Dancing backwards

ginger rogers fred astaireThere’s a quote by Bob Thaves in response to praise for Fred Astaire, in which he says “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” This is a small e.g., but a good one, that illustrates how the social construction of the world locates the default in one group of people, forcing others to accommodate themselves to that. As a result, what is easier for one group makes them look better, more talented, more dedicated, more powerful etc. When in actual fact the effort the other groups have to put in to overcome the bias against them means they may only rarely be able to match up. So because in the culture where that form of dance originated men are usually taller, and some attempt at height symmetry is desired, women compensate by wearing heels (rather than say, men compensating by dancing with bent knees). The dancers have to face each other, and men have the default privilege to move forward, so women have to compensate by moving backwards. These compensations make dancing well that much more difficult. And there is no inherent reason why the world cannot be reconstructed such that the default is a shared one, except that losing their privilege makes people in power howl in protest.
The Ginger Rogers quote is often used to celebrate how awesome she was. She was definitely awesome. But celebrating her compensation hides the reason she had to compensate in the first place. Attention should turn to dismantling defaults, not celebrating accommodation.

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