[Much thanks to feministe, which pointed me in the direction of Roger Ebert’s original blog post, and helped clarify why I found it so problematic. Frankly, they say what I’m about to say better and in fewer words. So go there! Much thanks also to my wonderful friend JYP, who studies science, literature and scientific discourse, for reading the post and helping me understand why the science was wrong]
[My apologies if this post is not as organized or coherent as usual. I’m currently battling the flu, a headache and a bad fever. Hopefully I haven’t said something particularly stupid; if I have, let me know]
[Trigger Warning for gendered insults, and discussions of sexual harassment and violence]
Dear Mr. Ebert,
A couple days ago (for mother’s day) you posted a blog post entitled “Women are Better than Men.” Interesting title. Provocative title. I have a few thoughts about the ensuing article (I won’t even get into the mess in the comments), if you’ll allow me to express them? Yes? Thank you. Much appreciated.
Now, before I get into the specifics, I should say a few things. First: I’m a huge fan of your work. HUGE fan. You’re one of the people who got me to appreciate movies as an art form. I think your reviews are wonderful, and your blog posts are usually well-thought, intelligent, provocative pieces. So I’m usually inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt, even when you don’t like movies I like, or you write posts that I don’t agree with.
Second: I’m a woman. I’m also a feminist. I’m a pretty active feminist, insofar as one can be: I read a lot about gender issues, I write a lot about gender issues (both on my blog and in academic settings), I think a lot about gender issues. And as a feminist and a woman, I think women are pretty damn awesome. I love talking about awesome women. I love thinking of examples of why women are awesome. I would therefore usually be inclined to agree with an article about how women are awesome. Because they are (so are men, but that’s not the point under debate at this time).
So when I tell you that I thought your article was a pretty big piece of, well, not to put it too harshly – crap – I hope you’ll understand that it’s really not personal. I really, really wanted to like your article. It was just very, very bad, and filled with the kind of problematic assumptions about gender roles I would expect from Mitt Romney rather than someone like you, who I usually think of as rather thoughtful and liberal.
You are not being the great women’s ally you think you are. I know you think you’re being flattering. You aren’t. I am not flattered. I know you think you’re being helpful. You aren’t. You’re reinforcing damaging gender norms and making them seem “natural” as opposed to socially constructed. I know that the commentators on your website think you’re being a feminist (I have no idea whether or not you personally identify as a feminist/womanist or a feminist/womanist ally). You aren’t.
Now, I’ll be clear about what I find problematic in your article. I don’t actually disagree with your idea that aggressiveness and competitiveness are over-valued in current society, and that we might be better off if we valued compassion, nurturing, diplomacy a little more etc. It’s an idea I think has some value, even if it’s a bit simplistic. I just disagree with your idea that compassion and nurturing are inherently female traits – and thus that women are better.
Let me start by saying (as a woman and a feminist) that NO, women are not better than men. Nor are men better than women. Individual women are certainly better than individual men, and there are individual men who are better than individual women. But as a monolith: NO, WOMEN ARE NOT BETTER THAN MEN.
Let me quickly summarize your argument for those unfamiliar with it: Women are nurturers and diplomats. They are “nice.” They care about others. Even though we have historically valued “competitive” and “aggressive” men, women’s nurturing niceness is actually better, particularly in modern society. Hurrah! Women are better than men!
[Spoiler alert: No they aren’t]
Sadly, I don’t have time to deconstruct all of your arguments point per point. So I’ll just focus on the basics:
1. How your science is wrong
2. Why women are really “nice”
3. Why your post is a giant problem
Let’s get into the details, shall we?
1. How the Evolutionary and Scientific Data is incorrect
Your basic premise, Mr. Ebert, is that women are nurturers and diplomats, while men are competitive and aggressive. You use evolution to back this up: women started off as child-rearers and men started off as hunters, therefore women are nurturers and men are competitive.
It’s always fun when people – and here, I’m including you, Mr. Ebert – use science to explain gender roles. Particularly evolutionary science. Now, I’m not a scientist, and my scientific knowledge is pretty limited, but I do have resources: my wonderful, brilliant friend JYP, who studied science for a long time (and still studies it) and now works with scientific discourse. Most of the trenchant analysis in this section is either inspired by, or directly lifted, from a conversation we had about your blog post.
Let us begin at the beginning.
Yes, in prehistoric societies, women tended to be gatherers, and men tended to be hunters. Now, crucially, the science that tells us this is NOT a rigorous science. We’re working off of the fossil record, not video recordings. So any “men were hunters then, so it explains why men are hunters now” arguments are built on shaky ground.
But, let us assume for a minute that the basic idea (men: hunters, women: gatherers) is correct. So (for now) I’m with you for your argument that:”Men are better are hunting, and women are better at gathering.” Then you go “Men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.” And that’s when you really slip off the rails.
Here’s how JYP explains it:
“He [Ebert] cited some “facts”: women gathered and men hunted. From those facts he’s suggesting that this was because women were better at raising children and men were better at hunting. DING! DING! DING! Clear moment in which his bias appears here. He’s talking about HUNTER-GATHERER societies, but somehow it hasn’t turned into skilled hunting and skilled gathering. No, it’s now about skilled hunting and skilled child-rearing. He’s assuming that women gathered because they had to take care of children and that’s [gathering] all they could manage.”
Least you missed it: You, Mr. Ebert, went from “women were better gatherers” to “women were better child-rearers.” These are not the same things. If women were innately gatherers, then maybe they had better attention to detail. Maybe they were better at finding things. We don’t know. But you immediately jump to the assumption that women were gatherers because they were child-rearers, and block out all other possibilities.
For the record, my friend’s anthropology textbook suggests that women took care of children because it was easier to watch children while gathering than to watch children while hunting. Which would contradict the “women were gatherers because they had to rear children because they were inherently child-rearers” idea. But let’s move on.
Another interesting argument of yours about prehistoric societies:”men are taller, heavier, stronger. They’re not in the child-rearing business.”
So, by that assumption, being tall, strong and heavy is inherently opposed to child-rearing activities. Thus women who are taller are not in the child-rearing business either, I would assume? And men who are short and skinny are in the child-rearing business, correct?
And child-rearing doesn’t require strength? I beg to differ, Mr. Ebert. I built more muscle babysitting than I did in five years of Tae-Kwon-Doe. Or, to put it in prehistoric terms: Have you ever tried carrying two kids while running away from a rival band of hunter/gatherers?
That might require some strength, right?
There are also many species of animals where the female is, in fact, bigger and stronger than the male. Scientists hypothesis that this increases the female’s fecundity, since she can better feed the child in the womb, and protect it outside of the womb. I quote: “The fecundity advantage hypothesis states, that a big mother is able to produce more offspring and give those offspring more favorable conditions to ensure their survival […] Another reason why females are believed to be larger is due to the fact that they provide parental care for a substantial amount of time while the offspring matures.”
My point here isn’t that human men make better child-rearers because they are bigger and stronger. It’s that strength and size is not inherently opposed to child-rearing activities (as you seem to believe). To presume otherwise is a fallacy.
In other words: we don’t know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. For one thing, to presume that it was because the “weaker” “smaller” women were inherently better at child-rearing is a fallacy. For another, they were hunter-gatherers, not hunter-nurturers. There is a difference.
Let’s keep moving along, shall we?
2. The “eugenics fallacy”
The biggest problem with your scientific argument, Mr. Ebert, is that you assume that our prehistoric selves are a blueprint for our modern-day selves. Prehistoric biology is destiny.
First, as I’ve discussed above, we don’t actually know why the prehistorics organized themselves the way they did. We’re only guessing.
Second, you assume that our societies (including our prehistoric ones) grew to accommodate our inherent biological traits. Men = hunters, women = nurturers. Our societies have thus always organized around men being hunters (and leaders) and women staying in the kitchen and nurturing the babies.
But! Biology itself is constantly evolving. Even if prehistoric women are inherently child-rearers, we are not our prehistoric selves.
To quote, once again, my friend JYP: “Ebert assumes that women’s and men’s ‘natures’ are fixed, and that social structures emerged to best accommodate their natures (…) The problem is that he’s suggesting that biology is the reason ‘women are better’, because women evolved this way, when he`s actually treating biology essentially. Biology itself is actually always evolving.”
Gasp! Biology itself is evolving? Do you have proof for this, JYP? Would you (even better) have proof that sexual differences (the very things that you, Mr. Ebert, cite as the reason women are better at nurturing) are evolving?
Continued quote: “[Ebert] He never bothers to consider, for instance, that there has been a significant decrease in [humanity’s] sexual dimorphism. Yes, as I always complain, on average men are still stronger and taller (…) But biological differences between men and women are diminishing. This is probably in response to the changes he’s talking about – men don’t need to hunt anymore. So they don’t have to be as big anymore. But then, also, men don’t hunt anymore – it`s no longer more dangerous for children to be cared for by men than by women. So why are women still biologically more fit to be mothers? Breasts? Dude clearly never heard that men can lactate too. What we know of evolution tells us that there is nothing essential about biology – it’s always fluid.”
I’m going to paraphrase this again by saying: We are not our prehistoric selves. Our biology – our “inherent” natures (note that I don’t believe biology is destiny in any case, but I’m playing your game for a bit, Mr. Ebert) – is always, always changing. And, most importantly, the biological differences between men and women have greatly diminished since the prehistoric times.
One of your arguments is that breasts signal a woman’s ability to “feed” her young. But apparently, men can lactate too. So…
Now, Mr. Ebert, I can hear your argument. If we aren’t simply carbon-copy blue-prints of our prehistoric selves, then why are women more likely to be nurturers and men more likely to be competitive?
Well, there’s a pretty simple answer to that, Mr. Ebert:
3. Social Roles and Reinforcement
Here’s the thing: yes, as a rule, women (in western societies) tend to be nicer than men.
You know why that is?
Because women are expected to be nicer than men. Women are expected to be nurturers. Women are expected to be “sweet.” Women are, yes, expected to be beautiful. Women are expected to give way to others, and to be social, and to be diplomatic and compassionate.
And women who aren’t those things – who don’t conform to a narrow range of behavioral expectations – are punished.
We live in a society where gender roles are rigidly policed. Where to be a “feminine” man or a “masculine” woman is a dangerous and difficult thing. There’s nothing “inherent” about gender roles: they are learned behavior.
From childhood, girls are taught to be nice. When boys push each other and fight, we say “well, boys will be boys.” When girls push each other and fight, we tell them they’re “mean” and “inappropriate.” I’ve even seen this happen in my family – where when the boy did something inappropriate, it allowed to pass with a shrug, while when the girl did the exact same thing, she was given an instant time out.
Most girl want to be a “nice” girl. Not every boy wants to be a nice boy.
You want to know why more girls go to college than boys? Same story:
In high school, boys who goof off and get bad grades are, more often than not, let off with a shrug. Boys will be boys. They’ll sow their wild oats (seriously, WTF does that even mean?) and get serious later on in life. On the other hand, girls who goof off and get bad grades are troublemakers and (pardon my language) bitches. Girls are expected to sit down and do well. Boys… not so much
This keeps going throughout adulthood.
I’ll start with some examples from the internet, since both you and I are working in that forum.
Sometimes people wonder why women don’t participate in internet activities more. The internet, after all, is the next technological frontier; anyone who has any ambition whatsoever should have an online presence of some kind. One can only conclude that women aren’t as “ambitious” as men. Or one could remember that chat room participants with female usernames receive 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames.
Do you think examples like these could explain why women are less “ambitious” on the internet? Why women, perhaps, don’t feel as comfortable there?
I’ll give some more examples. I know a lot about online harassment (mostly not from personal experience, fortunately). But I know that when women act “aggressively” – when they argue with men, when they state their opinion, when they take on “controversial” (and even not-so-controversial) positions – they are often subject to harassment. Women on the web receive hate mail. They are called bitches, cunts and whores. They are cyber-harassed in the most vicious way possible. Some of them are cyberstalked. Some of them are actually stalked.
This does not happen to men (or at least, not nearly as often).
Mr. Ebert, if you were more likely to be attacked, dismissed and even stalked for posting your opinion online, I think you would make a big effort to be “nicer” too. I know that I, as a woman who has experienced a small measure of sexual harassment online, am always extraordinarily careful about what I write and how I write it. I once posted a joke on a friend’s webpage about President Bush. His friend misinterpreted the joke, and spent the next three weeks sending me angry instant messages calling me a “cunt” and wishing I would die. Men can get away with rants. I have to be logical and measured. If I post an angry rant, I am much more likely to be told that I’m being “hysterical” and a “bitch” rather than “passionate” or “logical.”
The internet, of course, is not the only place this happens. It’s a more-or-less commonly accepted fact that women who act competitively in the workplace are seen as bitches, while men who act competitively in the workplace are just seen as ambitious. As Andy Sachs says of her mean-but-effective boss, Miranda Priestly, in the movie The Devil Wears Prada, “if she were a man, all anyone would talk about is how good she is at her job.”
I would write more about the double standards women are subjected to in the workplace, but frankly, there’s a wealth of research out there that I don’t feel like repeating. Here’s my point: of course women are more likely to act diplomatically and compassionately in the workplace. They know they aren’t going to get anywhere if they’re considered harpies.
We live in a society where gender roles are very carefully policed. Men must act like men (I am in no way unawares that men too, must deal with a great deal of social pressure to act stereotypically masculine… I just don’t have the room to write about it). Women must act like women. If they don’t, there will be consequences. You think men don’t wear dresses because all men hate dresses? Or because they know they would be mocked and bullied for doing so? The latter is probably more accurate.
Under these circumstances, it’s basically impossible to tell whether or not women are really “nicer” than men – or if they’re just conforming to our highly-policed gender roles.
We have no idea what women are “really” “inherently’ like without these imposed gender roles. We don’t even know what men are “really” “inherently” like without these imposed gender roles.
As the great Catharine MacKinnon once said: “Take your foot off our necks. Then we will hear in what tongue women speak.”
4. Why your post actually causes problems:
I wouldn’t write you this long, somewhat angry letter, Mr. Ebert, if I didn’t think that your post was actually contributing to the problem of sexism in western society. So let’s move onto the problems, shall we?
When I first read your post my reaction was: “Oh, not this Victorian Angel-in-the-House Bullshit again.” Pardon my language. I was distraught. Let me explain, for readers who are not, as I am, obsessive literature students.
The Angel-in-the-house is a concept that arose in England and English-Speaking nations (like the USA) during the Victorian period (although it has long historical roots). It’s rather complicated and there are a lot of permutations, but here’s a basic rundown: women are better than men. Women are pure, and docile and submissive. Women are truly moral creatures. Women are the saviors of society, their guiding light, their moral paramours. Women keep society pure by: nurturing good children, by creating “pure” “uncorrupted” households, and by taking care of their husbands.
The Angel-in-the-House paradigm was used to justify keeping women out of the public sphere. Women couldn’t be in business! Women couldn’t vote! Those activities would corrupt them! And then how would society function?
(fortunately, suffragettes were like “screw this “innocent” BS” and went out and demonstrated, chained themselves to fences, went on hunger strikes and used everything from politics to violence to get their rights)
I am not kidding you, Roger Ebert. One of the main justifications for denying women the vote was saying “women are better than men” or “women are nurturers” and then adding a “so they cannot be corrupted or society will fall!”
Funny how similar that argument is to yours, isn’t it? Yes, you think that women’s “better” qualities are a justification for them to become more, not less, involved with business and politics. But you’re still playing into a long-standing and sexist tradition that calls women “better” in order to justify keeping them in their place.
I would go further than that and say that you are perpetuating sexist and harmful stereotypes.
First, your argument that women are “better” because the are “nicer” make swomen who don’t fit this paradigm seem useless (or worse). If women are better because they are “nurturers” and “nice” and “diplomatic” then what about the women who aren’t? What about women who are ambitious and ruthless and blunt? Men who fit your “competitive” mold are just “being men” and following their biological destinies (at least, according to you). Men who are nurturers are acting like the “better” sex. But women who don’t act like stereotypical women? What are they? Monsters?
I have news for you, Mr. Ebert. The gender police is in this room, and you’re their captain. Careful with the gun, I don’t like violence (and no, not because I’m a lady).
Unconsciously, you’re reinforcing the idea that women must be nice. It’s not just, for you, that women must be nice because that’s the gender norm we’ve assigned to them. No, women must be nice because that makes them better. It’s a particularly insidious form of gender policing, but it’s still gender policing.
Least you think this is a rather benign failing, I will assure you, it has a real effect. Many of the women I know have gone through periods where they either pretended to be boys, or desperately wanted to be boys because they had “masculine” qualities like competitiveness and aggression. Young girls who display stereotypically masculine traits, or who want to participate in “masculine” activities are often mocked and bullied. The entire world jumped on Angelina Jolie when they saw that her daughter’s hair was cut “like a boy’s.” I once babysat a seven year old girl who thought she was screwed up because she like science and kickball rather than barbies and cupcakes. I know lots of women who have thought of themselves as failures because they don’t live up to stereotypical norms of femininity. Women often feel horrible if they don’t care “enough” about their children, or if they fail as mothers in the smallest ways – possibly because their taught that the most valuable thing they can do is rear children.
Women have enough pressure to act “like women.” You really don’t need to add to it, Mr. Ebert.
Here’s another example. You say: ” When women give birth and spend months suckling an infant, they understand better that we all depend on each other. They’re programmed to nurture the defenseless, plan for the future, value others for their qualities rather than for their externals.”
Again, this makes women who aren’t mothers seem worthless. Many women don’t have children. Many nurturing, compassionate women don’t have children. I am not a mother. I do not plan on having children. Does this mean that I am less of a woman? Am I not part of the “better” sex? Am I a man? (I just checked, by the way, and I’m pretty sure I’m still a biological woman, despite the lack of babies).
What about women who don’t breastfeed their babies? Do they not gain that special understanding “that we all depend on each other”? Heck, I learned that we all depend on each other in Kindergarden, when my friends Sarah and Mary helped me get my crayons back from the girl who’d stolen them. But maybe that’s just me.
What about transgendered women who (usually) can’t have biological children? Are they not real women? (please don’t answer that). What about women who adopt?
There’s a whole section where you talk about how men value women for beauty and women value men for their success (by the way, there’s a social explanation for that, and it’s called “the beauty myth” and “the success myth.” Look it up). I hate to tell you this, but there’s an entire class of women out there known as “lesbians.” I know. And there are even women who are attracted to men who are also attracted to women (where I’m from, we call them “bisexuals”). There are quite a lot of them, actually, so you can’t dismiss them as some kind of statistical anomaly. They were around in prehistoric times too. How do they fit into your evolutionary ideas? Are they also nurturers? Do they value their female partners for their success or their beauty?
The whole thing reminds me of a conversation I had with my grandfather. He said he had no problem with gays or lesbians (yay) and then went on to pontificate that gay men were gay because they had an imbalance of feminine qualities. When you are gay (or lesbian) my grandfather argued, it’s because you have too many “qualities” from the other sex (not so yay).
My grandfather, like you, Mr. Ebert, assumes that qualities (like nurturing) are gendered and inherent, rather than social and changing. A woman is one thing. A man is another. If they are not, it’s because something’s gone wrong.
Again and again, you make “womanhood’ into a singular mold. Women are better because they are mothers. Women are better because they have children. Women are better because they are nurturers. You ignore the diversity of experiences that make up the female sex.
The last thing you wrote that I found deeply problematic is this:”Women were not well-adapted for leadership roles in primitive and early historical times. But our emerging world economy is becoming less based on physical strength and more dependent on intelligence and emotional balance”
First, way to be historically inaccurate, Mr. Ebert. Many hunter-gatherer societies had female leaders. There were also many, many, many successful female leaders in the “early historical” period – whatever the hell that means.
Second: great job in justifying thousands of years of women’s repression. This is, in fact, possibly the best excuse for women’s inequality I’ve ever read, since it’s entirely impersonal. “Yes, ladies, sorry we treated you like second class citizens! Sorry about the rapes and repression and the witch-burnings and the poverty and the harassment and the lack of legal rights! It was necessary, you know, for as long as we needed physical strength to survive! But now that we’re a modern society and we don’t need physical strength, you can totally join the table. You won’t take it personally, right?”
I’m sure it wasn’t your intent to justify the fact that women were oppressed historically. But you just did. And your argument could be extended to explain why women continue to be oppressed: “we still need physical strength, therefore women can’t be leaders. Sorry, ladies! But we’ll totally be ready for you in another thousand years!”
5. In conclusion
The last thing you write, Mr. Ebert, is “Yes, these are generalizations. I am more right than wrong.”
Let’s pretend that I guessed there are only forks in the silverware drawer. As it turns out, there are 35 forks and 34 knives. I’m more right than wrong.
But I’m still wrong.
And so are you.
Women are not naturally “nurturers.” Women are not naturally “nice.” Women are not naturally “compassionate.” Men are not naturally “aggressive.” Men are not naturally “competitive.” Biology is not destiny.
Women are not better than men. And men are not better than women. We’re all humans. Our “goodness” or “badness’ is no more determined by whether we identify as male or female than whether we’ve got more or less melanin in our skin.
I as a woman do not want to be put up on a pedestal. I don’t want to be told that I’m going to make the world better because of my inherent “nurturing” qualities. I don’t want to be special because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be told that I’m super-attuned to the earth because I have a period. I just want to be treated like a human being. But apparently, in today’s society, that’s too much to ask.
Mr. Ebert, I understand that you probably don’t agree with this post. I understand that you probably think I’m overreacting. I understand that you’re probably thinking ” I said they were generalizations! What else does she want from me?”
So I’ll ask you for a small favor. Just stop talking about gender issues. We can pretend this whole thing never happened. I’ll keep reading your blog and your reviews. You’ll keep writing them. But if you keep writing silly, offensive, sexist posts like these, I’ll have to stop reading your work, and that would make me sad, because I really like you, Mr. Ebert. So please stop talking about gender issues.
Alternatively, you can go on the internet and learn gender issues 101 through gender issues 501. Once you get through all of those phases (and spend a couple weeks on some major feminist websites), you can talk about gender issues again. Maybe.
I feel quite guilty about my sporadic posting on the blog. But in my defense, it’s finals season at my University… and I’m not getting a lot of sleep. I might as well admit that until finals are over (April 30th), posting is going to continue to be sporadic. If anyone is following the blog, my apologies – I promise, it will get better after the 30th.
Other signs that its finals season?
- Yesterday I misspelled the word “misspelling” AND the word “typo”
- I have over 450 unread emails (by the way, if you’ve sent me an email in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance I haven’t gotten it. Sorry!)
- After my American Literature final, I ate three bags of carrots in a row. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why.
- I am slowly regaining feeling in my right hand after the aforementioned American Lit final. My reaction to the numbness is particularly worrying: “well, at least this way my hand won’t hurt during the NEXT final.”
- I used up an entire pack of pens in less than a week.
Anyways. Back to your regularly (or irregularly) scheduled blog content. Today, I’ve got a rant. Yes, a rant! I don’t think I’ve had a rant on here yet. Oh, sure, I got annoyed at the “Great Science Fiction Books for Girls”, and I had some negative comments about the Hugo Shortlist, but a real rant, with bitterness and snark and anger? Haven’t had one yet.
So yay for innovation?
[trigger warning for misogynistic language]
Last week Jessica Sanchez was voted out of American Idol. Fortunately, the judges exercised their power of veto and saved her from elimination. But it was the shock boot of the season: Jessica is widely regarded as the best vocalist left on the show, and everyone thought she was a frontrunner. She’s cute, she’s passionate, she sings brilliantly, the judges love her, the critics love her – she’s got it all. In fact, most commentators have seen Jessica as the Great Female Hope: the woman who might finally break the four straight seasons of men winning on idol.
With her almost-ouster hanging in the air, now seems like a good time to ask this question: What’s up with American Idol and the Ladies, huh?
I mean, seriously.
It’s been FOUR YEARS since a woman won. And last week, Jimmy Iovine, the producer and mentor for the contestants, said on the results show that this season will come down to a contest between Phillip Phillips and Colton Dixon.*** Well, there you go; might as well stop watching and take a nap now – we’ve got the results! Five straight years of men! Hurrah!
We should stop calling it Idol and start calling it “The White Male Idol… and the Supporting Ladies” (I’m not even going to touch on the racial aspect in this post, because that merits a rant of its own).
The woman problem isn’t even confined to the winners. If there were no gender bias on the show, we would expect some years to be dominated by men, some by women, and most to be roughly equal. But in the past five seasons, only two of the top ten singers had a rough gender parity (season seven and season eleven). By contrast, the top ten singers in seasons eight, nine and ten were mainly male – in fact, by the top eight of all three of those seasons, there were only two women left (vs. six men). Which means that for three out of the last five seasons, it was three times easier to get voted into the top eight if you came equipped with a Y chromosome.
And listen, this rant is not about individual voting decisions. If you prefer a male contestant in any given year, I have no problem with you. My feminist fervor does not extend to believing you should always, in all circumstance, support a woman over a man. Gun to head, I probably would have voted for Adam Lambert over Allison Iraheta in season 8. Gun to head, I would have voted for David Cook over Carly Smithson in season 7. If you prefer Colton Dixon to Jessica Sanchez, more power to you. I’m interested in examining the trend as a whole – not in castigating people for their personal contestant preferences. (As the great Haley Reinhart once said “It’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it”)
Nor is this rant about how the streak of male winners – Scotty McCreery, Lee Dewyze, Kris Allen and David Cook – are terrible, terrible singers and shouldn’t have won. There are perfectly decent reasons those individual singers won; there are also perfectly decent reasons why individual female contestants were eliminated. But if we rack up all those individual choices and map them out over the space of the past four years, the message is pretty damn clear. Women have a much, much harder time on idol.
There are two reasons why Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me:
1. Female Talent isn’t as recognized as male talent
(the links, in order, are Season seven’s Carly Smithson (Jesus Christ Superstar), Season eight’s Allison Iraheta (Cry Baby, exit performance), Season Nine’s Katelyn Epperly (The Scientist), Siobhan Magnus (Paint it Black) and Crystal Bowersox (Up to the Mountain) and Season Ten’s Pia Toscano (I’ll Stand by You), Lauren Alaina (Anyways) and Haley Reinhart (House of the Rising Sun))
(links, in order, to Erika Van Pelt (Edge of Glory), Skylar Laine (Stay with Me), Jessica Sanchez (Love You I Do) and Elise Testone (Whole Lotta Love))
So why aren’t they getting the recognition they deserve? Why is it basically impossible for these women, no matter what they do, to win the show?
And listen, I realize I’m ranting about gender disparity on a reality show. But you know what? It does matter. Yes, anyone who gets onto the Idol stage has a great deal of exposure. But the longer you stay on the show, the more chance there is you’ll be successful. A tenth place finisher rarely gets a record deal, a fourth place finisher often does. And the winner, of course, gets a huge boost in both exposure and sales (not to mention a guaranteed record deal). So when women are continually shut out of those spots, it means that women have a much, much harder time making a career out of their singing by going through Idol than men do. Which, of course, plays into the greater societal problems women have in getting recognition (and equal pay) for their work.
Here’s the other thing: American Idol is watched by approximately 30 million viewers. A lot of those viewers are women. A lot of those viewers are young women. When over and over and over again women on Idol are unable to win, or even to crack the top four; when you have week after week after week of only women going home (Season 10! Good times); when singers like Jessica Sanchez, who do everything it’s possible to do, are still voted out seventh – young women get the message that no matter what you do, no matter how talented you are, there is a glass ceiling, and you can’t break it. Women can be on the stage, but remember, it really belongs to the men.
So, this is bad enough. But here’s the other reason Idol’s Woman Problem bothers me.
(by the way, I realize that a year ago, I’d never watched Idol, and now I can name the ten best female performers of the last five years in a single breath. There is a land called ‘obsessiva’ and I am it’s Queen).
2. The way people react.
I am not the only person to have remarked on Idol’s gender problem. It’s pretty much a universally known fact; you’d have to have your head buried in the sand to avoid it.
And people talk about it. And they try to figure out why women are voted out so early and so often. They too, wonder why women never win anymore. And no matter what, the answer always, always, always, ALWAYS ends up being (drumroll, please): TEENAGE GIRLS.
Yes, everyone. The collective wisdom has spoken. American Idol has been completely ruined because teenage girls only vote for cute boys, and refuse to vote for talent.
A collection of quotes, for our edification:
“American Idol is ruined because all these girls are voting for the same boyfriend – I mean singer.”
“And hopefully these teen girls don’t vote them out. Stop messing with people’s careers and lives!”
“Teenage girls of America. Look, there are a lot of places to see cute boys. Google is very useful – ” “You know what they can do? They can go get a boyfriend. Or a friend who is a boy who is cute.”
“Of course, they’re going to vote for the cute boys. I mean, come on!”
A female contestant, after getting eliminated: “Once [teenage girls] get a crush, we’re done.”
“These teen girls have no clue, are dumber than a box of rocks. They’re stupid, selfish and vote against the talented ones because they’re not white boys.”
All of these comments either come from well-known idol critics (including my favorite, Michael Slezak, who is usually SO GOOD with the feminism) or from message boards on well-reputed idol fan sites. I edited some of these comments for misogynistic language. Believe me when I say that these are some of the least insulting comments I’ve seen. There’s a whole lot worse out there, and most of it involves references to prostitution or female dogs.
Over and over again, the commentary turns into an attack on teenage girls. Teen girls ONLY vote for people based on attractiveness. Teenage girls ONLY vote for boys (come on!) And then it turns into: Teen girls are stupid. Teen Girls have no taste. Teen Girls suck. Teen Girls are ruining people’s lives. I hate Teen Girls.
Inevitably, these discussions turn into a giant excuse to talk about how much teenage girls suck.
This drives me NUTS. Just… NUTS.
The implication is that teenage girls can’t possibly have taste that is unrelated to their sexual attraction to contestants. They can’t like a male contestant because they like his music. It can only ever be about his cute looks. Oh, Culturally Disoriented, you and your cute beliefs that young women can make rational decisions! You’re so funny! And so ridiculous! (but then again, you do have lady bits, so the logic thing can’t come easily to you).
Yes, let us reiterate again that teenage girls always have terrible taste, and anything they like is terrible. Hey, remember Twilight!
And it bothers the hell out of me.
Listen, I’m not sure people are aware of this, but when you dismiss an entire gender’s taste level, intelligence and ability to make rational decisions? Where I’m from, we call that sexism.
Teenaged boys are allowed to like Jessica Alba and Transformers and the first three Star Wars movies. And even though we as a culture have decided that Jessica Alba is a bad actress and Transformers and Star Wars (the prequels) are terrible movies, we don’t insult teenage boys for liking them. When people point out the misogyny in comic books, or the ridiculous way women are drawn, the reaction isn’t “don’t the teenage boys who read this suck?” The reaction is “well, boys will be boys.”
I ask only for consistency. If “boys will be boys,” then girls should be allowed to like what they like without anyone shaming them for it. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people questioning their intelligence or generosity. Girls should be allowed to like what they like without people calling them sluts.
I mean, for crying out loud, people.
Yes, let’s talk about the gender disparity on American Idol. Please. We need to do it. But let’s not try to solve the problem of female singers on idols by tearing down other women. Let’s not get into a game of “every teen girl sucks, except the teen girls on idol, who are so awesome they need to be protected from OTHER teenage girls.” (hello hypocrisy). Let’s stop taking the gender disparity on Idol as a giant excuse to talk about how much we hate teen girls, and how much teen girls are clearly always ruled by their hormones. It’s insulting. It’s misogynistic. And most importantly, it’s not true.
That’s the most infuriating thing about this whole discussion: no one actually knows whether or not the majority of voters are teenage girls, and no one knows who they’re voting for. There’s no data. There’s no concrete information. We’re just guessing. All of these allegations are unsubstantiated.
Frankly, I don’t buy the “teenage girls are ruining idol” explanation in the least. There are so many better reasons women don’t win idol. There are so many provable reasons women don’t win idol. But of course, to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has a gender bias. And it’s so much easier to blame it on the girls.
So if teenage girls aren’t to blame for the gender disparity, who is?
The show itself.
I’ll start with the judges.
Judges are important on American Idol. Despite Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer’s) claim that viewers aren’t sheep and will vote for whomever they want the contestants only get to sing for 90 seconds or so. And then the judges get to talk about it for at least as long, if not longer. You think that kind of power doesn’t matter?
Please. The people the judges like are almost always the last people standing. Last year’s Haley Reinhart was one of the few exceptions to the rule.
There are two “special” advantages the judges can give: opening up the top 24 (having an extra performer or two allowed to compete for America’s votes) – and the judge’s save, where they prevent a performer from being eliminated. The judges must be aware that there is a gender disparity – and yet they continually these “special” advantages onto male performers. This year, after selecting the top 24, the judges decided to choose an extra “surprise” contestant from the people who had already been eliminated. Of course, that person got an automatic boost because they were “saved” from elimination. It was a man.
…Yes, the perfect solution to the problem of women appearing in the top ten less is to add an extra guy. Well played, judges. Well played!
The Judge’s save, meanwhile, has been used three times. Until Jessica’s elimination, all the “saved” people were male. And even more importantly: none of the men who were saved were frontrunners. No offense to Matt Giraud, Casey Abrams and Michael Lynch, but when they were eliminated (and saved) almost no one thought they were going to win. They were really talented people who went home too soon. Simon Cowell even said to Matt as he was saving him that he didn’t think Matt could win. The people who got the save weren’t people like Adam Lambert or Scotty McCreery – male singers who had a shot at the title.
Jessica Sanchez, our sole female “saved” contestant, on the other hand is a frontrunner. Before her elimination, many pundits thought she would be the winner; almost everyone thought she’d make the top three. In other words, it wasn’t until a potential female victor was eliminated that the judges were willing to use their save on a woman. Until then, they were very happy to let women get eliminated, all while saving men who probably weren’t going to win.
Speaking of “saves.” Judge Jennifer Lopez has twice begged voters to vote for someone this season. Both times, they’ve been men (none of the other judges have actually asked the audience to vote for a specific contestant)
Outside of these special advantages, there are all kinds of invisible, informal advantages that the judges give male contestants. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think either the production or the judges are doing this on purpose. I don’t think they all sit in a room and go “yes, this is the way we will prevent women from ever winning the crown, MUAHAHAHAHA.” But even if their intention is not to cause a disparity, the reality is that the show has created an uneven playing field for male and female contestants. How have they done it?
First, 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).
Second, women tend to be far more critiqued than men. In Seasons 7, 8, 10 and 11, the main person criticized by the judges was a woman: Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado in season 7; Allison Iraheta in season 8; Haley Reinhart in season 10 and Hollie Cavanaugh in Season 11. And it’s not because the other performers are flawless either.
Look, if you’ve decided that you can’t possibly give constructive feedback to everyone and have to concentrate on one performer and one performer alone… could you at least choose a male punching-bag every once in a while? Variety: it’s the spice of life.
Moreover, the Judges – and the producers – all seem to have an idea that there’s only one template for a female singer: a cute, young, peppy, pop-balladeer. Men get lots of roles they can play successfully – grown-ass men like David Cook, young heartthrobs like Scotty McCreery; dark, edgy rockers like Adam Lambert; masterful musicians like Casey Abrams and Kris Allen.
Women are far more restricted. Many critics (and fans like me) believe the reason Haley Reinhart was torn to shreds on a weekly basis by the judges (despite her near-flawless performances) was because she was a blues-rock singer. Meanwhile, her competitor Lauren Alaina, a country-pop balladeer, was almost never criticized. Simon Cowell spent a good ten hours of Season 11 making fun of Siobhan Magnus for being “weird.” Allison Iraheta, a sixteen year old Rocker, received critiques from the judges for not having any “personality” and being too “dark.”
Iraheta who had a delightful sense of humor, once replied that it’s “not like I’m cutting myself.” These remarks are particularly ironic because Allison shared the stage with Adam Lambert – possibly the most provocative, darkest performer to come on the idol stage (I say with love – I’m a huge Lambert fan) – and who was never critiqued for his performance style.
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. Allison Iraheta and Carly Smithson being the two who come to mind first – and they were, of course, women who didn’t dress like pop stars. They dressed like rockers.
(possibly because they WERE rockers)
As Michael Slezak once said, “Simon isn’t happy unless the women are Whitney Huston and singing “Against All Odds” in a pageant gown.”
Unfortunately, even though Simon Cowell has left American Idol, his attitude remains. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whitney Huston. The problem is that while men will be praised by the judges for all kinds of performance styles, women will only be praised if they fit the One True Female template. Men have all kinds of roads to the title; women only have one. And it’s all kinds of ironic, because the women who dominate the pop-charts right now – Kei$ha, Lady Gaga, Adele – are not cute, peppy pop-balladeers.
(I should add: Lady Gaga’s fanbase is primarily young… and female. So the “teenage girls only like cute conventional boys” narrative? Not so much.)
Women also almost never get credit for “artistry.” Judges will tell contestants like James Durbin or Casey Abrams that they weren’t just singers, they were “artists.” Usually these praises come after a contestant has done something really interesting with their song, rearranging it or reworking it in order to prove that they’re not just singing Karaoke. Which is great, and they should be praised for doing something original. “You have the heart and soul of an artist,” Jennifer Lopez said to James Durbin last season. Randy once said to a male performer that he was proud to be judging “artists” as well as “pop stars.”Kara DiGuardi called Matt Giraurd a “true artist.”
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. And yes, this does matter: I don’t always know when a song has been rearranged, because I’m not always familiar with the original. So when the judges tell me Adam is a great song re-arranger, but never mention Allison’s endeavors, I assume Adam is a more well-rounded singer/artist than Allison.
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.
Speaking of things men can do, but women can’t: women can’t make the judges emotional. I realize this sounds like the weirdest critique ever, but seeing a judge cry or lose it because of a performer makes a huge difference. After listening to ninety critiques, I always remember the ones where Jennifer Lopez started crying.
And when you think back, the people who have made the judges cry? Men. James Durbin. Chris Medina. Joshua Ledet. Adam Lambert. Michael Lynche. Lee Dewyze. Listen, I can’t necessarily yell at the judges for crying – it’s not a reaction they can control. But when the judges don’t cry, they’ll often say things like “this touched my soul” etc. And even then – even when no physiological reaction is needed – they usually say those things to men. Well, of course, Culturally Disoriented. Don’t be ridiculous. Men are artists. And they can affect you emotionally. But women? Women can be pretty, and perfect – but they can’t make you cry.
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.
Speaking of which, I’m going to turn back to the teen girls issue to talk about the “cuteness” factor. You know what group of people are really, really, REALLY obsessed with cute boys? (hint: it’s not teen girls).
It’s the Judges (and the Production).
Listen, maybe teen girls are voting for male contestants because of their looks. But the judges are practically begging them to do it. During critiques, they’ll pause to ask the audience: “Ladies, what do you think of this man?” Or Jennifer Lopez to Casey Abrams “I think you’re sexy!” Or Simon Cowell will tell Kris Allen that it was a mistake to reveal “the wife” too soon (because Kris should pretend to be an available heartthrob).
And this kind of critique happens all the time. The message? You should pay attention to these boys looks. They matter. (Sometimes they seem to matter more than the actual singing – I remember a Casey Abrams performance where all the judges could talk about was his “sexy” appearance).
During Top nine week of Season 11, Nigel Lythgoe (the executive producer) actually went into the audience and pushed a group of girls onstage to hug Scotty McCreery. The host, Ryan Seacrest, started calling Scotty “Scotty the Body” (urgh. God. No. Please. No. (he’s sixteen, you maniacs)). The judges and the production basically frame these men as sex objects.
(Seriously, judges/ producers. Don’t you have google? Don’t you have access to boyfriends or hot-friends-who-are-men? Why else would you constantly comment on the male performers looks, or turn them into sex objects?)
But they judges don’t do the same thing for female performers. Despite the fact that Haley Reinhart, Pia Toscano and Lauren Alaina were all attractive women, the judges never said to them “the boys at home are really going to eat that up.” (excuse my heteronormativity here). When Crystal Bowersox had a boyfriend, Simon Cowell didn’t tell her she should “hide” that information in order to seem available. Nigel Lythgoe doesn’t send a group of teen boys to hug Jessica Sanchez or Skylar Laine.
I know the judges call the women “beautiful.” But there’s a difference between calling someone “beautiful” and “sexy.” Sexy frames you as an object of desire. And desire… makes people vote. It reminds me of So You Think You Can Dance, where Cat Deeley introduces the contestants by saying “these are the girls… and here are your boys.” The “your” makes it more personal; as an audience member, you’re instantly more engaged. Comments like “ladies, what do you think of this man” have a similar effect.
Listen, I’m kind of grateful for the lack of sexual objectification, to be honest. I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Lauren Alaina, or sixteen year old Jessica Sanchez, as an object of lust. Steven Tyler’s already crossed the line a few times, and it was super-awkward. But I don’t want to see the judges framing sixteen year old Scotty McCreery as a sex object either (gaaaaaah). There’s got to be a happy medium. Maybe dial back the sexualization of the boys, and throw in a few remarks like “I’m sure all the boys appreciated that song, Jessica.”
Commentators are right on one count: sex sells. And when only men are framed as sex objects, when only men are “cute,” when only men are desirable – then men have a distinct advantage. And if you’re not going to give the “sexy” edit a rest for men, then girls should get it too. At least sexualize equally, damn it!
(*AHA. Last night Steven Tyler said that Elise’s singing struck a chord in every man’s heart. Clearly, he’s reading my mind.)
Here’s my point (which has been almost twenty paragraphs in the making – I prefer my rants long and bitter). Maybe people aren’t voting for the best singer anymore. But neither are the judges. Over and over, the judges emphasize that you should vote because of “artistry” and “emotional connection” and “hotness.” The standards have changed.
Perhaps this wouldn’t matter if women were praised for artistry, looks and emotions. But they’re not: only men are “hot” “artists” and “emotional.”
It’s no wonder women can’t win American Idol. They’re thrown into the ring with only one path to victory – cute pop-ballader – and no weapons. They must fight their way through judge critiques of their personality and clothing, and pray they won’t be a scapegoat that season. Their male competitors, meanwhile, get the weapons of “hotness” “artistry” “emotional connection” and “overpraising.” They get the “special advantages” of Judges saves and extra spots in the Top 24. And they have many, many paths to victory – from rock to pop to soul.
We live in a misogynistic society. It’s sad, but true. I’m not surprised that we see that misogyny manifest itself in the format of American Idol. I’m not surprised the judges favor men.
Like Elise Testone so appropriately sang: this is a man, man’s world…
I’m not, at the end of the day, even that surprised that people refuse to see the very real, provable reasons why women don’t win American Idol. Because to acknowledge those reasons would be to acknowledge that the show itself has problems with sexism.
And it’s so much easier to blame the teen girls.
Ironically, the people who have the biggest problem with women and Idol? The (non-female, non-teen) fans. The fans who, every time this issue is raised, go to the message boards and rant about the “stupid teen girls” and the “sluts” and the “bitches” who keep their favorites from winning. The fans who call teen girls whores, and accuse them of wanting boyfriends rather than voting for talent. The fans who say teen girls can’t have taste.
Those fans? Those fans have serious problems with women.
And so does the show.
But like I said: it’s so much easier to blame teen girls.
And so that we all remember that:
a) Teenage girls are awesome
b) Women on Idol are awesome
I give you teenager Allison Iraheta’s exit performance of Cry Baby
ETA: I wrote a followup a week before the Idol finale: And In Breaking News, American Idol is Still Sexist.
*** ETA: I wrote this post BEFORE the top eight results, when Colton Dixon was voted off the show. Colton’s exit means it’s the first time in who knows how long that there are more women on the show than men (hurrah!). It also means that Jessica Sanchez is safe for another week (hurrah!). I do think my commentary is still applicable – the Jessica Sanchez situation is one example of a much wider situation. It should also be noted that this means that all the contestants have been in the bottom 3 except Phillip Phillips (male) – and that no one who has appeared in the Bottom 3 before top 5 EXCEPT Fantasia Barino has gone on to win the show. Which… is a not-so-good sign for the women.
I do hope that the trend of women losing Idol is reversing course. And I hope there is a female winner this year – I prefer the women to the men this season, although I do love Joshua Ledet. And I was a Colton fan, I will admit, so I’m sad he was voted off.