From Paternal to Patronizing: The Declining Credibility of Female Contestants
by Tricia Clasen — University of Wisconsin - Rock County
June 03, 2011 – 00:00
At the outset of Season 10, the new judging panel on American Idol repeatedly stated that they were looking for an artist. From the beginning, they indicated that image would not be the deciding factor; rather, talent would be. However, also from the beginning, they revealed that artistry was best associated with being male.
Make no mistake, American Idol has never espoused a feminist agenda. In the Simon Cowell era, female contestants were often picked apart for appearance alone. However, Cowell’s ethos was primarily that of father figure. The show was set up so that the goal was to please him in order to avoid the very harsh criticism he was known to give out. This is not to say that male contestants didn’t face the same scrutiny, but to note that women didn’t have it particularly easy during Simon Cowell’s reign as the "bad cop."
The casting of Steven Tyler completely altered the landscape of criticism and the relationship between the female contestants and the "father figure." Long known as hard-partying, Tyler frequently (and proudly) referenced his exploits with women in off-handed comments. The clip provided here aired early in the season during the auditions phase. The scene revealed what would remain Tyler’s persona for the duration of the season. He’s not the commanding patriarch who sets the rules; rather, he’s an admirer of women regardless of their age. His flirtatiousness is only one part of the changing treatment of female contestants this season.
While they might be looking for talent over appearance, Tyler and the other judges highlighted the feminine qualities of the female contestants—their tentativeness, lack of uncertainty in their identity, and appearance—while focusing on the artistry of their male counterparts. Ultimately, in the post-Schadenfreude era, American Idol reduces the artistic credibility of women (girls). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the early voting period, female contestants were picked off one after another or that at the end, the two “girls” left, one was a fifteen year-old who often emphasized her own insecurities and the other was a diminutive twenty year-old frequently criticized for not knowing her own identity. When Pia Toscano was voted off, an ABC News article asked whether sexism was to blame.
Ultimately, sexism on American Idol isn’t new, but the current era of judging embraces and encourages a disturbing trend toward weaker women both in image and identity.