A show that manages to both entertain and captivate, Strictly Come Dancing has brought a welcome sense of normality to an otherwise abnormal year. An unashamed superfan, I watched with delight on Saturday as 19-year-old Maisie Smith appeared relatively unfazed by ending up in the dance-off the previous week. Returning triumphantly to smash the salsa and finish second on the leaderboard, she perhaps anticipated that last week’s disappointing result was a one-off, or simply chose to ignore the negativity.
My mood swiftly changed on Sunday, as the actor and former EastEnders star landed in the dance-off once more. I realised, along with the rest of the nation, that it was no mistake. Maisie appeared visibly upset, but as you’d expect of any strong young woman, tried her best to put on a brave face. After all, she knew it wasn’t her lack of talent, but rather the fact that – as alluded to by judge Craig Revel Horwood – she hasn’t quite managed to capture the heart of the nation yet. Without needing to say more, his comment confirmed what many already suspected: the public still can’t seem to handle young, talented and confident women.
Rewind to week one. Maisie Smith opened the show with a samba that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the final, similar to previous contestant Kelvin Fletcher in 2019. He too danced a samba in week one, he too exuded confidence and charisma, yet unlike Maisie, he went on to win not just the competition, but crucially the heart of the nation. Is the difference in approaches towards the two contestants a coincidence, or does this really go deeper? Former pro dancer Kevin Clifton certainly thinks so, tweeting: “People love a confident/talented/successful man, but a confident girl gets labelled cocky.”
The pattern we’re seeing this year is sadly all too familiar. Think back to previous contestants Ashley Roberts and Alexandra Burke, both of whom like Maisie were arguably the best dancers in their respective years, yet found themselves in the dance off time and time again. The public collectively decided they simply didn’t like them. Many would exclaim, “I just can’t warm to them”, or use the excuse that, “they have previous dance experience”, but if that were the case, HRVY would be out of the competition already this year, or even series surprise Bill Bailey, who has some dance experience to his name.
Ultimately, Strictly is an entertainment show, the results of which are neither meaningful nor life-changing in the grand scheme of things. However, the public’s response to Maisie does send an important message that will have a lasting impact on young girls watching at home: to be liked, it’s probably best to downplay your ability and to take a backseat.
It’s a message that many may recognise from their own upbringing, and certainly something I once believed. While boys in the classroom were assertive, girls were considered bossy. While boys were energetic, girls were just a handful. It’s impossible for this not to have a knock-on effect and unsurprisingly, research shows that it has manifested itself in something known as the “confidence gap”. Typically, boys grow up overestimating their abilities and performance, while girls underestimate both. Closing this gap is widely considered the lynchpin to addressing wider gender inequality in society, from the “think manager, think male” phenomenon to the gender pay gap.
In a world which celebrates International Women’s Day every year and talks about encouraging women to love themselves, it still seems that those who do so get punished by men and women alike. It’s about time we start to practice what we preach and recognise that, just maybe, it’s no bad thing to witness a young person who knows her worth on our screens each weekend. If I could speak to my younger self, I’d tell her to be a little more like Maisie.
I hope for the sake of young women watching that she dusts herself off and continues to exude the same confidence we have come to expect moving forward. Perhaps this weekend will be the time we finally get behind her and in turn remind young viewers across the country that they should never, ever dim their light in order to please other people.
Harriet Prior is a freelance lifestyle journalist