I sat through Bachelor Pad -- without a restaurant to stand in for 16 hours I seem to have plenty of time to watch television -- just to see who was going to be on Dancing With the Stars this season. My usual Monday night off corresponds with that show's schedule so I rarely miss it. I love the show's ability to show us sides of folks we never have the opportunity to witness: a sexy Ralph Macchio, a teary Hines Ward, Kate Gosselin without the kids, Fat Actress Kirstie Alley slimming down and getting in touch with her own vulnerability right before our eyes. It is a show about much more than dancing.
I was as surprised as anyone when Tom Bergeron shouted, "Chaz Bono." But it was fitting. Not only would they get folks to watch -- there is after all a huge freak show element to all of these competitions -- but who has more baggage than Kirstie Alley and Kendra Wilkinson combined? How exciting will it be to watch Chaz find all those things he may have locked away; then forgive, trust, and love himself and possibly lose a good 40 pounds to boot. I was already blocking off the sofa and preparing to hide the remote so I could be there front and center and watch him go through it all.
What I didn't expect was the fallout. Hadn't we gotten past all of this by now? Kendra had spent her nights sidling up to Hugh Hefner in a notoriously crowded bed. Bristol Palin's notoriety also required letting go of the proverbial aspirin she had been holding between her knees.
But what are we going to tell our children about the former daughter of Sonny and Cher? As a kid I watched as they closed their show, the little blonde girl came out (as uncomfortable in a dress as I was) and they stopped bickering -- united, even after Greg Allman and the divorce, in their love for their child. It was unyielding.
It wasn't long after that I watched Rene Richards play tennis in a rarely televised first round match. Tall, gangly, and a little awkward in the girly tennis dress Richards' career was slightly buoyed by his transformation. I remember my father chuckling and shaking his head as the former man attempted the difficult combination of feminine grace and strength. Rene had become a spectacle and not much more. Few understood her dilemma. I don't think anyone cared and she quickly faded from our collective line of sight.
When Chaz takes the dance floor and sweats out the maneuvers we all get a unique opportunity to get some answers. But only if we are willing to listen. Too often the powers that give us television and movies make women sex objects; black people poor, loud, and disloyal; and Hispanics dangerous and uneducated. They provide the neat and tiny answers so that nothing needs explaining. As a black woman I've learned to quietly accept the stereotypes and swallow the anger that would bubble up when neighbors would drive by and see us cutting the grass or trimming the shrubs around our house and hand my mother their card. "You folks do nice work," they'd say as she leaned closer to their open window. "When you're done with this house, come take care of mine would ya."
What do we tell our children about Chaz? When you're the dominant group that has all of the answers it's hard to not have the ending all neatly tied up -- like when the black family in Good Times is finally moving out of the projects until just before the closing credits. They soon learn the mortgage is denied because no company will provide insurance; roll credits over the not to be derailed "oh well" celebration. Chaz's reality unscripted will spill into our living rooms whether we like it or not -- possibly leaving as many questions as he leaves answers.
I'm curious to see this drama unfold. I know that as a black woman chef in this town I've never gone by the script. I'm a college educated woman raised in a Jewish community by college educated parents. I learned to cook in a school run by a French man. My gift with fried chicken (receiving much attention of late) comes as naturally to me as my gift with hollandaise.
Like Chaz I never did fit neatly into a box that could be easily explained and put away. Even with our choices on where to eat dinner it's perhaps easier on the digestion if no hair is out of place in our neat and tidy view of the world. Customers aren't comfortable in my dining room if I'm not playing my part. Could I be as tenacious and unapologetically ambitious as my white male counterparts? Nope, I'm supposed to be self-effacing and cripplingly humble. And no matter what's on the menu, just call it soul food.
Our comfort zones remain intact if the gender-confused don't ballroom dance (tango and dip a person of the same, but now surgically opposite sex) and black chefs act stereotypically black. My father never sat me down to explain the husky-voiced tennis player and my mother graciously thanked the man in the Mercedes before taking his card. Chaz, being who and what he is can't hurt our perception of ourselves and the world, anymore than a black chef caramelizing a slab of foie gras. How can we demand that his presence needs some explanation without judging him? Despite his short hair and men's clothes, Mr. Bono is still the young girl that walked onto the stage with her mom and dad.