How Sean Spicer’s Dancing With the Stars debut became a culture war

Sean Spicer, clad in a puffy, gleaming, highlighter-yellow shirt, pounded on bongo drums and wiggled on Dancing With the Stars’ stage for just under a minute on Monday night, in the most anticipated moment of the show’s season 28 premiere. The former White House press secretary under Donald Trump spent his 58-second Dancing With the Stars debut shifting his weight from one foot to another and shimmying alongside professional dancer Lindsay Arnold, never quite in step with the rhythm of the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life.”

The show’s judges were not impressed with Spicer’s technique, though they did appreciate his enthusiasm.

“What were you doing there?” judge Bruno Tonioli said. “It’s like you were being attacked by a swarm of wasps.”

Spicer’s final score amounted to a mere 12 out of 30. But that’s beside the point. Neither the judges nor any viewers tuning in were expecting Spicer to be a ringer or a ballroom star.

The anticipation for Spicer’s Dancing With the Stars debut was only partially driven by a desire to see him dance on national television. More intriguing for many viewers was the fact that Spicer’s performance would mark the culmination of a wave of controversy that began in August when he and his 11 fellow “stars” were announced as the cast of season 28.

Dancing With the Stars has always taken a flexible approach to the term “star,” applying it liberally and loosely to Olympic athletes (gymnast Laurie Hernandez), NFL and NBA players (Antonio Brown; Lamar Odom), musicians (Normani), models (Nyle DiMarco), reality television personalities (Lisa Rinna; Erika Jayne), and a variety of other public figures, not all of whom are familiar faces in the average American household. Becoming more famous (Zendaya was on the show in 2013 when she was still just a fledgling star) or capitalizing on burgeoning fame (like Hernandez did after she and the US women’s gymnastics team won gold at the 2016 Olympics) is probably more important to the “stars” themselves than winning the competition.

And while the argument could easily be made that few of Dancing With the Stars’ contestants are true stars and that appearing on the show is just a shallow fame grab, casting “controversies” rarely amount to little more than an eye-roll. In Spicer’s case, however, joining season 28 was seen as an attempt to help erase his unsavory reputation in the minds of many Americans — and the show’s willingness to make him a “star” was seen as giving him a pass he didn’t deserve.

Critics were quick to denounce both Dancing With the Stars and its network, ABC, for bringing him on:

At issue was the question of whether Spicer’s participation on the show would “normalize” Spicer’s actions within a presidential administration that has been dishonest with the American people — and whether it would effectively let a man who helped spearhead that dishonesty off the hook.

Allowing Sean Spicer to play a goofy clown on Dancing With the Stars would be too kind for what this man actually deserves, his critics argued. To them, Spicer’s appearance on the show would serve as a chance to reintroduce himself to America as a harmless figure, a wiggling, rhythmless goofball. And judging by how Spicer has parlayed his debut into a narrative that he’s being judged unfairly, they’re not entirely wrong.

The ongoing controversy has transformed the typically benign Dancing With the Stars into a culture war. And no matter the eventual outcome, the real winner is Dancing With the Stars.

Sean Spicer is on a post-White House redemption tour, and Dancing with the Stars is his latest stop

Current criticisms against Sean Spicer tend to revolve around three themes: 1) Spicer’s tenure as White House press secretary for the Trump administration, 2) Spicer’s attempts to distance himself from said tenure, and 3) whether institutions like Dancing With The Stars should give Spicer space to promote himself.

Spicer’s run as Trump’s press secretary was defined by dishonesty. He’s infamous for, in early 2017, telling the American public that Trump’s inauguration drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” This was despite photographic evidence of a much smaller crowd compared to Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Outcry ensued, and Spicer later walked back the claim to say that Trump’s inauguration was the biggest when in-person, streaming, and television audiences were combined (an assertion that remains questionable).

Spicer also lied about more important matters. In April 2019, the Mueller report detailed at least two instances in which Spicer lied to the press: about who decided to fire National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and about who decided to fire FBI director James Comey. But the scope of the Mueller report was limited to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and did not investigate Spicer’s truthfulness outside of this sphere.

Spicer ultimately resigned as White House press secretary after less than a year of working for Trump and has since made a clear effort to distance himself from the reputation he gained on the job while also leveraging his tenure and experience at the White House. He secured a fellowship at Harvard; made an appearance at the 2017 Emmys; and landed a book deal in 2018 to write a memoir. Each of those significant opportunities was met with significant opposition.

At the heart of each round of anti-Spicer backlash was a resistance to the idea of “normalizing” Spicer, by allowing something as intolerable as lying to the American public on behalf of the president to become familiar and no longer reprehensible.

To Spicer’s critics, the Emmys appearance was particularly incendiary, with Spicer making a joke about the crowd size at the awards show — an allusion to his earlier tantrum-esque defense of Trump’s inauguration crowd.

“With this toothless punchline, Colbert and the Emmys cast a jolly sheen over Spicer’s tenure as press secretary, which began with that ridiculous lie about Trump’s inauguration crowd size and continued with him berating the press for asking after the truth while evading it with all his might,” Caroline Framke wrote for Vox at the time.

By giving Spicer opportunities that most everyday Americans will never have in their lifetimes, critics argue, institutions like Harvard, the Emmys, and now Dancing With the Stars are suggesting that Spicer’s behavior in the White House is acceptable while failing to hold him accountable for his actions. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes put that idea succinctly in 2017, stating that being able to move forward in life while not answering for transgressions is a true sign of having power:

Hayes’s comment also gets at the core of Spicer’s Dancing With the Stars controversy: Appearing on the show gives him an opportunity to present himself to Americans as a harmless, nice, goofy, guy. Spicer’s critics not only believe he doesn’t deserve that opportunity but that Dancing With the Stars and ABC should have known better than to cast him in the first place.

Even Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron has been critical of Spicer’s casting, though less emphatically so than others. Back in August, when the season 28 lineup was first announced, he expressed disappointment without explicitly naming Spicer.

“Chief among [suggestions for season 28 of the show] was my hope that DWTS, in its return following an unprecedented year-long hiatus, would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of inevitably divisive bookings from any party affiliations,” Bergeron said.

“It is the prerogative of the producers, in partnership with the network, to make whatever decisions they feel are in the best long-term interests of the franchise,” he continued. “We can agree to disagree, as we do now, but ultimately it’s their call.” (Notably, even though Bergeron expressed concern, he apparently didn’t feel strongly enough to quit the show.)

So now Dancing With the Stars counts itself among those accused of giving Spicer a platform to smooth over any offenses he committed while working for Donald Trump. And this criticism has been applied not only to the show itself but to anyone who hasn’t, in the minds of his critics, held Spicer accountable.

For example, Spicer’s fellow Dancing With the Stars competitor Karamo Brown — one of the five stars of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot — gushed to Access Hollywood before season 28 premiered, insisting that Spicer was “a good guy, really sweet guy.”

Many people rebuked Brown’s assessment. Celebrated author Roxane Gay tweeted that Karamo needed to, “Get a fucking grip. There is no friendship with people who enable fascism.” Others pointed out that the administration Spicer represented has systematically attacked transgender rights and LGBTQ employment protections — issues that Brown and Queer Eye say they stand for.

Spicer’s debut performance on Dancing With the Stars was easy to mock, and Spicer jumped at the chance to play a victim of liberal Hollywood.

By the time Dancing With the Stars’ new season premiered on Monday, Spicer’s critics were primed to watch and roast him.

Both the show and Spicer’s dancing provided fuel for his haters: Arnold, his partner, even said in their pre-performance rehearsal segment that Spicer was dancing at “pre-pre-school level,” explaining that “he definitely isn’t natural at it.” Then, during the performance itself, Spicer continued to miss the beat while clad in the radioactive puffy shirt.

Spicer’s performance was widely ridiculed:

Spicer’s poor score handily confirmed that his dance skills are lacking.

But then a different narrative arose on the right and Spicer didn’t shy away from it.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — friend to Trump, father of Trump’s most recent ex-press secretary, and a prominent Republican voice — had tweeted his support for Spicer, signaling to his followers that a vote for Spicer would be a vote against coastal and cultural elites. “Wanna create an emotional meltdown in Hollyweird? Vote for @seanspicer to win ‘Dancing With the Stars’ tonight and every night he’s on,” Huckabee wrote.

Huckabee’s comments align with an argument that conservative columnists and politicians, including the president himself, have long used to attack “Hollywood” in the form of television shows, networks, actors and actresses, movie studios, etc., they view as progressive and anti-Republican.

“For decades, the film industry has been a bastion of support for Democratic Party candidates,” Jeff Crouere wrote for Townhall in August. “Hollywood titans regularly hold massive fundraisers for presidential candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden.”

Huckabee’s tweet is a permutation of that argument, asserting that “Hollyweird” and Dancing With the Stars don’t want Sean Spicer around (even though the show clearly cast him in part because of the publicity he would bring).

Spicer then added to this idea, posting a (since-deleted) tweet about how Dancing With the Stars would be biased against him because he is a Christian: “Clearly the judges aren’t going to be with me. Let’s send a message to #Hollywood that those of us who stand for #Christ won’t be discounted,” he wrote.

It’s not entirely clear what was anti-Christian about the judges’ assessment of Spicer’s routine. Or, reflexively, it’s not entirely clear what was so indomitably Christian about Spicer’s salsa to the Spice Girls.

But given the criticism Spicer has faced, his track record of obfuscation during his tenure as White House press secretary, and the particulars of his post-Trump career, becoming a “victim of Christ-hating Hollywood” might be convenient for Spicer. Perhaps that’s why he replaced his deleted tweet with a subtler response to Huckabee, thanking Huckabee for his “support and prayers”:

After Spicer’s performance and subsequent tweets, Megan McCain and other prominent conservatives defended Spicer’s casting and dancing.

When he was initially cast on Dancing With the Stars, Spicer told the Hollywood Reporter in an interview that “I hope [the show] will be a politics-free zone.” It took exactly one bad dance and one episode for that to change.

ABC and Dancing With the Stars are cashing in on the fight over normalizing Sean Spicer

Spicer’s apparent change of heart about a “politics-free zone” and his move to invoke Christianity in the aftermath of his performance to “Spice Up Your Life” aren’t that odd to anyone familiar with Dancing With the Stars’ lengthy history. Throughout its more than two dozen seasons, plenty of contestants have alluded to their political or religious backgrounds. For example, one recurring storyline in season 18 (which aired in 2014) saw Full House star and vocal Christian Candace Cameron-Bure talking about how she felt the dancing was too sexy and how she wanted to “reserve certain things for her husband.”

If she was going to be penalized for her Christianity (though one might struggle to explain how a family-friendly show like Dancing With the Stars is somehow anti-Christian), she asserted, she wouldn’t compromise.

And plenty of conservative figures, including Fox News Pundit Tucker Carlson and former Texas governor Rick Perry, have competed in past seasons. Like Spicer, neither Carlson nor Perry showed much dance skill or fared very well — Carlson scored a 12 on his first dance. But neither of them was particularly controversial during their time on the show.

When Carlson competed in 2006, he wasn’t the incendiary figure he is today.

And Perry’s appearance came in 2016, after he stepped down as governor and lost the Republican presidential nomination. That nomination bid was marked by his “sorry, oops” debate moment when he forgot which three governmental agencies he would abolish if he were president. It was a clownish moment, and his subsequent Dancing With the Stars debut felt more like an extension of that clownery (Perry would go on to be appointed to a cabinet role as Trump’s Secretary of Energy) than an issue of “normalization” like the one that has plagued Spicer.

But historically, despite Huckabee and Spicer’s intimations, Dancing With the Stars has never been a hostile place for self-identified Christians and Republicans. Spicer acknowledged as much before the season 28 premiere, noting to the New Yorker, “They’ve had a lot of conservative-slash-political folks. I’d say I’m in that lineage.”

Ultimately, Dancing With the Stars is a reality competition series that wants more viewership and all kinds of viewers. In 2018, the show’s 27th season saw its lowest ratings in history for a fall finale, when it crowned radio personality Bobby Bones its champion.

And if it wants to get better ratings this season, it likely doesn’t care too much whether people like or dislike Spicer — as long as they tune in.

In Bergeron’s statement from August, he said something telling when he referred to ABC and the show making “whatever decisions they feel are in the best long-term interests of the franchise.” Given the current political climate, it’s easy to see how Spicer and his controversial role in the Trump administration would stand to draw a wide swath of viewers. And theoretically, more viewership means more advertising and more advertising means more longevity for the show.

As implied by Bergeron’s comments, Dancing With the Stars and ABC seem to have decided that whatever blowback it might incur for “normalizing” Sean Spicer wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the potential gains in viewership — maybe even Spicer’s haters would tune in — and buzz surrounding the show.

The real winner in the fight over Sean Spicer won’t be Spicer or his critics, but Dancing With the Stars and ABC. Monday’s season 28 premiere was up in the ratings over the show’s season 27 premiere.

But with that said, there’s nothing exceptionally brave, as Mike Huckabee suggested, about voluntarily appearing on a popular television show and earning a six-figure paycheck in a process. If we’re going by that definition, I’d wager many Americans wouldn’t mind an opportunity to be as brave as Sean Spicer.

Being seen as brave or winning doesn’t appear to be Spicer’s end goal.

Spicer’s post-administration behavior has seen him try to distance himself from the lies he told while working for Trump; to present himself as a good, affable guy; to paint himself as a victim of unfair scrutiny. If that narrative holds, no matter how quickly he’s eliminated from Dancing With the Stars, for Spicer it will likely feel a lot like winning. But there are some people, particularly those at ABC and the show itself, who probably won’t mind him sticking around and watching this fight play out over and over, week after week.