typecasting them,” quips Holly, who sees the truth in Abby’s words but pushes her to—at the very least—choreograph ethnic dances that are celebratory. When Abby refuses to budge, Holly brings up her financial situation, which differs from the other mothers in two ways. First, she is the only mother who works in a successful career. Second, despite her high-class status, she receives a tuition break which she believes is given to her due to her race. Holly indicates she does not need the break and that if she can afford her daughter to go to a private school costing $100,000 a year, she can afford dance classes. She says this intending to prove she is not a poor black woman but a woman with privilege who overcame oppression. Despite her efforts to see herself—and get Abby to see her—as on par with the other moms, Abby never gives in.
Girls at the Bottom of the Pyramid
A 2017 study by Gabriel et al. examines discrimination and oppression in the workplace related to a power pyramid bound by gender, agency, and communion. The study reveals females prone to higher female-instigated incivility are those with less agency (Gabriel et al. 363). Despite being the base of the pyramid supporting those above them, girls on the program have little to no agency but rather do as Abby, or their mothers, tell them. Some children do not even care to dance but do so at the demand of their moms. In interviews on the program and in front of her daughter, Cathy said, “I would slit my wrists if Vivi-Anne were to give up dance” (S1, E1). Kelly also pushes her daughters, mainly teenage Brooke, to dance because she regretted quitting as a teen. The girls can navigate their way around the mothers or Abby by simple manipulation. As exemplified in the episode “Wildly Inappropriate,” girls tried on their favorite costumes that their mothers had not approved. The mothers threatened Abby with removing their daughters from the studio if the revealing regalia were not altered. Sensing possible expulsion from the studio, the girls exaggerated their excitement about their new wardrobe to manipulate their mothers. Witnessing the enthusiasm, the moms allowed their daughters to continue to train despite feeling uncomfortable about their attire. Other than these minor manipulations, the girls, if anything, are mere pawns for the adults. When Abby wants to make a mom angry, she humiliates and berates the child. Similarly, the moms will talk negatively about another child to anger or manipulate another parent. A mother will also use her child to make Abby feel guilty by, for example, claiming the child has other responsibilities such as schoolwork Abby is keeping her from.
The children are their mothers’ currency. The dance moms never leave the studio despite Abby’s aggressive ways due to wanting to see their children gain fame—a sought-after commodity that will bring the girls, and thereby the moms, to a higher social status on the pyramid. This idea relates to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, which he wrote extensively about in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Bourdieu believed there was cultural capital, and on Dance Moms there is: dance—a high art form entailing dedication, perfection, and perseverance. There is also the cultural capital of thinness at play. How the moms, daughters, and Abby choose to display their aesthetic dispositions shows where they are on the cultural ladder of hierarchy. “…Symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, [are] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction” (Bourdieu 66). Moms push their daughters to compete in the performing arts to gain the fame Abby promises—a prize deemed to be worth more than money. Of course, the moms’ thinking is only helping bring more business to ALDC.
The Pyramid Effect
Even on Dance Moms, a series focused on women, patriarchal ideas of power long associated with masculinity thrives. Abby, a successful business owner remains on top of the pyramid, the spendthrift moms slide down the sides towards the bottom, and the mass of impecunious daughters are in a heap at the base, all due to a power structure flanked by gender and class. “Femininity and masculinity are powerful weapons of social control that help maintain the patriarchal order” (Johnson 69), and the moms lose agency due to motherhood. “[Females’] response [to] the world was gradually different from that of the male. [Females] were planted deep into the cycle of life and the womb and the bosom of nature” (Trebilcot 88). Due to these circumstances, women’s roles were to reproduce, and men were expected to produce and provide resources. On Dance Moms, the moms fall into reproducing and mothering. At the same time, childless Abby does the producing and providing by managing the studio, therefore associating her with the traditional—and dominant—male role.
These moms’ anger is not about their daughters’ placement on the pyramid but something more significant and not as obvious: the patriarchal system that renders them powerless. Women who lack agency do not see themselves capable of being an authority. Instead, they internalize themselves as the lateral sides of the metaphorical pyramid holding males (or women with traditionally stereotypically masculine traits) up at the apex (Bosak & Sczesney 686). Housewives like the dance moms internalize this way because they are not allowed to do all the things their husbands—or men in general (in one way characterized by Abby)—can do. Furthermore, “envy without a social movement is a particularly private, illegitimate feeling…[that] is rendered petty or silly” (Hochschild 292). Such a view of envy sheds light on how these moms are not only envious of one another but of Abby, who ultimately spends more time with their children and receives credit for the girls’ success. Hence, the moms conceal their feelings of inadequacy to appear powerful compared to Abby. Western society has limited room for feelings and emotions (traits associated with women) for the dance moms. Still, there is room for behavior exemplifying legitimacy and rationality (traits more typically associated with men—and Abby).
Class is constructed through gender and race. Therefore, class relations are always gendered (Acker 145). Historically and still true in many areas today, organization in the workforce is gendered with most CEO or skilled labor positions held by men and unskilled labor held by women. Such organizational division is evident on Dance Moms. Due to class being gendered, Abby, the highly skilled and successful business owner, again embodying masculinity , wins here, and the moms—while high class—still cannot override her for they bring no skill to the dance school, only their husbands’ money. “As a system of inequality, gender, as we have seen, is not simply a matter of which sex is richer or has more power” (Ridgeway 156) but a result of the inequalities of positions held in an organization. Being the owner of a popular and financially successful dance studio, Abby holds the highest rank. This ideology reflects something commonly discussed in feminist theory: women have an unfavorable position compared to men—or in Dance Moms, Abby—regarding economic matters.
Although all cast members receive payment to appear on the program, as portrayed in the series, the moms’ lives are distinctly different from Abby’s, and the sexual division of labor is one reason. In The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism, Nancy Hartsock says there are “…epistemological consequences of claiming that women’s lives differ structurally from those of men” (284). Labor for women also includes reproduction, not just a career, and this already separates the sexes, but no matter what, we live in a phallocentric society. Hartsock argues, “A woman’s life activity does form the basis of a specifically feminist materialism, materialism which can provide a point from which both to critique and to work against phallocentric ideology and institutions” (305). While moms Holly and Melissa work, they are also expected to care for their children, which they do by being involved with their daughter’s dance lives. According to Abby, when it comes to power negotiations, everything they do is not enough. Abby complains the moms sit around the studio all day while they could be working. However, most moms do not care to work since their husbands can afford them a comfortable life. Due to Abby spending more time with the children and working a legitimate job, in the context of the program where there are no men present, Abby appears more in line with traditional masculinity and, therefore, prevails in winning negotiations with the moms.
Gender stereotypes on television are common, and the contrived confrontations on Dance Moms reinforce these stereotypes. Women are often portrayed in media as hyper-feminine, violent, and emotional, and the moms on this program exemplify this notion. In contrast, men in media are commonly portrayed as assertive, goal-oriented, and more likely to succeed compared to women. While Dance Moms is on par with other reality television programming, the series uniquely masculinizes its main female star through gender displacement. While Dance Moms is geared towards women, networks will not ordinarily exclude a demographic, so perhaps Abby appears more masculine to appeal to male viewers. Her assertiveness could be interpreted as a progressive or alternative view of contemporary women. In most recent seasons and online, Abby’s appearance has shifted. She is physically more in line with her slim female counterparts due to substantial weight loss. In addition, she is often donning makeup and a stylish haircut. Her made-over body may indicate a new kind of strong-willed female who is both feminine and tough rather than a woman exhibiting masculine traits.
Fan communities on Reddit comment on how Dance Moms, “…is a bad show but god damn I love it” (Darthmudcake NP) and how it is a “super-annoying show but never ceases to be fascinating” (dancemomsalt NP). Reddit user Additional-Bullfrog sums it up nicely with, “The show is absolute trash…and I totally acknowledge my hypocrisy for watching it anyway.” Why television and online audiences are attracted to what is essentially fictionalized programming is that “by presenting a ‘traditional female life narrative, these shows reproduce traditional roles for female audiences who can vicariously relive important [life] moments” (Brancato 49). Dance Moms was a fantasy for the 2.7 million viewers who tuned in each week (Ng n.p.), for they were taken into the lives of financially secure moms who were successful by way of their beautiful and talented children. “People measure their own status against the “real” people they see on TV, and hope that they compare favorably” (Brancato 55). When women watched the program, they could look at the moms and compare themselves. In addition to viewing the series because it is simultaneously comical and absurd, female viewers could also indulge in fantasizing about the type of mom they wished to be: rich, self-sacrificing, and with talented children.
The gender stereotypes portrayed on the program and currently on social media are part of hegemony. The moms have little they can use to manipulate Abby, and all the seasons have shown their attempts fail, for neither money nor emotions faze the studio owner. The program constructs these moms submissively, so they can never have their way when up against Abby.
Dance Moms is both an active transmitter of insight and a means of entertainment; hence, we must understand how the women in this program function and work within a patriarchal system. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, authors of King, Warrior, Magician and Lover, argue that “Pyramids are universal symbols of the human self” (15). They explain how Jungian psychologists use the pyramid shape to illustrate the developmental stages of the human psyche. While they mostly look at the pyramid to understand a male’s journey from immature to mature and the agency they attain as they move through each stage, they indicate the pyramid is a model illustrating universal behavior patterns (Moore & Gillette XI). What Dance Moms teaches us is not just about women’s uncivil behavior towards those with varying agency and class standing but opportunities to universally break power structures within the system. Whether in corporate, educational, or recreational settings, power barriers break down when organizations foster a climate of diversity so underrepresented or less agentic groups (like the dance moms and their daughters) feel more supported and able to rise to the apex. Additionally, to reduce tension within underrepresented groups, a climate of social integration (vs. separated spaces for the dance moms and dancers, for example) encourages all groups to feel valued and heard (McKay et al. 368) and discourages the trickle-down effect that ensues with pyramid structures.
Dance Moms’ place in popular culture represents a time when American society could not see females as agentic unless imbued with traditionally stereotypical male traits. The series creates a discursively inappropriate message for viewers that women are not empowered to navigate their identities and economic standing without conflict. Although it is not entirely clear what the women on Dance Moms represent about our current societal beliefs, the power struggles surrounding the women in this series help us understand their deeper conflicts. Abby, the moms, and the daughters demonstrate gender and economic differences surrounding manipulation, emotional insecurity, and aggression. Further research could examine the fandom surrounding the series. Current fan communities invite viewers to relive, exchange, and even reframe the narratives, thus substantially impacting their psyche by setting up new expectations and stereotypes. The idea of new interpretations of navigating gender and class to harness empowerment does not only reflect contemporary mores, gendered roles, and how each interacts with one another; it shapes the way we see ourselves.
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