If you had asked me pre-pandemic if JoJo Siwa, the bow-loving merch maven and "Dance Moms" phenom, would turn out to be a game-changing LGBTQ renaissance woman, I would have snorted. However, if I’ve learned any lesson from the last year and a half, it’s that we should take our blessings as they come.
If I’ve learned any lesson from the last year and a half, it’s that we should take our blessings as they come.
If you have tween or teen children, you are likely already familiar with Siwa. Her perpetually peppy, high-ponytailed face is all over YouTube, and glittery hair bows and backpacks can be found in many a big-box retailer. All those bows add up. Since she debuted on the hit reality TV series “Dance Moms” at 13, Siwa has become the face of an empire some estimate to be around $20 million.
The Gen Z internet sensation rocked the media landscape in January when she came out as a member of the LGBTQ community. Siwa has referred to herself as pansexual, queer and gay at different times and doesn’t seem concerned with labels at the moment. Some conservative groups clutched their pearls and sent Siwa hurtful messages, but her star, already on a meteoric path, has only burned brighter.
In the fall, Siwa joined the cast of ABC’s highest-rated nonscripted show, “Dancing With the Stars,” as the first contestant to dance with a same-sex partner: Jenna Johnson, a fan-favorite dancer and five-year "DWTS" vet. While this queer writer and critic expected the pairing to be newsworthy, what I didn’t expect was how delightfully subversive and powerful it would be.
Siwa and Johnson’s first dance was a colorful quick step, where the much taller Siwa caught her partner after a slight fumble. Engaging and high energy, it set the tone for the duo. By week three, Siwa and Johnson settled in as a team, and as they did, they invited the audience, particularly the queer audience, in. Wearing, I kid you not, plaid leotards, they danced the Argentine tango to Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time.” When was the last time you watched two women dance the tango on national television?
But it wasn’t until the following week that I witnessed the true impact of this partnership on the LGBTQ community. Week four was “Disney Week: Heroes Night,” and out walked Siwa in full Prince Charming regalia. As she and Johnson did the Viennese waltz, I recalled my childhood. As a girl, dreaming of my personal Prince Charming was expected — but my heart had other ideas. Seeing Siwa as Charming was surprisingly, deeply moving, and I wasn’t alone: Queer Twitter was also abuzz.
Whenever people tell me that representation isn’t a big deal, I think of moments like this, when queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people can see themselves in something so culturally significant. Maybe your Prince Charming is a woman. Perhaps you are Prince Charming yourself.
Siwa and Johnson have continued to play with heteronormativity, dancing as fanfic favs Mal and Evie of “Descendants” (talk about knowing your audience) in a powerful pasodoble. They followed that up as Sandy and Frenchy from “Grease” for a fox trot, for which they earned perfect scores from all the judges. Even Len Goodman!
Serena, a friend and “DWTS” superfan who identifies as pansexual, summed this all up beautifully. “I’ve cried almost every week,” she told me, noting that “seeing two women dance together in romantic, nonromantic dances … just so important and magical.”
Tonight is the finale, and if these two dancers win, it will be a monumental day not just for the show and the duo, but for LGBTQ representation on mainstream television. Any time we get to be ourselves in media is a chance to change hearts and minds. Siwa could help a parent embrace their queer kid. She could be the catalyst for a gay person to come out to themselves and their friends. While I may not have anticipated this a year ago, I am certainly grateful for it now. Leave it to young people like Siwa to make an impact, just by being who they are.