Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Sis/Bro

John and Sinead Kerr; Photo: Reuters

Okay, this post is going to have to be a little delicate in nature. On our sensibilities, and...on our stomachs.

On Tuesday (February 23, 2010), the big story was the well-deserved gold medal victory of Canada's own Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the previous night at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. Or perhaps it was even the silver medal finish of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Right?

Not so much if you read some of Wednesday's Facebook status messages of individuals who were dismayed upon recently discovering that more than a few ice dancing pairs were comprised of siblings (this did not include any of the medalists). Yes, that's right, brothers and sisters doing the tango and/or other close-quarter ballroom-style dances on ice. Just how close? Take a look at the image above.

Before I proceed any further, let me be absolutely clear. I am in no way suggesting that any sibling-comprised ice dancing pairs are in any way, shape, or form actually involved or otherwise engaged in any type of romantic relationship on or off ice. They are merely acting/simulating a role that suggests a passionate and romantic relationship for the purposes of the performance solely.

Notwithstanding the discomfort it may give to people to see two siblings simulating a romantic couple in a passionate dance, present company most certainly included, I think it is worth stressing a couple of positive things about these dancers.

Like all other ice dancers, they have to train for rather long hours and devote a great deal of time, effort and hard work to perfect their art. Add to that, as siblings they may have to pretend or simulate a romantic relationship requiring them to forget that they're siblings during their ice dance performance - and perhaps just as challenging or more so - to get other people to forget it as well. Some sibling ice dance pairs might tell alternative stories that lead them away from the more romantic narratives traditionally associated with performances in an ice dance competition. See the Wall Street Journal article by Geoffrey A. Fowler for more of these dancers' perspectives on this and the narrative strategies they employ.

Furthermore, from the perspective of critical legal pluralism, such ice dance pairs are (intended or not) challenging the normative expectations of (at least probably a fair portion of) the viewing public that frowns upon the notion that such pairs should even try and simulate a romantic aesthetic on ice. More than just an act of resistance (if at all), they are advancing an alternative vision of legal normativity within the context of ice dancing competitions - one that demonstrates that siblings can skate together in an artistic manner while hinting at a romantic interplay between two characters rather than as the dancers themselves.

Still, this goes up against some rather powerful norms against siblings engaging in such representations. Let's leave aside for the moment any state-based norms that might prohibit such performances (I know of none) - this post is more about legal normativity in the legal pluralistic sense that recognizes the impact of non-state or societal norms (as legal norms) on human conduct. One non-state legal norm in question might be articulated as follows: "Thou shall not portray within an artistic medium a character in a romantic relationship if your character's lover is played by your real-life sibling."

There is probably more than one good reason why sibling actors for example do not play romantic roles opposite one another. Apart from the mental (and emotional) acrobatics it would take for an actor to forget that they are kissing their sibling in a manner that most, in like circumstances, would find revolting, there would likely be a commercial backlash that would come in the form of a boycott at the very least.

The analogy of romanticism in ice dancing to screen acting may seem like an unfair one. After all, ice dancers aren't kissing during their performance (at least in none of the few that I have seen). Yet, the "problem" has more to do with the substance (two siblings portraying non-familial romantic partners) than the form in which that simulated romantic relationship expresses itself (through kissing or close contact dancing). One form - kissing - might stimulate more revulsion than say two siblings doing the tango on ice, but perhaps it's more a matter of degree.

Legal norms emerge from within a particular cultural space. Some are distinctly reflective of a particular time and jurisdictional mindset, while others are more transcendent. Time will tell whether the ice dancers that are the subjects of this post are on their way to changing legal normativity by refusing to succumb to the types of norms suggested above. For now, I think more than a few people are thankful that Virtue and Moir aren't siblings.


Geoffrey A. Fowler, "That's Your Sister?" Wall Street Journal (19 February 2010), online:

Roderick A. MacDonald, "Metaphors of Multiplicity: Civil Society, Regimes and Legal Pluralism" (1998) 15 Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 69.

Image: Photo of John and Sinead Kerr; Photo by: Reuters.

1 comment:

سلمی said...

It was an interesting subject Amar. For me, such performance works the opposite way. Based on the legal norms in my country, esp. after revolution that media emphasizes on such norms, any touch between a man and woman is prohibited and is considered "bad" social behavior. Under such circumstances, the only thing that can justify such "touch" and prevent judgments is being siblings/father-daughter/mother-son etc. I myself feel much comfortable when I see such performance between siblings! I know it is weird for you and for many in the West but it is how the normativity of many people in my country is formed. However, I believe the norms change fast and I have witnessed many of those changes in Iran.