Tiny Pretty Things is one of the newest teen dramas from Netflix, and also one of the most problematic. The series—based on the young adult novel of the same name—perpetuates ballet’s ugliest stereotypes, putting the dance and its performers under a negative light and letting cartoonish characters take centre stage.
The show follows a group of dancers at the elite Archer School of Ballet, tracking each as they rise and fall and backstab one another, all while Monique (Lauren Holly), the academy’s director, does anything to protect the company’s name from controversy.
Perhaps best described as “Riverdale with dancing,” the series misguidedly grapples with tropes that not only degrade the integrity and grace of the dance but also inappropriately portrays the sexual orientation of male dancers, normalizes eating disorders, and glamourizes cut-throat competition, racism, and socioeconomic elitism.
Alongside these tropes, the series packs its ten episodes with exhausted character archetypes. There’s a misunderstood Muslim boy who faces religious discrimination because of his faith, a rich blonde who gets whatever she wants, a boy who cannot accept his gay sexual orientation, and an Asian girl who’s mercilessly pushed to her limits by her overbearing mother. And these are only the main characters.
In the show, the dancers are also subject to health scares with bulimia and addiction, backstabbing, a student sleeping with her teacher, and an abusive choreographer. This series single-handily lays the groundwork for an “all-or-nothing” approach to tired ideas about ballet.
For many viewers, criticism of the series began with its dehumanizing title. Tiny Pretty Things implies the dancers aren’t people but things, incapable of original thought or idea. This mindlessness is integrated consistently throughout the series, as the dancers only have bodies with painfully thin personalities.
You’ve probably heard it before. They are powerless. Competition is ruthless. Winning is gratifying. If they’re men, they’re gay, and if they’re women, they’re sex-hungry and a means for pleasure. Their graceful limbs are detached from any endearing emotion possible. As one dancer advises another: “You need to think like a puppet. A ballet master is the brain… You’re just the body.”
Combing through cinema’s history, ballet has long been fodder for settings of horror, entrapment, and Stockholm Syndrome-type mind games. In 1948, The Red Shoes was a cold, palatial observance of a ballerina who dances herself to exhaustion and death; 2010’s Black Swan was a psychological dive into a ballerina’s self-destruction and slow break from reality.
Ballet has always been a cheap backdrop in cinema due to the sport’s inherent competitiveness, its emphasis on younger ballerinas and early retirements. Ballet can also convey profound emotions without verbal communication, as the body takes over, and the dancer loses control of themselves. It’s an eerie transformation that even the inspiring tale, Billy Elliot (2000), can’t shake free.
Tiny Pretty Things perhaps tries to offset its heavy tropes through diverse representation. Our protagonist, Neveah Stroyer (Kylie Jefferson), is Black in a predominantly White sport. She’s given a tragic backstory, which includes the police disabling her brother in a shootout and her family members being incarcerated. Her late acceptance comes only after the murder of a White ballerina, granting her a position in the cutthroat high school.
In an alternate world, Tiny Pretty Things could’ve acted as a satire to expose ballet’s troublesome ideals. Rather than expose, the show instead leans into them to be steamy and sensationalist.
It’s nothing new for Netflix to air teen-centric dramas, as The Society, Elite, and Riverdale continue to dominate the streaming service. Tiny Pretty Things fits right in alongside these shows, staying religious to the teenage archetypes that incite cookie-cutter conformity and dissuade individualism. While the show may leap for representation, it doesn’t get far off the stage.