A FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF AN INTERNATIONAL PHENOMENON
CMEM 652.301: Issues in Contemporary Broadcasting
Dr. Ann Andaloro
April 27, 2008
Since debuting in 2002, American Idol has instantly become a global phenomenon. The show “empowers viewers to discover
The past six seasons have left us with a host of superb talent, including Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, and Chris Daughtry, among others. These Idol alumni continue to tear up the charts; Billboard currently lists Underwood and season six Idol Jordin Sparks on their “Hot 100” chart (2008). The question remains: who is the next individual to step into the limelight and become an American idol?
Conducting research on American Idol is of great importance. The ratings juggernaut has been a breath of fresh air in light of the recent writers’ strike, and though viewership is slightly down this season, Fox has little reason to fear. Ben Grossman, author of the article “As Writers Idle, ‘Idol’ May Boom,” said that Idol faces very little in competition from other networks (2008, p. 41). Grossman also noted that because of the strike, Idol would have a slight advantage in that there would be “less competition for buzz in the television ether.”
American Idol is also worthy of being discussed from a feminist perspective. Within the past six seasons, four of the Idol winners have been females (Clarkson, Underwood,
The truth is undeniable:
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
American Idol is, without a doubt, one of the most popular reality television programs in our society.
However, there have always been those who doubt the show’s authenticity. While scandals and allegations have plagued the show since its inception, that has not deterred viewers from watching and voting for their favorite contestants. In fact, perhaps these incidents continue to breathe life into this seven year-old ratings king.
J. Atsu Amegashie, author of “American Idol: Should it be a Singing Contest or a Popularity Contest?” describes how the contest has become scrutinized for focusing more on the popularity of a contestant rather than the singing ability of the said contestant. “However, by popularity, I mean components of a contestant's success that are based on his non-singing performance or ability (i.e., popularity based on reasons other than a contestant’s ability to sing)” he says (Amegashie, 2008, p. 2). Could it be, perhaps, that the popularity of a contestant depends upon their gender, and how they portray themselves on the show?
In Allison Hearn’s article, “Image Slaves,” she answers this very question. Hearn says that the casting agents who choose contestants for the show are “looking for eye candy with issues” (2004). “They see their job simply as casting good potential 'characters', pretty people with good 'life-story arcs' — a conflicted back-story that remains unresolved and the desire to 'work through their issues' in the future, preferably in front of millions of people,” says Hearn (2004). Thus, gender and gender roles do play an integral role in the show.
What role, if any, does gender play in one’s perception of American Idol? For starters, the top 24 contestants are comprised of 12 men and 12 women; the final 12 vocalists contain 6 men and 6 women. Each week, these 12 contestants vie for votes as they essentially “sing for their lives.” In the end, though, only one individual will become the “American Idol.” Do the gender and the stereotypical gender roles of the contestant play a factor in who is chosen to win this coveted honor?
In the article, “Professor Examines Reality Television,” author Stephanie Leill discusses a presentation she attended given by Dr. Zine Magubane, a sociology professor at
Simon Cowell’s (not the judge on the program) article, “All Together Now! Publics and Participation in American Idol” discusses the cover of an Entertainment Weekly magazine (2003). The photograph features “eight (mostly) young, (mostly) smiling people” in eight boxes, surrounding the headline “The American Idol Bunch.” Cowell is quick to observe the following:
The subversion of the original text operates on the level of difference, for the images of sameness that the Bradys offer us, with their neat division along gender lines – mother and daughters on one side of the screen, father and sons on the other (not forgetting, of course, Alice, the domestic “help,” in the centre, as if the linchpin of the group) – is replaced by the seemingly random arrangement of racially diverse women’s and men’s faces. (Cowell, 2003).
Here, the traditional gender roles of the Brady Bunch are contrasted with the gender roles of the Idol contestants. By breaking Brady tradition, the faces of the idols are not limited to one particular side. Rather, the gender barrier is broken by the “seemingly random arrangement” of their faces in the standard 3x3 grid (Cowell, 2003).
Tuesday and Wednesday nights on FOX are reserved for one show: American Idol. Each year, millions of people tune into the network to watch the Idol contestants as they belt out ballad after ballad, hoping to become
First, it worth noting that among the panel of judges, only one is female. Paula Abdul, a former pop star in the 1980s and early 1990s, is the second judge. Often times, she appears somewhat clueless and absent-minded; she is usually ridiculed by fellow judge Simon Cowell for her outlandish statements and absurd behavior. Of the three judges, Abdul is perhaps the most criticized, neither by the audience nor the contestants, but by Cowell.
When examining the contestants, perhaps one of the more “unnoticed” biases exists in the day on which the contestants perform. This season, for instance, the top 24 contestants (12 male, 12 female) have performed on separate days. The males perform on Tuesday evenings, while the females perform on Wednesday evenings. Thursday evenings are reserved for the results show, in which two males and two females are eliminated each week until the top 12 finalists remain. Why is this the case? Why do the male contestants compete a night earlier than the female contestants? In the grand scheme of things, this may not matter. However, if American Idol is viewed as biased, then this may be a contributing factor to that proposition.
While the show has tried to remain impartial by allowing the same number of males and females to advance to the top 12, it becomes quite obvious at times who the favored contestant is or will be. Already this season, a young 17 year old named David Archuleta has captured
While I agree that Archuleta has an awesome voice with a great tone, I do not believe it fair to the other contestants, especially the female contestants. Archuleta may have been the last male vocalist of that particular Tuesday evening, but the females had not been given the opportunity to perform yet. This proclamation by the judges could have been held off until Thursday night, following the results announcement. It was somewhat premature, and a tad disrespectful to those whom we, as the American audience, had yet to see.
American Idol, like most everything, is prone to scrutiny when evaluating potential gender biases. Despite being the ratings leader, Idol is not bias exempt. Perhaps, we have only begun to scratch the surface of gender biases present in the show, but one thing is certain: Idol is still a force with which to be reckoned.
American Idol remains one of the highest rated programs on television, and it is quite popular among my friends and me. Each Tuesday and Wednesday, the familiar Idol theme blares from many rooms in Butler Hall. For an hour or two, homework is put aside as the residents listen to the Idol contestants sing their hearts out for a chance at superstardom.
In order to engage in an audience analysis, one must identify the audience to be analyzed. In this study, several peers, some of which also happen to be residents of Butler Hall, were asked in a rather informal interview about their overall opinions of the contestants on American Idol. These views were then evaluated before a full discussion could be supplied.
The findings of the study were, in my opinion, somewhat significant, and the results are perhaps indicative of an overall general public opinion. Three males and two females were interviewed.
The male respondents agreed that during the past six seasons, the majority of the media attention has been solely focused on the female contestants. Overall, the women have performed better throughout the past six seasons; as noted before, four of the first six winners of American Idol were females, so the resulting media publicity appeared logical. However, the women also received attention from the media for several other reasons, one of which involved racy images and photographs of several female contestants (i.e., Frenchie Davis and Antonella Barba). These images resulted in increased scrutiny on the contestants of the show.
The female respondents also recognized this dichotomy. During the past six seasons, the women noted that the majority of contestants we remember were the female contestants (e.g. Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, Kimberly Locke, Kellie Pickler, etc.). Then, they noted, there were those incidents involving Davis and Barba that only reinforced the focus of women on the program.
This season, however, both male and female respondents agreed that it is the males who are garnering more publicity. The younger, more spirited male contestants appear to be the favorites of both the judges and the general public. In contrast, the females are not nearly as popular as they have traditionally been in the past. There are no real standouts, nor is there a female candidate who is immediately recognizable. To both sets of respondents, the women are just “there.”
Amazingly, American Idol continues to grow in popularity each season. It is a ratings juggernaut for FOX, and because of this, Idol is ripe for a feminist analysis and evaluation. Both men and women compete for the coveted title of becoming the next big superstar, allowing us, the viewing audience, to take note of the gender roles each contestant seems to exemplify.
As previously noted, four of the past six winners were women; only two men have been deemed the American Idol. Why is this the case? In order to pursue this answer, the following research questions were raised: are women truly the favored contestants each season? Are these women better singers than the male contestants, or are they chosen for completely different reasons, such as looks as opposed to vocal ability?
Based on both the textual and audience analyses, one can conclude that traditionally, female contestants have been favored more so than male contestants, that is, until this season. The males have certainly garnered more attention than the females and for once, it has been for all the right reasons. The men have certainly proven themselves as worthy competitors, with the younger, more spirited males becoming the superstars thus far. The season 7 women have not really stood out; rather, they have practically stood in the shadows of artists such as David Archleta and David Cook.
Further research, analysis, and evaluation are needed to support the arguments presented. Perhaps a survey could be administered to a sample of people to either prove or disprove the hypotheses offered in this study. American Idol offers us a glimpse into the realm of “real” reality television, thus making it a worthy candidate of criticism, particularly a feminist criticism.
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