And in Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Why Can’t Women Win Idol? (Hint: it’s Not Because of Teen Girls).” I argued that the reason female contestants have so much trouble on American Idol is because the show itself gives men an unfair advantaged – not because a bunch of hormonal teenage girls vote for the cute boyzz.

The good news is, we’ve got a woman in the final two: Jessica Sanchez. Yes, the 16 year old who was almost eliminated during top seven week. So maybe – just maybe – a woman might win this season and end the four years of white male domination (I’m still terribly sad for my Idol crush  whoops I mean the incredible talented Joshua Ledet, who I thought should have ended up in the top two with her).

(Hey, I love him ’cause he’s talented, okay?)

Joshua Ledet Jessica Sanchez

My personal top two for the year…

The bad news is that American Idol is desperately trying to check off every.single.box on the American Idol Sexism Bingo Card.  Which: ARGH. I was hoping Idol would burn the damn Sexism card, not play with renewed vigor.

(Dear American Idol: I realize you may not have understood my last post. It was not meant as a challenge. Please stop trying to prove me right and start trying to prove me wrong (by not being sexist). Thank you)

American Idol only has two more show to go. How many more ways can they try to check off the boxes on the  Sexism bingo card?

Before we answer that, let’s look at the many ways they’ve checked those boxes in the past few weeks.

1. Jessica’s Dress-gate

“A subset of this problem is the clothes issue: while I’ve never heard a man criticized for his fashion choices by a judge, many, many female contestants have had their style questioned.” (Culturally Disoriented, Why Don’t Women Win Idol?)

On the Top 5 results show, American Idol mentor Jimmy Iovine gave a critique of each singer’s performances on the prior night. This is what he had to say about Jessica Sanchez’s rendition of “Proud Mary” : “That dress was too mature for her. I believe there were a lot of people at home last night who felt uncomfortable.”

Seriously?

Seriously?

What the hell, Jimmy?

By the way, let’s take a look at this so called “mature” dress.

Jessica Sanchez proud mary white dress

Oh the horror?

Dude, it’s a singing contest. Why are you talking about her clothes? Why aren’t you talking about her singing? Sheesh.

The problem isn’t just that Jessica’s clothes were critiqued. It’s that only women are judged for their styling decisions on American Idol. Male contestants don’t have to worry about it. Female contestants do. If you’re going to comment on Jessica’s style, Jimmy, you have to also comment on Phillip Phillip’s. Or Deandre Brackensick’s. Or Colton Dixon’s.

My favorite American Idol commentator, Michael Slezak, often talks about the women’s fashion choices. But he also talks about the men’s. If he says that Elise had a great dress, he’ll also mention the fact that Colton was wearing a weird blouse. Equality is all I ask for, peoples.

The other problem, of course, is that Jessica’s styling decisions aren’t entirely in her hands: she’s dressed by stylists. And Jimmy even acknowledged that when he said “Stylists, what are you doing? You’re torpedoing this girl.”
So if it’s not something that’s under her control, why are you devoting most of your critique time to it? Why don’t you just go talk to the stylists? You’re the mentor, you can do that.

Or, in other words, why do we seem to think it’s appropriate for a fifty year old man to comment on a sixteen year old girl’s clothing when it’s not under her control and it has nothing to do with her performance? And when he would never say the same thing to a male contestant?

It’s not appropriate. Stop doing it – or else, start doing it to everyone. Thank you.

Ah, the land of American Idol.

BTW: My brother would like American Idol to know that “it’s about the singing, not the clothes.”

2. Men are artists! Women… are not.

“The trouble is, I’ve never heard a judge call a woman an artist. Or give her credit for song rearrangement. I’m sure it’s happened – it’s not like I’ve watched the show for that long. But again, as Michael Slezak said “somehow, it’s always easier for a guy with an acoustic guitar to get credit for song rearrangement than a girl.” Female contestants like Crystal Bowersox, Carly Smithson, Haley Reinhart, Katelyn Epperly, Allison Iraheta and Siobahn Magnus would make radical – and successful – changes to songs, and the judges would never praise them for it (…) While a man can be a great singer and a great artist, a woman on Idol can only be a great singer. It’s another weapon in their arsenal that men have, and women don’t.” (WDWWI?)

I seriously did not think this would be a problem this year, given how creative and artistic the women are.

But alas, I was proven wrong.

On top seven (redux) night, Phillip Phillips rearranged an Usher song (U got it bad). After the performance, Randy Jackson said: “This year, guys, we have a true artist on the stage.”

Now, on the same night, Skylar Laine transformed not one but two songs (“Born this Way” (pop) and “I Heard it through the Grapevine”(motown)) into country tunes. Very nice, Skylar! Surely your daring rearrangements will prompt a judge to comment on how “artistic” and “creative” you are! Particularly since they liked both performances!

[spoiler alert: it didn't]

Skylar Laine does exactly the same thing as Phillip… but she’s not an artist. Someone explain why to me, so I can understand, because my brain is not computing the data (then again, I am an emotionless female robot. So… it’s no wonder I can’t understand).

Skylar Laine Born This Way

You know what would be really artistic, Skylar? If you did the same song and the same arrangement… but as a man. Now that’s creativity!

And this, my friends, is a trend. Jessica Sanchez turned Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” into a ballad (I cannot get over how gorgeous the studio recording is); Elise Testone rearranged “Bold as Love” (she also transformed a few other songs, but this was her most radical transformation)**, Skylar Laine consistently “countrified” mainstream music, even Hollie Cavanaugh made some interesting changes to “Bleeding Love.” But none of them were called artists. Oh no. There is only one true artist on the Idol stage – Phillip Phillips, the white male contestant.

Seriously, what else would poor Skylar Laine have to do to be called an artist? She plays the guitar, she rearranged songs – Elise played the piano – is there anything these women can do to get the necessary “artist” label?

I’m starting to doubt it.

(other than stealing a “Y” chromosome, of course. Jessica, why don’t you try that for next week, ‘mkay?)

The other infuriating thing is that when “artists” like Phillip Phillips choose obscure songs – specifically, “The Stone” – they are praised for it. Meanwhile, when Elise Testone chooses an obscure song (“Bold as Love”), she’s lambasted for it.

*sigh*

Moving right along…

3. Women are emotionless drones

“And, in a case of hitting someone when they’re down, women tend to get the “cold and emotionless” critique far more than men do.” (WDWWI?)

So, after Elise Testone’s performance of “Let’s Get it On,” JLo critiqued her emotional connection to the song. Then she added in this lovely little line: “they [the audience] want to know that you’re a person. That you feel things.”

OH MY GOD, ELISE IS A CYBORG! *so excited* I’ve always wanted to meet a cyborg -*

Oh, wait, that wasn’t what JLo meant. Hem. Ignore me.

But seriously, people. We all know Elise Testone is a person. Can we please stop using this critique? Because it’s almost exclusively used for women. It’s also almost exclusively used for women in fan forums where, I swear, every single contestant this season from Skylar Laine to Elise Testone to Jessica Sanchez has been criticized for being an emotionless robot.

The fact that this critique was used on Elise Testone – of all contestants – is particularly ridiculous. Elise is the contestant this season who has had the most trouble keeping a poker face and not being overwhelmed by her emotions (something she’s been criticized for quite a bit). She’s also a deeply authentic performer. Just because she’s not crying onstage doesn’t mean she’s not authentic.

Elise Testone Bold as Love

I didn’t know we made robots that looked so lifelike and human…

The judges, I should add, were specifically critiquing Elise for not getting more emotional about her terminally ill dog. Thanks, guys, for giving such a brilliant portrait of what it really means to be “inhuman.”

To me, this constant reminder that women are never “emotional” enough (unless they’re too emotional) is a really disturbing denial of these women’s humanity. In Jessica Sanchez’s case, one of the most common fan critiques is that she’s some kind of super-robot who has been raised from the age of three to be a singer, and thus she can’t possibly have any emotional connection to what she’s singing. Which is ridiculous, and impossible to defend against. I’m sure someone can give a more trenchant critique, but it seems like we automatically assume men are “connecting” and “human” while women have to prove it.

(Hey, I’ve got an idea! Since all the female singers have been criticized for being robotic, maybe they’re all part of an evil robot army whose plan is to take over the world through awesome singing! That would be AMAZING. Someone write the comic!)

Robot army idol singers

Female Idol Singers = Actually A Robot Army. It explains EVERYTHING.

4. Refusing to Critique/Overhyping the Male Contestants

“The Judges recognize male contestants more often. Two weeks ago on Idol, the judges gave an unprecedented FIVE standing ovations in the course of a single show. Every single male performer except one got a standing O, and the one who didn’t was mentioned over and over in the show as having “set the bar.” Only one female performer received a standing ovation, despite the fact that most critics thought performers like Skylar Laine or Jessica Sanchez (neither of whom received a standing ovation) performed better than Deandre Brackensick and Heejun Han (both of whom received one).” (WDWWI?)

I could paraphrase my entire last post in one sentence: Men win on Idol because they are framed as winners by the judges (and the producers).

And it keeps happening.

After Phillip Phillips had a mediocre performance, Jennifer Lopez – who specifically said that she wanted a woman to win this year – told him: ” “I need you to do songs that are going to get you to that last show so you can win.”
She specifically tagged him as a winner even when he had a bad performance. None of the female contestants have gotten this kind of shoutout.

He was also called the only true artist onstage.

Joshua Ledet, meanwhile – who, by the way, I absolutely love – has gotten an unprecedented fifteen standing ovations over the course of the show. Steven Tyler said he was one of the top two contestants to ever appear on the show (in eleven seasons). Jennifer Lopez, meanwhile, told him that he was one of the top two singers in the last fifty years.

Talk about overpraising! Top two singers in the last fifty years? Whitney Huston, James Brown, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson are all joining Aretha Franklin in singing: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”

Then the judges called on Jimmy Iovine to take good care of Joshua Ledet when giving him a record contract. Well, first, they’re assuming Iovine WILL give him a record contract, and second… again, a shout-out that no female contestant has gotten.

They keep framing the men either as the winners or as the best things since human history was invented.

Uh, it’s no wonder men keep winning if they’re judged like this.

Even Jessica Sanchez, who is pretty heavily praised by the judges, gets nowhere near this level of critique. While the judges jump to their feet for Joshua, they will reluctantly give Jessica a standing ovation. At some point, JLo even told Elise Testone that she didn’t want to stand for her, but Elise Testone’s performance persuaded her otherwise. This is something she’s never said to a male contestant. Male contestants get their ovations unreservedly… women get them with caveats.

The other problem with the judge’s critique of the men is that… well, they’re not really critiquing them. Ever. Phillip Phillips and Joshua Ledet haven’t received a constructive critique in I-don’t-know-how-long. Even when Phillip Phillips completely screws up (in ‘Time of the Season” (no, seriously, it’s a bloodbath)) or when Joshua Ledet forgets the words of his song (“I Believe”), they get free passes. The women on idol do not get this kind of free pass: if they were anything less than brilliant in the past few episodes, they were critiqued, and often quite harshly.

And it’s not that I think women shouldn’t be critiqued. It’s just that if you’re going to give men a free pass and tell them they’re “great” when they’re… not, then you have to do the same thing for women.

6. In Conclusion

Yep, American Idol is still sexist. Boo. Boo, I say.

I would really like to hold out hope that there won’t be some kind of bias against Jessica Sanchez in the finale episode – that she and Phillip Phillips will truly be judged as equals. Because that, in the end, is what bothers me so much about the sexism I see on American Idol. If Phillip Phillips wins, I want him to win because of his popularity and his hard work, not because of the show’s unconscious bias towards men. I don’t want to have to keep seeing female contestants get undercut on stage. If the men are truly better – if the men are truly more popular – they will win even without the show’s bias. But right now, the show has a bias, so it’s impossible for me to say that any result is entirely fair.**

I hold out hope that the finale will, in fact, be a showcase of both Jessica and Phillip’s talents, and that both will be praised and criticized in a fair manner. But I’m not holding my breath.

Which is why I tell you, Jessica Sanchez: if you want to be judged equally… maybe consider dressing as a boy for next week? They might call you an artist! After all, only men are artists! And they certainly won’t criticize your clothes…

Jessica Sanchez, Fallin'

By the way, you have awesome personal style. That is all.

(I’m being facetious here; please don’t hurt me).

And finally, before we all leave. Sexism is not confined to American Idol, people! Guess what other show is guilty of some pretty blatant and disgusting misogyny! The Voice! HURRAH!

Yes, on the final performance episode, Christina Aguilera dared point out that the song Tony Lucca chose to sing – Jay Z’s “99 problems” – was “a little derogatory towards women.” She also praised Tony’s voice and said “but all in all it was good fun.”

The lyrics are “”If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you son / I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”

A little derogatory. A little derogatory.

Now, of course, the real problem is that Aguilera was eviscerated for daring to point out the misogyny in the lyrics. She was eviscerated by Adam Levine, Lucca’s mentor, who condescendingly told her that “bitch” didn’t mean “bitch” but “everything bad in life.” (which is still sexist, by the way), and that the word was a “metaphor.” She was eviscerated in the recaps and the fan forums the next day.

I’ll leave most of the coverage here to Shakesville, where BrianWS writes a great takedown of the issue. But here’s my comment. Aguilera has been called a bitch many times in her career. And she was called a “bitch” for daring to point out the misogyny in Tony Lucca’s song.

Were those critics and fans being metaphorical?

What’s the metaphor?

(Hey Christina! What kind of world do we live in?)

* Elise Testone may be the most Science Fictional contestant ever. First, she’s a cyborg. Second, she covered “Bold as Love,” which, as SF fans knows, is the title of Gwyneth Jones’ incredible novel about a dystopian England ruled by rock stars. I love her. Madly.

** when I talk about fair results, I don’t mean that the best singer wins. I just mean that the results are unaffected by issues of the show’s bias, or sexism, racism, homophobia etc.

Related Posts:

Why Can’t Women Win Idol

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

A Letter to My future Russian Wife


3 Comments on “And in Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist”

  1. [...] ETA: I wrote a followup a week before the Idol finale: And In Breaking News,  American Idol is Still Sexist. [...]

  2. [...] And in Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Posted in Uncategorized [...]

  3. [...] when I randomly wrote a giant post explaining why women can’t win American Idol? And then a few weeks later, I wrote a second post expanding on the lack of female [...]


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