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"You're going to Hollywood"! :
b gender and race surveillance and accountability in American Idol contestant's performances
h [electronic resource] / by Amanda LeBlanc.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
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Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
ABSTRACT: This paper examines how the reality competition television program American Idol serves to reinforce gendered, racialized and heteronormative stereotypes, particularly for female contestants. Through its "democratic" style of public audience voting, those competitors who not only sing well, but also perform their gender and race to standards which have been deemed by the judges to be appropriate mainstream American culture, prove to be the most successful on the program. Through a content analysis of the show's first four seasons, I find that those female contestants who begin their tenure in the contest by fitting into categories which would be considered stereotypical for their gender and race, and continue to appear and behave in this manner, move farther along in the competition than their peers appear to be more innovative. I also find that while the judges comments suggest that American Idol purports to be looking for someone "unique," the contestants who do well in the competition are in fact not exceptional, but rather fit into "conventional" performances of either white or African American women. Those who present themselves as too different, that is, "deviant" from gendered or racialized performances end up being voted off the show before getting their chance to be crowned American Idol.
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Advisor: Sara L. Crawley, Ph.D.
x Women's Studies
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
American Idol by Amanda LeBlanc A Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Sara L. Crawley, Ph.D. Gary Lemons, Ph.D. Kim Vaz, Ph.D. Date of Approval: April 1, 2009 Keywords: stereotypes, reality television, heteronormativity, repitition, gaze Copyright 2009, Amanda LeBlanc
i Table of Contents Abstract ii American Idol Phenomenon 1 Chapter Two: Literature Review 8 Surveillance of Bodies 11 The Gaze 17 Gender Race, and Sexuality 22 Chapter Three: H ow to Play the Game (And Win) 28 Methods 29 Sticking to Stereotypes 36 Chapter Four: 50 American Idol 62 Future Directi ons for Feminist Research 6 4 References 70
ii Accountability in American Idol Amanda LeBlanc ABSTRACT This paper examines how the reality competition television program American Idol serves to reinforce gendered, racialized and heteronormative stereotypes, particularly competitors who not only sing well, but also perform their gender and race to standards which have been deemed by the judges to be appropriate mainstream American culture, prove to be the most successful on the program. Through a content analysis of the the contest by fitting into categories which would be considered stereotypical for their gender and race, and continue to appear and behave in this manner, move farth er along in the competition than their peers appear to be more innovative. I also find that while the judges comments suggest that American Idol purports to be looking for someone ceptional, but racialized performances end up being voted off the show before getting their chance to be crowned American Idol.
1 Chapter One American Idol Phenomenon We all have our vices and I have mine: American Idol For the past seven springs I have literally rearranged work and school sc hedules in order to be able to w atch the live performances, well, live Watching a recorded episode simply will not do for this devoted fan Every Tuesday I need to see for myself what the Idol contestants will choose for songs, outfits, hair styles, and even mak eup As an educated woman who barely cares about such details concerning my own friends and relatives, how is it that I am obsessed with the superficial facts about complete strangers? As both a viewer and a voter, I am made to feel as a stakeholder in th The premise of the show, of course, is that I at home, along with the 25 million American viewers ( Nielson Media Research, 2009 who goes home. There is much more to American Idol and other reality voting contests than meets dazzle their viewers with whatever entertainment they are providing, for most people, only the surface is visible The incredible success shows like Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Survivor, The Bachelor or The Apprentice the unscripted as well as the capability of seemingly everyday people to participate, and sure we want to know what is happening behind the scenes of the Idols or B list
2 celebrities each week, but we often forget that there is something very structured going on behind those supposedly unprompted scenes. My project focuses on the gender performance of American Idol contestants I chose this particular program because it is among my favorite television shows, and in fact the only reality program I watch at all Many other, very successful, reality progra ms seem to insult intellect on the basis that they overtly 1 perpetuate stereotypes and are often explicitly contrived, as so called confessionals are clearly in an interview However, I continue to tune in to Idol each week because not only does the program dispense with the backstage, the camera is on you at all times premise, but I also like to sing very much So like much of the American Idol fan base, I am a wanna be, and derive much pleasure in critiquing the American Idol experiences with vocal coachin g, a sense of identification with the contestants and the joy derived from determining the fate of others while at the same time ensuring m y own success by identification with the winners and their subsequent fame. The first televised talent show was The Original Amateur Hour hosted by Ted Mack, which premiered in 1948 (Huff, 2006) Winners of the program include Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knig ht and Pat Boone, and those who did not make the cut include Elvis Presley and Wayne Newton (Huff, 2006) After this, the Gong Show and both the original Star Search and its late 1990s incarnation were all mildly prosperous successors 1 I will argue that American Idol rewards behavior and appearances that are considered stereotypical, or blatantly
3 (Huff, 2006) It debuted The Real World (Johnston, 2006). Since this wildly popular docudrama now in its 21 st season, about spoiled and often drunken strangers being forced to live together under 2 4 hour camera surveillance, over 300 other reality shows have entered the airwaves in the U.S (Johnston, 2006) Johnston (2006) also points to a 2001 demographics study which showed that forty five percent of Americans watched at least one reality program, with twenty seven percent of those people admitting to being ha In the late 1990s, in the United Kingdom, a singing and performing group competition program called Popstars garnered a lot of attention and decent ratings, but after only one season its producer, Simon Cowell was toying with the i dea of finding the one pop star rather than a boy/girl band (Huff, 2006; Cowell, 2003 a ) The winner of the first season of Pop Star sold two million records in the U.K in the year 2000, and Cowell and his partner Simon Fuller saw an opportunity for big t ime success in the United States (Cowell, 2003 a ) In the summer of 2001, American Idol made its debut as a summer fill in show on the Fox Network The basis and progression of the show is simple The first four weeks are devoted to the airing of the national auditions, which took place months earlier and are now edited down so the public can see a few talented individuals go in front of the judges, as well as many awful crooners simply included for comic relief and sensationalism. The judges are for mer Journey bassist and music producer Randy Jackson, 80s dancer, choreographer and pop star Paula Abdul and British music mogul
4 Simon Cowell. T hose who do make it to Hollywood must now audition for the judges in groups, alone with assigned songs and al one a capella with songs of their choice Thirty two finalists are chosen from this stage to the next, which begins the popular voting of who will be the next American Idol Once the pool is whittled down to twelve finalists, the show moves to a bigger auditorium with a much larger stage and studio audience The performances are now live, and with a full band to back up the singers. These performances take place on Tuesday nights, and viewers have two hours after the show closes to vote for their fa vorite contestant or contestants On Wednesday night, after about twenty eight minutes of filler, the contestant with the least number of votes is eliminated from the competition This continues for the twelve weeks until one singer is ultimately crown ed the American Idol, and is given a one year, one million dollar contract with 9 Records, a subdivision of Arista Records, under the legendary music producer Clive Davis While the first season of American Idol aired during the summer of 2001, by the Se ptember showdown between Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, twenty six million people were tuning in (Cowell, 2003 b ) Now in its eighth season, American Idol averages twenty seven million viewers a week for both the singing and the results portions of th e show ( Nielson Media Research, 2009 ) Those millions who are glued to their televisions every week have most of the same motivations for watching the show that I admitted to above Reality shows, and more specifically talent shows like American Ido l, Nashville Star or Rock Star to collapse the distance that separates those on either side of the screen by cultivating the The
5 premise of American Idol plays off the notion that not only is there such a thing as the American Dream, but you at home can achieve it Or rather, anyone can attempt to achieve it (Cowell, 2003) Even those with no discernable performance talents have the opportunity to gain visibility, whether through a ghastly audition, a camera catching costume, or such outrageous behavior that the producers are sure to notice you While the ridiculous people in the preliminary auditions will most likely not gain the status of the American Idol they have acquired that much coveted visibility ( Cowell 2003 b ) Those with some singing talent will advance in the competition, however, and will withstand almost c onstant visibility It is this public pedestal that I argue creates a surveillance and accountability system for the Idol contestants, whereby much more is at stake than simply their vocal abilities When the voting audience holds the Idol contestants to class, and body type (rather than just singing talent), the audience is reflecting, and while detailed demographics of who is watching the program are not available, regardless America n Idol pleasing and entertaining to a perceived dominant, mainstream audience, which is assumed to be white. Reality competition television shows such as American Ido l, while seemingly advancing those contestants who possess the most talent, also reward those whose
6 contestants embody themselves is of the utmost importance to their s uccess on the show, for even if they make it past the preliminary rounds where only the judges reside, they will soon face a much hi gher, and stricter, authority; the American public American Idol serves not only to perpetuate the constant surve illance of male and female bodies as they appear in the public eye, but also literally reinforces our accountability to appropriate performance when America votes for who should stay and who should go The viewing public uses its understanding about how young pe ople, particularly women, are supposed to dress, behave, and speak, to either reward or penalize those on the American Idol stage. Since it is the young Idol competitors in the spotlight every week, we take for granted that it is only their fate that is a t stake during the contest, yet the voting public has much to gain or lose when people who look or act like them are either voted to move along or off the program. If the Idol then maybe neither did I. For my analysis, I will focus mainly on the scrutiny faced by the female competitors on American Idol for females have long been the ones who have been oppressed by mainstream conceptions of beauty, created and perpetuated by privileged men The female c ontestants who do best on American Idol are those who sing well, but also who conform to mainstream ideals of the feminine body American Idol not only portrays stereotypical images of men and women, but also seeks to reinforce expectations of race, clas s, and sexual ity. While my main focus is on the reward and punishment system that American Idol contestants face based on their perceived gender
7 performances, I additionally examine d how the competitors are held accountable for their representation of ste reotyped notions of their ethnicity, class, and sexuality As noted above, those female contestants who advance far into the competition must possess singing talent and approximately the ideal feminine body, but additionally an appearance that conforms to expectations concerning their (perceived) race, class, and sexuality Through a n four seasons, I found that those female contestants who betray the image that they began the show with are penalized both verbally by the judges, and often by the American audience by the withholding of votes I also found that while the judges often praise c ontestants who they deem as unique, success on American Idol lies in limit ing well as to what is often considered appropriate gender and racial boundaries are what ultimately the key to success on American I dol not individuality. the Idol voting for our been held accountable to standards regarding our gender, ethnicity, class, and (sometimes perceived) sexuality, the voting audience of American Idol further passes this judgment on to those on the stage. We have all felt the impact of this surveillance, and yet the voters of this program continue to hold the Idol contesta nts accountable to physical values based on white, middle
8 Chapter Two Although it can be argued that what we know as reality television has been around since about 199 0 (MTVs The Real World ), the genre has exploded in popularity over the last decade for a number of reasons, including relatively low production costs and a large been in terested in analyzing the media as a site where misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic ideals have been perpetuated, what little work exists on the social analysis of reality television is not being produced by feminist scholars When analyzing conte mporary media culture, utilizing a postmodern lens is Additionally, the postmoder n (philosophical) movement aims to critique Enlightenment reason and the notion that there are universal Truths. Rather than theories and ideas that are rooted in essentialist and foundationalist discourse (as is characteristic of a ), that is, something that is true for all people at all times, different societies and periods and to that of different groups within different groups and periods (Frase r & Nicholson, 1990, p.35). Fraser and Nicholson (1990) and Nicholson (1994) note that these concepts developed concurrently in the second wave of the feminist movement, and while there is no perfect marriage between the two viewpoints, a
9 postmodern femin ism would be beneficial in that theories would become characteristic of many earlier second wave theories (see Firestone, Chodorow). Flax (1990) similarly points out th at a postmodern feminism is useful for explaining and interpreting the human experience with recognition of a metatheoretical method of raising questions and critiques about theory and the process of theorizing itself. Nicholson (1994) sums this though t up well in her desire to expand the widely held well (p.85). So when examining texts of contemporary popular culture (such as American Idol) through a postmoder n feminism lens, I must seek to analyze contestants performances in the context of not only our specific time and location (21 st Century North America), but also account for the differences between and among different groups of people. Additionally, it is important to note that while I have given this particular reality television program much thought and critical examination, we must remember that the voting audience that I am also holding accountable is presumably not theorizing about why they are voting or not voting for a particular contestant, so my metatheorizing is only as important as it lends itself to the question of: So what? It is vital that we (both theorists and those watching these programs at home) then be able to see our favorite so called reality programs through such a critical eye, and while still enjoying them, be able to see past their claim of authenticity. Reality television operates through a n assert ion of legitimacy, distinguishing itself from earlier forms of popular broadcasting, such as the daytime soap opera, or thrilling
10 drama (Trottier, 2006) The viewers are told that they are being provided access to witness the joy, pain, accomplishments and suffering of those who participate in the reality show, we are supposed to be seeing the real emotions of real people as opposed to those bei ng acted out by prof essionals. Since it is (supposed to be) unscripted, our gaze Andrejevic (2003) also notes that when it comes to the majority of reality television, such as Survivor, Real World or the now canceled Temptation Island it is most often the suffering, the crying and the anger that make it on screen, while the displays of other emotions are left on the cutting room floor Further, many of these programs contain dialogue, conflicts, and emotional moments which may have been set up by the show Survivor first season contestant alleged that producers wanted to keep a more dramatic competitor on the show so badly that they went so far as to manipulate the voting process, clearly violating th and not actors living their everyday unscripted, daily lives, we still expect them to behave and react as though they were on As the World Turns That is, these shows are shot from perspectives that we want to see them through While the majority of Americans do not spend their nights navigating torrid love triangles and their days
11 attempting to win outlandish physical, intellectual and financial challenges, for the sake of ratings, it is still critical that reality television st ars engage in such extreme behavior in an attempt to capture our attention Surveillance of Bodies and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, mo ral or Further: The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us about how to behave and what to think, feel, behave, fear, and desire and what not to The media are forms of pedagog y that teach us how to be men and women; how to dress, look, and consume; how to react to members of different social groups; how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices and institutions (5) The competitors in the American Idol contest, like those of other reality television programs, offer themselves up to situations whereby they are under constant surveillance well, 2003 b p.3) in the hopes of someday soon becoming a household name However in doing so, they offer their bodies as the tools of public pedagogy to, specifically, those young people watching from their homes The pervasive messages about how to act look and articulate ourselves in public surrounding us constantly giving us instructions on how to behave appropriately (Crawley, Foley & Shehan, 2008 p 1 36) When we examine American Idol an example of the concept of surveillance and accountability emerges We feel the effects
12 of pervasive surveillance in our everyday lived experiences, yet rarely s poken are the words that keep us from straying from wh The instant celebrity, coupled with the potential stardom that the young Idols face leaves them When they take the stage each week, we not on ly critique their vocal performances, but their hair, The critiques from the three judges also are not always content based, as judge Simon Cowell (2003 a ) points out; rather appearance has much to do with who America wants as its next pop star In his book, Cowell points out how he thought of runner p.186). O n the one hand we may not think of hair style and vocal performance as necessarily having to do with one another, while they are on the big stage singing in front of America, how the contestants, particularly the female competitors, embody them selves is critical. Through the media, the American Idol contestants can actually hear what the voting audience is presumably saying about each one of them for while actual voting tallies are not released, it is made public which contestants Throughout the competition, the audience watches them individually perform, and then makes (what they believe to be) objective judgments about them, such as commenting to a roommate about a hairstyle, and then continue to make a very real judgment about what was just witnessed when they pick up the phone and vote for their favorites The voting process is different from the system
13 that many Americans are familiar with, for example, local and national government elections that are held every two years. One of the significant differences includes the fact that while it is announced on the results portion of the program who earned the most votes, and of course the least number of vote s, the actual number of votes for any particular contestant is never revealed. Under the Frequently Asked Questions about Voting section of www.AmericanIdol.com the only question or answer about the subject of voting results yields this ad The voting shows will air on FOX each Tuesday (see your local listings for show times) and the results will be broadcast on FOX every Wednesday So, make sure you don't miss the resu lts show if you want to see how your vote affected the results with, the voting audience may vote as many times as they can get through using their home or cell phones in a (usually) two hour vot ing window, and that while voters may text in votes, this method will cost them money (phoning in to the 1 866 number is free). The Idol contestants, as well as the voting public, then experience t his judgment when they read in the tabloids about how awfu l a journalist thought their outfits were last night and then again if and when they are voted out of the competition Interestingly enough however, the American Idol competitors can never se e America individually making the se judgments, rather they are judgment of talent Again, while American Idol is technically a singing competition, it often serves as a venerable popularity contest (Poniewozik, 2007), and while the three someone is a great singer, it is purportedly up to the public to cast the votes for who should actually win (Huff, 2006)
14 Immediately we can see two examples of the literal surveillance that the Idol contestants endure, starting with their first day of auditions when they are thrust not only in front of three strangers to be literally picked apart and critiqued, but this process also takes place in front of the cameras Oddly, Andrejevic ( 2003) notes how reality stars do not seem to be y troubled by the commoditization of their private lives for Rather, this is their euphoria, an answer to their, and most of For many, simply making it in fron t of the three celebrity judges (there are two rounds of auditions before one can even see Randy, Paula and Simon) in high hopes of making it on the air is the answer to their wishes to be seen by millions, if only for a few minutes Once they have performed in front of the judges, they are immediately gratified with a criticism about their appearance, behavior and eventually their vocal performance Common re sponses s outfit, facial expressions, age or appea rance of age (Season 5's silver haired winner Taylor Hicks had a hard time convincing judges that he was, in fact, 29 year s old) Age itself is an interesting area of analysis, for there are strict limitations, as the minimum age at audition is 16 years, and the oldest a contestant may be at the time of first audition is now 28 years (up from 24 in 2005) ( www.AmericanIdol.com ). So not only are competitors surveyed by the voting audience as to their gender and racialized performances, but producers of the show do not even let those considered too old for pop (read: contemporary) music on to the stage to be judged. Additionally, c ontestants who are deemed to be too young (read: the public will see them as inexperienced), too unique looking (public will see them as un relatable) or too unique sounding (unable to make pop records) are often passed on during the preliminary rounds
15 The constant surveillance of how the Idols embody themselves will not stop in Hollywood though, it will only becom e deeper as they continue on in the competition and America gets to know each one a little better Once we feel we feel acquainted with celebrities, the mediated public begins to feel as though we have earned the right to pass our own judgments on more t It is their relationship to the public in which we see the second example of the literal surveillance that the Idols are put through, as well as the incredible amount of accountability that we hold them up to After the ir appearance on the program, we often see reports of Idol contestants exploits or e much headline nephew. Not only are we judging them in internet polls about who is more attractive, but ng it we think deserves the coveted title of American Idol Crawley, Foley and Shehan (2008 ) point out that accountability plays out for most of us by way of how oth ers treat us based on how we interact with them and the rest of the world however, with the Idol s we hold them nationally accountable for how they interacted that night through their performances and often again in their ensuing lives. If we liked how they sang, dressed, and wore their hair and makeup, then we reward them with our votes and continue to enact surveillance in their lives for as long as it entertains us
16 Eventually, the Idols much like the contestants on other reality shows, do not even need the cameras or the public to be constantly watching and judging them for them to begin watching and judging themselves For many other reality shows, while almost every detail of the participants lives are being filmed, only a tiny port ion of footage actually makes it to air The Idol contestants do not have cameras in the house they share while the show is taped, yet while not everything they are doing is taped and watched, due to their constant red carpet exposure, highly publicized charity work, advertisement filming and televised rehearsals, the Idols (Andrejevic, 2003, p.103) Like the contestants in the other real ity programs, the Idol competitors live in a virtual panoptican, not being able to see those who are judging them, yet feeling the effects of such criticism nonetheless In his Time Magazine article, Pontiewozik (2007) notes that part of the fun of Ame rican Idol is judging how contestants change in response to the voting Again, the contestants cannot see who is out there in TV land, yet they know they are being watched Make one wrong move, and they might not get a second chance to redeem themselves If they do not learn their lesson and try harder to conform, then they will be packing their bags. Trottier ( 2006 ) notes that this ever increasing synopticism can now be more clearly seen through internet networks such as MySpace and YouTube, where anyone and everyone can watch whatever you want them to provided you have a minimal amount of computer equipment (Andrejevic, 2003) Every week, millions of Americans turn their sets on to examine the performances of a handful of people who just a few mo nths ago were also sitting in their homes Those
17 people are on the stage now where we can see and ultimately judge them as favorable or not, giving the m asses the upper hand. The Gaze The American Idol contestants do not actually witness the voting proc ess, as is made public in other elections, most notably a Presidential election; rather there is an understanding of a large body of American citizens who are casting their ballots for those competitors that they approve of The voting results from Ameri can Idol are more than simply the sum of the individual votes garnered from the American audience, as they But is the gaze through which we watch reality television or as Andrejevic suggests, as i n American Idol, as well as its reality counterparts, shot through a specific lens which dictates how the viewer is to watch? In 1975, Laura Mulvey noted the pervasiveness of scopophilia in modern film making, in which movies were shot through the perspec tive of the heterosexual male viewer movies and the media speak in the lang uage of the patriarchy, and that we all must view cinema through the male gaze, even female viewers. A blatant example of how critical this notion is to female television viewers even in the 21 st Century is the popularity of the show, The Bachelor, in which the female contestants, in their attempts to win the heart, and engagement ring, of The Bachelor, act and speak in ways that will please him Shows such as The Real World, Big Brother, and The Surreal Life, also enjoy a majority
18 of female viewership, and yet still focus on women in bikinis in hot tubs, on beaches, and even fighting one another Mulv ey also notes that film makers and directors use deliberate and specific reproduce as accurately as possible the so called natural conditions of human perception Camera te chnology (as exemplified by deep focus in particular) and camera movement, combined with invisible editing all tend to blur the lim p.16 ) A contemporary example of such a technique is evident in the shameful, yet seemingly po pular Girls Gone Wild series of DVDs, where young women lift up their shirts and pull down their pants for the rolling cameras, for no other reason than a man asked then to These videos, as well as in music videos and pornography, reinforce ment that the camera moves in a way such that the resulting image will be pleasing to a man In 1979, Erving Goffman noted these same techniques in Gender Advertisements whereby women used in magazine ads and television commercials are beds and floors much more than men In addition, women are 133) In 1989, Sut Jhally further an alyzes why advertisements are timelessly shot of gender which suit its purposes, contemporary Western culture has become obsessed with explicit representation of gend er relations Jhally finds the power of advertisement
19 commercials offer an extremely concentrated form of communication about sex and 136) Not only are the advertisements that we endure every day communication then, but they are in fact another form of public pedagogy We are to learn about what is appropriate for women and men to act like, think like, and desire according to these commercials And without using the language, Jhally recognizes the scopophilic eroticism in these advertisements, particularly when he makes his argument representations in advertising have not b een very successful; they have not recognized the 137) While almost twenty years old now hi attracted to the portrayal of other women in movies, and when Jhally later updates his own theory to include music videos (1990, 1995, 2007) he argue s that not only do women sympathize with the portrayal s of these women on the screen, but they often long to be them Similarly, the promise of reality competition format television programs such as American Idol is that you too television shows which offer the opportunity to act out fantasies have been so incredibly can be like Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, or Jordin Sparks, if they only follow the rules outlined by the images seen on the television Of course those images, contrary to the supposed format of the program, are not television program, just as the images in the music videos are.
20 Also in the late 1980s, feminist film theorists were more closely examining and noting that while a feminine presence is certainly marginal both in front of and behind the camera, her theory was criticized as heteronormative and not racialized. Por trayals of those who have for too long been considered an Other (for instance, anyone who is not white, heterosexual, Christian, of at least the middle class) also need to be scrutinized, for it is also not their stories which are being told, or at least w holly and accurately According to Karen Ross: Popular mass media play a significant role in the transmission and maintenance of cultural identity, through a repetitive display of cultural norms and values which he way images of black communities have been historically constructed from a white perspective and, moreover, from a position of considerable domination, has had clear consequences for the perception and portrayal of those black communities in Western soci or what has ownership and control over the words and pictures (xix) Roach and Felix (1989) note the intersection of (the lack of) race and gender in media studies when they point out that, In 2003, bell hooks challenged viewers, par ticul arly female viewers of color, not to accept the images of women of color that are presented to them on screen, and to actively critique them as merely the ability to view contai ns power, as slaves were severely punished if their eyes landed in the wrong place (p.94). However, if there is power in the gaze, then hooks also sees an opportunity for viewers of color to grasp that power, and interrogate deeply
21 what they are being pre sented, particularly from white authors. In response to Mulvey, hooks adds: Watching movies from a feminist perspective, Mulvey arrived at that location of disaffection that is the starting point for many Black women approaching cinema within the lived h arsh reality of racism. Yet her account of being part of a film culture whose roots rest on a founding relationship of adoration and love indicates spectator whose gaze had bee n formed in opposition. (p.101) hooks believes that women of color fundamentally view images and representations of women on screen differently from women who have typically had more ability to lay their eyes wherever they please. Taken together, however theories provide a sel f consciously constructed framework through which we can analyze how the American audience is viewing the contestants of American Idol hat it prioritizes the heteronormative sexual relationship, that is, one between a man and a woman. audiences and the relationships between and among women in the screen, and ultima tely posits that lesbian desire on screen is often portrayed as She continues to d bodies have been used as a tool to garner the attention of both heterosexual female and gay male close relationships with other female characters further demonstrates t hat not all story lines prioritize heterosexual relationships, thus the original theory can be limiting.
22 wave theory, coupled with the fact that is was originally written for narrative cinema, that is, a visual story which someone wrote, produced, filmed, and/or acted in (presumably all from a (white) contemporary talent seeking television program which is supposed to be unscripted and can also be useful when noting how the program is clearly supposed to be viewed ys the last judge to make his (Cowell, 2003a, p.3), they can also be viewed as very sensational and entertaining (depending, of course, on your idea of entertainment) His perception of a performance is sensical interpretation; eyes that the voting audience is to be watching the program. Gender, Race, and Sexuality Several theorists assert that gender itself is a performance that we put on everyday, both for ourselves, and very importantly, for others (Frye, 1983;Kessler & McKenna, 1985; West & Zimmerman, 1987; Butler, 1990). Butler posits that with everyday acts, words, gestures, and behaviors, we produce what we think we know to be gender I t is through the repetition of these concepts that gender begins to feel both
23 natural (that is, of the body) and also real (in the sense that gender exists in and of itself) (Frye, 1983; Butler, 1990). Further, Kessler and McKenna ( 1985 ) and West & Zimmerman (1987) add that we work to create and recreate our genders, fine tuning t hem constantly, for if we do not perform them correctly, we will be held accountable by those Similarly, authors ents on the power of discourse argue that the pressure from discourse (for example, the things our friends, colleagues, the media, and especially our parents say to us about our appearance) to perform our gendered selves well is so strong that eventually it is not even how those around us are judging us, the judgment has become internal ized : we have become our own jailers (Butler, 1990; Crawley, Foley, & Shehan, 2008). Kessler and McKenna ( 1985) note that this self accountability also begins to feel real, as though there is something inherent about the way me n and women dress, speak, and behave. Yet, there is simply nothing natural about only women wearing eye shadow and men wearing baggy pants. While these theorists n ote that such performances affect both men and women alike, the experiences of those who a re held accountable as extensive history of oppression and misogyny If the male body has been typically seen understood to be the inferior one; the one that is not man Additionally, as Mulvey techniques for gazing at and subsequen tly judging each other (for example: Glamour
24 and then, publicly judging women). Hence women are judged, by both men and women, based solely on their appearance more frequen tly a man. The problem then is not just that there (currently) exis t two categories each for sex and gender, but that they are ranked. Since de Beauvoir (1949) most feminist theorists have questioned and critiqued the gender binary system, that is male v s f emale along with the insistence that such a dichotomy exists Further, when feminist theorists insist on placing gender theory solely at the center of feminist politics, they seek to reinforce the very dualisms which they are critiquing. Taking th is notion a step further, Toril Moi (2001) (taking inspiration from Simon de Beauvoir) offers a theoretical framework surrounding the lived body rather than that of sex and gender Such a concept plac es people at the center of their world, always in conte xt with place and time The bodies of men and women are fluid and multifaceted, s that do not neatly correlate with This theory is particularly imp hist orically seen as simply not men. Moi (2001) gives the following example to describe the problem with second wave feminist analyses of sex and gender: Whether I consider a woman to be the sum of her sex plus gender, to be nothing sexual reductionism implicitly deny that a woman is concrete, embodied human being (of a certain age, nationality, race, class, and with a wholly unique store of experiences) and not just a human being sexed in a particular way The narrow parameters of sex and gender will never adequately explain the experience and a woman as sex plus
25 gender plus race and so on is to miss the fact that the experience of being white or Black is not detachable from the experience of being male or female (35 6) Both the men and women who participate in the American Idol contest are held to bodily standards which, while having been laid out for them by others, they serve to reinforce each week by publicly attempting become even better at their bodily performance. shaped, or rather restricted, by a patriarchal society Iris Young points out : Women in sexist society are physically handicapped Insofar as we learn to live out our existence in accordance with the definition that patriarchal culture assigns to us, we are physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified As lived bodies we are not open and unambiguous transcendences that move out to master a world that belongs to us, a world constituted by our own inten tions and projections (42 43). attractiveness compared to men s, but we have not had a say in what defines a fit or a beautiful body So while both male and female American Idol contest ants are singing on the same stage, the female competitors are playing in a harder game than their male peers If females face more rigorous surveillance and, therefore, harsher consequences of not only deal with sexism in race (or class, sexuality, body size, etc.). In 1977 The Combahee River Collective further pointed out that in fact sexism, racism, class ism, and heterosexism come together in an intersection of oppression for women for whom even one part of their identity does not fit
26 coined by Crenshaw (1991) and utiliz ed by Hill Collins (2000), who noted that, cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society, such as race, gender, class, and ethnicity dependent system of oppressions often went unheard by second wave, white feminism, as within the movement, there was a tendency to use gender as the analytical tool of subjugation and domination (Lorde, 1984). It was many of second wave feminism gave way to women of color, lesbians, and working class feminists to begin to (publicly) speak out about their experiences (Anzaldua & Moraga, 1983). While we are now well into the third wave of feminism, a period in which all feminists are to be examining all oppression from an intersectional perspective, women of color American African American contestants, as well as the separate stereotypical categories I created for them, it is clear that these young women are being judged based on much d ifferent standards and assumptions than their white counterparts. And, as noted above, while African American contestants on the program are still the numerical minority, they are at least represented, for in the first four seasons of the program there we re only two biracial/multiracial contestants, two contestants who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, and three who publicly made known their Latina/o background in the top 12 portion. In the seasons I analyze, American Idol breaks no pattern when it co mes to reinforcing the harmful and exclusive notion that white is the norm, and all others, are Others.
27 While contemporary feminism has made strides in addressing the multifaceted issues facing peop le ant on American Idol thus far, and importantly, contestants who advance far in the completion adhere strictly to stereotypes which not only describe gender, but sexuality as well. Those who do not identify as heterosexual have been perpetually discriminat ed against, and as with those who do not identify as white, while progress is being made in some communities across the country, the dawn of the 21 st century has seen only token efforts at equality. In 1978, Foucault argued that throughout different perio ds in human history, the discourse regarding sexuality was dispersed in a variety of ways and as the Catholic Church gained more power and the Industrial Revolution manifested, those who identified as (or engaged in behaviors considered to be) homosexual w ere subjugated (and in fact there was not even a name for homosexuality until these events). The second wave of feminism saw an upswing of theorists declaring that not only were women subject to the effects of patriarchy, but the oppression that lesbian w omen experienced was not being addressed by either the mainstream feminist movement, nor the (androcentric) gay rights movement (RadicalLesbians, 1970; Rich, 1980). For if a female Idol does not appear urse runs the risk of being patriarchal power structure, she therefore is rejecting all men, and can not be crowned American Idol.
28 Chapter Three Through an analysis of live performances, judges comments, time spent in the American Idol a clear pattern emerges that those c ontestants, and in particular those contestants who embody themselves as women who betray the stereotypical image that they began with during the show are punished both by the judges and the voting audience with negative comments, and a f ewer number of vo tes. I f the image a contestant portrays conflicts with ethnicity sexuality, or even class, that is, their stereotyped image, then they face fewer votes, and often are eli minated from the competition After eight seasons of watching American Idol performances, even those viewers not doing research on the program can begin to pick up on repetitive feedback from the judges As the last note of a song wraps up, the loyal vi ewers already have an idea of what the judges will say, as they themselves and Simon with however, t he judges often use an additional unit of measurement when critiquing by the viewing audience. By image I mean combination of dress, behavior, attitude, hair color(s) and style, and level of accessorization It i s not that the judges are predisposed to look for an image of a particular musical genre but rather a dedication to the disciplined expectations of the
29 image of the genre. This perceived image is also the one that the entertainment industry and the mainstream television viewing audience ha ve created through gendered, raciali zed, and sexualized stereotypes, thus, as Foucault (1977) predicted, the Idol contestants are disciplined into the bodies their viewing audience demands Methods For my analysis, I focus ed on the reality competition program American Idol Specifically I watch ed portions of the first four s easons For these seasons, I examine d the portions of the program where the female contestants first audition for the judges, perf orm in the semi finals (America phones in votes at this stage, although the contestants do no t sing live), and then for the t op twelve rounds of the show While as accountability scrutinized, my focus was on female contestants. I also decided to narrow my analysis down to these portions of the program because they are the ones in which the competitors face im mediate judgment from the three judges, and then the next day, from the voting audience. I chose to exclude segments which showed the contestants auditioning in front of the judges, because while comments are made by the judges at this point, judgment is handed down later during that week. During the research process, it became evident that I could not simply perform a American Idol contestants, as o ne does not do gender in the absence
30 of race, class, sexuality, and a variety of other factors which influence individuals everyday experiences. I chose to analyze racialized performances and not those other factors because due to the editing socioeconomic background was rarely made explicit. Thus, where class is referenced on the program for a certain contestant, I address it but otherwise it remains largely unavailable for analysis. And while there may have bee n homosexual Idol contestants, presence of heteronormativity in performances but otherwise cannot access specific identity issues of contestants. Further, this analysis attests to the minimal inclusion of contestants of color who do not identify as African American on American Idol For the most part, race is dealt with by the show via visually apparent cues of whiteness or Blackness with other racial or ethnic differences rarely discussed by contestants or judges. As such, the stereotypes I chose to work with refer to white women an d then African American women. While these stereotypes, on the one hand, further the lend themselves to these two labels, that is, a thorough analysis could not be ap plied to the two biracial/multiracial contestants, the two who identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, or the three who made known their Latina/o background. Greater analysis of the experiences of all American Idol contestants who do not identify as white i s surely analysis, they refer to the broad ideological characteristics which are of ten categorically
31 applied to people with particular skin tones. While they are too simplistic to capture the used to describe those who experience life by way of being pl aced into these two categories by others.. While to have dark skin does not necessarily mean one has an European, these terms, unfortunately not only prevail, but the te individuals who are known, through American Idol the scenes segments or the press, to be of African American ancestry are identified as such, w to place individuals under surveillance which influences the outcome of their participation and success on the show. I utilized a feminist intertextual analysis in order to examine how American Idol contestants are held accountable to appropriate performances was coined by feminist poststructural theorist Julia Kristeva in 1966 and refers to the reading of texts through our understanding of other texts we are familiar with (Agger, intertextuality replaces the notion of intersubjectivity we realize that meaning is not transferred directly from writer to reader but instead is (1966, p.69) Roland Barthes similarly pointed out that the meanings of artistic works do
32 not originate in the author, rather the meaning is actively created by the reader or viewer (Wasserman, 1981). This method is particularly applicable to cont emporary media, where it is extremely common for popular fictional television shows and movies to reference characters and story lines from others (in fact, many programs are reliant on such references, for example Family Guy ). American Idol is similarly dependent on its years, as the judges and the voting audience alike are charged with evaluating Goldman & Papson (1994) note; Intertextual references work as a hook to anchor the association of [a] commodity with the everyday life of the consumer One way to do this is through musical er and particle of a musical text, a photographic style, or a scene from a previous mass media production The signifier is the bracketed text and the signified becomes the appreciation of American pop culture' attached to the commodity in or an event, now reframed as an "American Original" (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Sugar Ray Leonard, Neal Armstro ng on the moon).(40) The contestants are among the many commodities sold by American Idol and a racialized, and sexualized performances. In order to examine this phenomen on, I noted depictions of contestants either maintaining or breaking the stereotypes that have been established for not only their gender, but for their race as well. I also observed instances
33 of contestants changing or maintain ing their appearances and b ehaviors (as they related to stereotypical looks and conduct) immediately following criticism of praise from both the judges (literally spoken to them just after a performance) and the American audience (as measured in votes) For stereotypes for young f emales, I utilized labels used in a 1972 study (Williams & Bennett, 1975), as well as its 1988 follow up (Bergen & Williams, 1991), regarding sex stereotypes held by college students in the United States. I chose five adjectives, as well as some of their synonyms, which were regarded by the surveyed over three hundred adjectives on the list given by the researchers, many very common female stereotypes were not appropriate for my analysis of American Idol contestants, their priorities for others, the program does not allow the view to have knowledge of such instances. The five stereotypical characteristics I focused on, and their synonyms, are: Small petite in stature, does not take up space/attention Attractive pretty, lovely, cute, sexy Nice friendly, personable, talkative, polite, submissive Emotional cries, complains Nurturer mother, cares, gives, does for others The categories I chose for words and phrases which are in opposition to these stereotypical characteristics of women are:
34 Slut e asy, sexual, promiscuous Big large in stature, loud, obnoxious Assertive aggressive, argumentative Those conducting this study, as well as those other compiling lists of common female stereotypes, did not specify any race or ethnicity which may be attache d to these were the stereotypes that I have assigned to Caucasian contestants. Several researchers of color have noted that stereotypes for African American women ar e rooted in a long history of racism and ethnocentrism, as many of these so called archetypes comes from Devine & Elliot, 1995). The categories for stereotypes of African Amer ican women then stem from this literature, and are: Big large frame, large bust Spiritual soulful, joyful Loud bossy, sassy Uneducat ed/able unintelligent, unwilling to learn Antonyms then for the stereotypical appearance and behavior of African American wo men were categorized as: Submissive 2 gracious, polite, humble Quiet calm, unemotional 2 found that this was no longer a stereotype held by the contemporary generation.
35 It is critical to note here that many of the stereotypes that are still held today Idol contestants which then applies to the audience at home, since African American women by definition do not fit into the mainstream (presumably predominantly white) audience that African Am erican women can have larger bodies. African American women who fit into the stereotypes laid out for them are threatening, and therefore both African American and white wo men are subject to surveillance and accountability, albeit with different standards, to a mainstream, predominantly white audience. For each of these stereotypes, I viewed instances of the female contestants from the first four seasons of American Idol aud itioning for the first time in front of the judges, singing live in the semi finals, and singing live in the Top 12 portion. For every appearance, I noted if their appearance (style of dress, level of accessorization) and attitude (as much as could be per ceived from a two minute song as well as their reaction watched multiple performances of several contestants, I also noted when and if contestants were moving in and o ut of categories, and if so, which ones (for instance, talking back to the judges one week, and then quietly taking criticism the next) because my hypothesis depended on contestants reaction, and action or non action, to the punishment or reward they were garnering for fitting in, or failing to, to these stereotypes.
36 Sticking to Stereotypes Throughout the course of American Idol very few contestants who make it to the Top 12 portion of the competition have never been in the Bottom Three at one point or another The competitors who obviously do not possess the talent that it will take to win the competition, typically appear in the Bottom Three category every week until they are (sometimes mercilessly) eliminated Even Fantasia and Rub en Studdard had been in the lowest vote category at least once before going on to even tually win the contest. but are not ultimately eliminated must then work the fol lowing week to overcome their failing. Successful Idols such as Fantasia, who appeared in the Bottom Three twice, episodes. A few contestants, however, always seem ed to be both judge and audience favorites, staying out of the Bottom Three category for their entire run on the program, most notably Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson was a white waitress from Texas who was found by Ame rican Idol after a failed music career on her own in Hollywood While her Texas drawl and Southern charm were traits that the judges noticed immediately, from her very first audition in front of the judges she established that she had a bluesy, sometimes raspy At Last Clarkson would go on to find that the judges were most impressed when she chose up beat typically recorded by African American female artists, in particular Aretha Franklin During the Top 10,
37 Respect a total of three times, as well as two of her other songs During Burt Bacharach week, Clarkson decided to forgo the distinctive Bacharach ballad for a song he penned for s Top 10, she also performed songs by Marvin Gaye, Vanessa Williams, and The Weather Girls, all African American singer/songwriters with distinct, and significant, vocal talent While many Idol contestants have been criticized by the judges, and snubbed by voters, for performing songs for which their voice was not adequate, Clarkson only received higher and higher praise So how does a tiny white woman from Texas belting out Its Raining Men continue to receive such a large proportion of the votes? According to my analytical categories, Clarkson fit almost all the stereotypes for a young, woman: She was fairly typically used in our culture for young white women. While she had an attractive face, overly sexual. And, what I believe to be critical in her success on the program is that while she sang many songs by African American artists, her personality did not fit into the stereotypes for young, African American women. Rather, she spoke and behaved like the stereotypes dictate of a nice, white, girl: polite and humble. Furt her, Kelly Clarkson did herself no disservice by singing the songs of African American artists, for white artists have been performing Black music for decades (Garon, 1995). The co opting of blues (turned rock and roll), jazz, and eventually hip hop and R &B by several, prominent
38 white artists, such as Elvis Presley, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Eminem, and Robin Thicke, for example, has impacted the way we hear this kind of music. Garon Indeed, if we did start talking about race and the w ay we hear the blues, we'd find out that many (white) people like to hear the blues played by whites more than they like to hear it played by Blacks; many Black s vastly prefer to hear the blues played by Black s; many, many, people lie and say they don't ca re who plays it audience. By sticking with her stereotypical, sweet gir l next door image and attitude, and singing songs that suited her voice and helped keep the white voters comfortable, s Carrie Underwood would go on to be considered the most successf ul American Idol winner to date While the program does not release actual voting tallies, it has been reported by Idol producers that the former beauty pageant competitor from Oklahoma dominated the voting each week ( www.AmericanIdol.com ). Since her vic tory, she has gone on to sell the most records (11 million) of any show winner, and her debut album still holds the record for best selling solo female country debut ( www.billboard.com ) wholesome country image was surely a major contributing factor for her tremendous success A young, blonde, sorority woman (Associated Press, 2005) Underwood embodies almost entirely the girl next door image In a 2005 article in which friends and
39 family were asked to re minisce about the former Idol While thin and beautiful, as with Clarkson, her body is physically non threatening, that is, her breasts and buttocks are size and she is of average height for a female Upon her first audition in front of the judges, Sim on Cowell accurately predicted that she would not only win the competition, but that she outsell all previous Idol winners Such a declaration and accurate prediction, after hearing someone sing one song attests to the power given to Cowell by the American audience. Underwood was literally the woman that young white, American girls were supposed to strive to be like Her body was not only what mainstream; white America deemed appropriate, but in fact the standard. Idol success is absolutely no coincidence, rather the perfect combination of singing talent, and picture perfect gender and racialized performance Kelly Clarkson too was certainly rewarded by both the judges and the American audience fo r her performance as a white, middle class, heterosexual woman Also from the first audition, Clarkson came off as the girl next door She was sweet, attractive, and while dressed fashionably, she was neither over not under dressed for an everyday wom an kind of standard. As with Underwood, her body did not command much attention, not too thin, yet not overweight; think pear shaped, Rachel Ray Physical bodies, particularly female ones, have long been an area of scrutiny for the producers and
40 viewers of American Idol never more highlighted than with the ousting of Season 2 s Frenchie Davis Davis was a heavy, African American contestant who during early rounds seemed to have enough vocal talent to make it all the way to the finale While type. Additionally, before the T op 12 was chosen it was discovered that years earlier Davis had posed nude for a pornographic website and was summarily dropped from the competition While judge Simon Cowell (2003 a ) states that he had high hopes for her and wanted Davis to remain in the competition, Cowell (2003 b ) notes that the disavowal ability to participate demonstrates troubled relationship with bodies . The majority of Americans did not, and will not ever even see her naked photos, yet the knowing that they were out there was enough for American Idol producers to decide she was not someone that they wanted subsequent exit provided an easy means to avoid the topic of female weight issues on American Idol. Since stereotypes of African American women include that they are entirely possible that Frenchie Davis may have competed with some ineligible for my analysis about stereotypes and vote
41 that is, threatening to a mainstre am sensibility -for the program. Contestants with large bodies would continue to be an interesting issue for American Idol however providing quite different experiences for male contestants, as Season Two winner was overweight African American male contestant Rubin Studdard While Studdard definitely possessed a wonderful singing voice, he would sweat and become exhausted by the end of programs where he had to perform two and three songs While America and presumably Simon Cowell, decided th at he could still be its American Idol the standards for female contestants are much different The oes not attract undue attention. Further, as Young (2005) points out about how young girls are expected to She is told that she must be careful not to get hurt, not to get dirty, not to tear her clothes, that the things she desires to do are dangerous for her Thus she develops a bodily timidity that increases with age . In other words, girls, and then women, are supposed to be small Since men are undeterred by such restrictions, a large ma n Ameri can Idol is much more predictable than that of a large stereotype and the stereotypical body of a African American woman are important here, as larger African American women have progressed t o at least sixth place in the
42 portion. It is clear, then, that if the American beauty standard is to be young, thin, and white, African American women are necessarily devi ant, and it is more acceptable for them to possess larger bodies. Even so, t o date, there has been no heavy female winner of the program, demonstrating that regardless of race, our American Idol should not stray from the stereotyped category of not taking up space. Since her (oft reported premature) departure from American Idol, Jennifer Hudson has enjoyed a tremendously successful career The first Idol Oscar winner, Hudson was eliminated from Season 3 in just 6 th place c onsidered heavy by contemporary predominantly white, American beauty standards and from early on in the competition, she demonstrated what I categorize attitude For example, d uring a semifinal round Idol judge Paula Abdul commented that Despite obvious vocal talent, Hudson struggled fro m the very beginning of her tenure on the program, for she was originally not even voted (by popular phone in vote) in to the T op 12 round, but was chosen by the judges as a Wild Card contestant I argue that this was most likely a combination of two related factors; her physical body and her contradictory images As a large African American woman with a powerful singing voice she not only fit into many of the stereotypes laid for her but she would also be her Yet when she strayed from these supposed guidelines, her votes suffered Durin g
43 the aforementioned semi finals where she was not voted in by America she sang John Imagine hardly a song for belting, and Randy Jackson commented that American Idol performance, in which she chose The Circle of Life from The Lion King demonstrates a few contradictions During the Elton John themed week, Hudson, for the first and only time, chose to straighten her naturally curly hair, and wore a subdued, all black pant suit For the previou votes, she was almost immediately reprimanded by the viewing audience for dramati cally changing this image in one week. While she was not voted off that week, rather the next, I wonder if a performance of a song from a story about Africa may have fit into what the voting audience had deemed appropriate for her enough to save her for a nother week However, her shift out of the stereotypical categories she had been playing into for so many weeks ended up costing her, as she finished the program in only sixth place. third place runner up) trajectory on American Idol makes an interesting comparison to Season Three also a heavy (by contemporary American beauty standards) woman of color with a powerful singing voice however, as she was biracial and the had a white mother ed and racialized performances In his book, judge Sim on
44 Cowell notes that when he first caught a glimpse of Locke, she reminded him of an ) suggesting that she was not achieving the appropriate look for a young woman who wanted to be a musician Additionally, Cowell, both on th e was not performing her ethnicity correctly either Towards the beginning of the competition, Locke performed more Motown and disco type songs, with flashier, sleevel ess tops, and wild (naturally) curly hair thus, she was attempting to fit into the stereotypical categories for African American women. Aft Cowell commented that the song stunk, and even Paula Abdul said it was not her bes t performance Two weeks later, Locke appeared on stage for the first time with freshly straigh tened hair, and although she stu ck to the same, up tempo Motown inspired genre, she was also dressed far more conservatively, this time in dress slacks and a ta ilored jacket This time Randy Jackson shouted that it was brilliant, and Simon Cowell noted that she was sensational It was evident that as a woman who herself walked the borders o f white and Black identities was supposed to also perform those identities and of course stereotypes, carefully as well Possibly because of her light skin, Locke was rewarded by both the judges and the voting audience when she conformed to the stereotyp es of good, white woman. When she showed off cleavage and kept her hair naturally (and ethnically ) curly, she possibly came across as offensive to appropriate dress for a nice light skinned girl In contrast to the darker skinned Jennifer Hudson, Lock e would go on to only appear in public (to this day!) with straight hair, while Hudson rarely appears in
45 public without curly hair It would seem than the audience will accept African American Idols and runners up, but only if they appear as non threatening (that is to whites) stereotypes -Additionally, Locke lacked the attitude that has been stereotyped to belong to young Upon reviewing her early auditions, howe ver, Locke comes across as a pleasant, if a little quiet, young woman Was she simply not the representation of what Cowell expected her to be? If she was not, then was what ju dges and audiences expected from a 19 year old single African American mother who dropped out of high school Fantasia came from a family of talented vocalists, and she immediately wowed the judges with her amazing voice Also from the beginning of her American Idol journey, she displayed several characteristics which fit into the stereotypes regarding African American women, including a sassy As noted above, here is an example of w here the taking up space/attention, arrogance. While a white contestant may have turned off her audience with such a statement, Fantasia received a round of applause from the studio stereotypes in her attempt at winning the contest. To say that those who embody
46 stereotypical appearances or behaviors do so ignorantly or unwillingly is to rob them of Idol Idols aware of their gendered and race expectations, but that they, then, deliberat ely play into them in order to win the coveted title of The American Idol. This active complicity to stereotypical appearances own stereotypical expectations in an attempt at whatever an i ndividual considers to be Although she never struggle d vocally, Fantasia did land in the Bottom 3 category twice, the second of which she was joined by Jennifer Hudson and another talented woman of color, Latoya London While the rumors swirled about how the three obviously most talented contestants could have garnered the fewest number of votes, including the speculation that their fan base was divided although Sir Elton John (the decried it simply as racism ( Reut ers, 2004 ) What actually went on during this week was most likely a combination of both theories. Although the demographic data on voters and their voting patterns is inaccessible, it is probably that American s of color were among the only ones voting f or these women at this point as the only other woman left in the contest was (by American beauty standards) adorable, seventeen year old (white) Diana DeGarmo, who had not spent time in the bottom three in several weeks, suggesting at this point that she was excelling at obtaining (white) votes. So, if a largely white audience saw Fantasia, Hudson, and
47 attention, in other words, threatening), and DeGarmo as a stereotypical white woman threatening), then their votes were most likely going to the young DeGarmo, leaving the African American vote to be divided up among the three extremely talented vocalists. This was the week that Jennifer Hudson was sent home, and Fantasia would go on to perfect her image until she eventually won the coveted spot as American Idol While the other performers waivered in performing stereotypes, Fantasia played into ethnic and class stereotypes and expectations, and toyed with her gender performance until the finale of the show where she elegantly and powerfully performed Porgy and Bess in a graceful evening dress, and had the co ntest easily won A tall, slender young woman with a n athletic build and a short hairstyle, it seemed as the weeks went on, that Fantasia purposefully chose dresses and heels, as to never appear too masculine so while her physical body did not fit into the stereotypes of African American women, she still did not betray those of other categories, such as attractive, pretty, and sexy. W hile she kept the attitude with fun and colorful prints, as an African American woman, she was sure to maintain a light non threatening image And while some in the media critiqued her as a bad role model for young women for having a baby at age 16, her inspirational story of a functionally illiterate teenager to American Idol perfectly played on the premise of the Ameri can Dream although the
48 American women have also been stereotyped has not only having the ability to sing, but lter, for example Aretha powerful vocal abilities played right into this notion of how Black women are supposed to sound, and images of Fantasia singing in the church choir, as displayed on one of behind the for the voting audience. Fantasia also played ri ght into other stereotypes about women, Fantasia fact that she did work to maintain several gendered and racialized stereotypes, perhaps helping the audience be at ease with her, but her story also showed that she beat the odds, you! is the archetyp al, individualistic, American Dream, as well as a marketing sensation, even spawning her own inspirational Lifetime movie. The viewing audience who voted for Fantasia to win then was voting for themselves, for their inspirational stories to come true, if only they follow the rules. While Fantasia may not have followed those rules earlier in her life, once on stage she seemed to ease into the stereotypical appearance and mannerisms of a young African American woman, and as a result, along with her wonderfu l singing voice, was crowned American Idol.
49 The analysis of these women who spent a grueling four months in front of the cameras in order to achieve their dream of superstardom says many things about not only the contestants on stage every week, but also t hose at home viewing and voting for them. While contenders of any reality program must surely realize they are signing up for a certain amount of camera, producer, and viewer surveillance in their attempt at fame, that audience at home who believes it is tuning in mindlessly is (most likely) unaware that it based shows, particularly ones in which the audience votes such as American Idol viewers witness contestants either acting in stereotypical ways, or not, and then judge them accordingly. While one may argue that the audience votes on merit alone, by the latter of the program, the majority of the contestants are quite good, almost all worthy of the final prize, so my fi ndings indicate that throughout the competition, it is contestants who mold themselves neatly into their stereotypical looks and behaviors to be palatable to the dominant white audience, and stay there, who end up doing the best. Yes, these young people a re very good singers, but so was their competition. I find that what sets those who go the farthest apart from those left behind is adherence to a stereotypical gendered and racialized performance week after week.
50 Chapter Four contestants vocal performance was out of tune, ahead of the beat, or otherwise subpar, the the competition Whether it is a distinctive sounding voice, an original style of dress, or just a personality that stands out i n the crowd, judges comments emphasize that a p.166) When the Top 12 contestants emerge, however, both the judges and the audience at home seem to in fact reward a limited amount of distinct iveness superstar, the audience is told that they should be rewarding those competitors who m they deem as different, their level of uniqueness is anything but: t ruly unique contestants, again, particularly female, d o not win American Idol. Much of the success of American Idol lies in its reliance on notions of individualism and patriotism in an effort to motivate viewers to not only tune in each week, but also to pick up their phones and vote for their favorite cont estants, and further still, to sell the products of the companies which sponsor the program. In a 2003 study of fifty three countries across five continents, the United States of America has been found to be the most individualistic country in the world (
51 political and cultural philosophy prioritizes independence and self reliance, not surprising given the history behind the establishment of the country, the liberal, democratic, Bill of Rights, the early 20 th Whether we vote Republican, Democrat, Other, or not all, the ideology of American individualism is deeply ingrained in our beliefs, patriotism and individual identities. Hence it is not surprising that American Idol values hyper consumerism, that is, Americans tend to equate happiness with personal possessions. Acquiring wealth leads to the mass globalization of our culture. American Idol is one example with its broadcasting in over 100 countries (Barber, 2008; see www.americanidol.com ). The two principles seem to be closely related as both focus on the needs and wants of the individual ov er the group or community. If Americans fail to the set of American Idol where each judge is famously perched directly in front of a red Coca Cola cup, and where the contestants are regularly seen being picked up and dropped off in Ford automobiles. In addition, while friendships certainly develop throughout any given Idol season, t he focus of this show, unlike its British predecessor Popstars or Making the Band is solely on the individual; the One American Idol The with such libertarian values, as the American Dream is to be who/whatever one desires.
52 Upon closer inspection of the program however it is made clear that who Americans want Paradoxically, consumerism does not create individuals, but rather pro duces mass audiences who want to consume the same, popular, fashionable thing. This is the -a nationwide audience of consumers seeking the products pushed on them by advertisers while at the same time believing they want it uniquely for themselves. American Idol, then, is the perfect device for creating vertising of commercial products which creates the desire for mass marketed goods. This paradox becomes clear i n a comparison between electoral voting and reality television voting where Juliet Williams (2005) notes: On American Idol the most successful contestants prove themselves exceptional in their lack of anything to take exception to those who succeed are the ones who can perform Burt Bacharach songs from the 1970s one week while paying a heartfelt tribute to 1940s swing classics the next The vict ors are the most agile parrots, not the most distinctive musical personalities, for personality is inevitably a liability in a showdown among aspiring pop chameleons Watching the weekly winnowing process, one can only wonder, will the American Idol be th e one who proves to be the most outstanding, or the least? (642) Successful Idol contestants then walk a very strategic line of standing out in a crowd of hundreds during the initial auditions, while at the same time not embodying themselves in a way tha Even those who at first seem as though they possess some qualities that make them different
53 from American Idol includ e these contestants is Season s fourth placed Chris Daughtry, who went on to considerable post Idol success His recent pop chart achievements, however, ha ve come at the expense of some of his original Idol that is, to those who are critical of our mass consumerist society. Even so, us that betraying a former image and moving towards a more mainstream pop sound sells records which equates to mainstream success. Female contestants who attempt their own brand of uniqueness are held to additional scrutiny of how women are supposed to act and dress, that their male peers do not endure white woman named Gina Glockson, who performed songs by The Rolling Stones and The Pretenders After her mediocre physical appearance, which consisted of a shiny minidress, knee high boots, and visible bra straps Randy commented that he like d the song choice and the boots; Paul a noted that she liked the look; These comments are interesting because not only are they almost exclusively about her While Glockson was purportedly chapter, adhering to a look is critical on American Idol she also had to appear feminine
54 enough to garner votes Had she appeared on stage in ripped, baggy jeans, and wore a bandana which covered her hair so as as was the Season 4 male To not dress in a manner that would emphasize her femininity enough would risk the American audience questioning her sexuality and adherence to gender performances and she would certainly have lost votes Another example of a female contestant balancing being herself and conforming to stereotypes was 17 year old Season 3 runner up Diana DeGarmo During her initial audition tape (a little interview that producers tape to spotlight some contestants background stories), the baby faced and bubbly DeGarmo who is Caucasian, noted that she always wore some combination of black and pink clothing Upon finishing her first audition song, while the judges like her voice, the judges thought she was almost black and pink wardrobe After a performance in the semi finals, DeGarmo, in a very trendy (although still black and pink) outfit, was pra ised ing] me of when Christina Aguilera was nice In 2004 of course, Christina Aguil e ra was wearing backless leather chaps, had a hit single called Two things then are happening here: a condemnation of females who assert themselves too sexually which breaks the categorical stereotype for white women and kudos for the girl who looks and acts DeGarmo, who as noted above, went on further in the competition than Jennifer Hudson
55 and other possible favorite LaToya London, despite not having the same vocal ability Physically, however, DeGarmo was a mass fact t short, blonde, seemingly next door 3 not unique. Even next t i an, middle indicative of the kind of audience that shows like American Idol are attempting to appeal to and the limited uniqueness that is expected of successful Id ol contestants. Interestingly, DeGarmo switched up her look during the shows finale, possibly in an attempt at seriously challenging competitor Fantasia and wore a drab, all black pantsuit and sang a power ballad that was way above her vocal ability The judges did not like the performance at all While DeGarmo, because of her age and perceived innocence, was p r eviously not seen as a sex symbol, dressing in a more mature suit perhaps unsettled the audience, for maybe they could now see her as a woman, ra ther than a girl S he now possibly become more sexual, which betrayed how the audience thought they felt abou t her. Both bodily performance that night did not allow her to go on to become the next American Idol. While Idol contestants may be unique enough to gently push gender and sexuality While not part of my systematic analysis, the examples of two of male 3 I believe my use, and possible over use, of this term is indicative of reliance on young white women who fit this description.
56 contestan s Justin Gaurini had a lot going for him from the outset of the competition when Simon commented on his first audition, y privileged when you do a competition like this to hear someone discriminatory judges, Gaurini still did not win the competition With a higher speaking and singing voi ce, long curly hair, and a generally cheery and pleasant attitude, Gaurini most likely came off as possessing characteristics that would fit into feminine s runner up, Clay Aiken, also possibly lost the compet ition due to non conformity of to m asculine stereotypes While Aiken would officially come out of the closet six years after his turn on Idol one journalist noted that it was his lack of sexuality that both got him to second place and yet did not allow him to ultimately win Poniewozik (2007) claims Aiken was as sexual as a Ken doll So while Aiken was unique enough to do well in the competition, with his red hair 2003a, p.159), he was too different to become the next American I dol. Much of the success of American Idol lies in the various ways that the show manages to give the viewers pretty much the same thing over and over again, a concept that would not work on many other reality programs Cowell (2003 b ) then con tends that
57 self, but also the degree to which her/his gendered performance is heteronormative, that is, the way a contestant appears and behaves is congruent with the belief that us dress, and failure to emanate heterosexuality on a daily basis can result in severe punishment by putting one outside the privilege of heterosexual identity, for both Idols ( with the loss of votes) as well as the audience (with stigma, as well as brutality). By tuning in to American Idol each week, twice a week, the voting audience is then complicit in creating and perpetuating the concept that heterosexuality be the dominant system of sexual orientation in American society, setting standards that not only are their Idols supposed to heteronormative performances are playing to a largely white audience, demonstrating how gender performance and heteronormativity is racialized. Notions of not being straight parallel notions of not being white in that identifying as anything but straight and white (as well as middle class, thin, Chr istian, etc.) deviates from the socially constructed American Idol contestants who may not be heterosexual, they can, and indeed, must perfect their performance each week of passing as straight, while Id ol performers who are not white must repeatedly perform their prescribed stereotypes in an effort to be palatable to the (mostly white) voting audience.
58 It is through these reiterated effects that we come to feel almost intimate relations with the young co ntestants on American Idol, performativity, Cowell (2003 b ) argues that subjects idols in One embodies the status of American Idol by the repetition of performance, viewed and decided upon by the voting public Butler (1996) herself goes on to wonder about the dangers of having to continually keep up with a performance, albeit her thoughts are focused on the work involved in perfor ming a hetero normative identity every day rather than that of reality television illusion of an...identity...then this identity is permanently at risk, for what if it fails to rep eat, or if the very exercise of repetition is redeployed for a very different performative If through the routine of performing and receiving judgment, the Idol contestants are supposed to be creating their identities, and by extension we are solidifying our own Butler is saying that they run the risk of faltering, of losing that identity every week I argue that this is in fact the case, for those competitors who advance far in the show and began their campaign on the basis that th ey were unique certainly end up watering down their distinctive image. That crisis of the repetition being redeployed actually does have a place in American Idol where although repetition plays a key role, obviously something must be switched up week to w eek to keep the program mildly interesting What changes weekly is the genre of songs that the Idols must perform One week they are crooning to the classics, while the next they must pick a disco song which shows their talents They
59 must work at re creating themselves in any given image that week in order to garner the most votes Until the grand finale, the idols perform no original music in the 2003 b p.8) the original through the copied performance and a repetition of a standard can be achieved (Butler, 1996) In going along with the aesthetic of mass market America, who shell ou t big bucks every summer for a string of sequels and buy pre fab houses, American Idol is about re interpretation of the same not creation (Poniewozik, 2007) I find that this repetitive imitation, above almost all the other hurdles the American Idol conte stants face, is probably the hardest challenge for them On the one hand, they are performing the works of some very talented and legendary artists each week, which immediately invokes comparisons to the original works To this end, the contestants are somewhat expected to respect the original and stay true to the original rhythm, key and message of the song On the other hand, contestants are constantly criticized if they inject no originality of their own into a performance The winning combinatio n for a potential American Idol then is to mix the multi generational nostalgia with a current pop twist (Poniewozik, 2007) As I pointed out above, the formula of just the right amount of, as well as what kind of, personality to embody is also problemat ic for the Idol competitors Yet whoever does win the title of American Idol is not just like us, and we expect him or her to behave in such a way that a champion, and not pop star should We want confidence and graciousness, but not too much We now expect If one
60 performed well in the country music week of Idol then he/she had better put out a country feeling record, etc This contradiction of expectations is very visible during the length of each season, with each Idol contestant handling it differently, and ultimately succeeding or failing on its basis. Consequently, American Idol recreates its viewing audience in our ow n image each week to reaffirm to its public that we are successful participants and quality judges each week gives the audience at home a perceived power, yet it i stand out from the crowd a little with a new outfit, a funky hairstyle, or striking new s will stay exactly that: trendy, not unique, not deviant, and certainly not the worst of all, weird. Should we stray too far from our stereotypical gender performances, we risk being labeled gay, which in our culture, at this time, is still a stigmatized identity. Should we stray from our praise contestants on American Idol home audience, make sure that the discourse remain that life, one should obey.
61 Chapter Five American Idol At any given moment I can t une to a top 40 station on satellite r adio, and hear a song from an American Idol contestant As I have pointed out, the artist I hear may not ev en have won the contest, but another record company picked him or her up upon being eliminated During the course of only the last one hour, I have heard songs from Kelly Clarkson, Carrie U third runner up), last year s two competing Davids, ( David Cook and David Archuleta ) and most ince ssantly Chris fourth runner up) The Color Purple set house attendance records since Season 3 winner Fantasia joined the cast, while even the defamed Frenchie found success performing the much coveted Seasons of Love solo in Rent (Zoglin, 2007) Jennifer Hudson, of course, won an Academy Award for her r ole in the movie versio n of the musical, Dreamgirls And with all the assaults that take place in Tampa each week, it took the American Idol connection to get Season Three 's Jessica Sierra in the papers for getting into fights in Ybor City They are ev erywhere, whether an individual enjoy s the program or not, American Idol is pervasive. They have become part of the American mass media, consumerist machine. There really is no comparison to the contestants and even winners of other reality competition s when it comes to the impact that American Idols make on popular culture Each year millions and millions of hopefuls wait, sometimes for days, in line outside their With all that the American Idols go
62 through however on their path to stardom, the anxiety, the constant surveillance and criticism and the sheer probability that their journey will not end in the titular crowning, why would one put herself through such an expedition? As Andrejevic (2003 ) notes about our times, pervasive surveillance is seen as a hip attribute of the contemporary world, where being watched all the time is as gratifying as it is exploitative If we are constantly being watched, then we are being paid attention to, we are willing to sacrifice the privacy we once enjoyed And due to the particular notoriety that Idol contestants face, whether they win or do not even come close, these once average citizens will most likely be watched by the masses long after their season o f American Idol is concluded Right after the show closes, the Top T en contestants of each season embark on a multi month, multi city tour through the United States, raking in their final profits for the show, as if they owe it something Even those wh o are voted off every week must complete the obligatory talk show circuit for the rest of the week as though they owe it to the viewing public. The desire to be gazed at, then, is the crux of popularity. For both Idol contestants as well as the audience at home, this gaze has lasting effects. Those contestants who proceeded far into the competition demonstrated to the voting approval, thus changing the way those at home will view not only other television programs, but each other as well. In turning the gaze onto the individuals on the American Idol stage, the message is (often unknowingly) reinforced to the viewing audience that not only are they supposed to be watching through a particular point of
63 view, but also that they are to examine and scrutinize their own performances through this vantage point. While this viewpoint is that of the heterosexual, white male, those who do not fit one if any, of these descriptions, still judge their Idols based on ideals and standards which may not then even be congruent with their lived experience. The white, American Idols accountable to gender an d racialized performances which fit into stereotypes that have been given to them by these very same white, straight, institutions. Future Directions for Feminist Research I did this work because there is a definite need to transcend the rigid boundaries p competition shows the site to begin work on this issue, for while feminist, performance, race, and queer theorists have been working on this subject for some time, the audie nce of these theorists and activists is infinitely more limited than that of television in general, and reality television specifically The constant surveillance that occurs on programs such as Idol, Big Brother, Survivor, and The Real World, are far fro m innocent Rather than an important tool of self policing, this panopticon serv es to reinforce the notion that bodies need to look a certain way to be accepted in the American mainstream culture. It makes sure that people whose bo dies do not reflect the prevailing stereotypes regarding gender, race, class, and sexuality, know that they should strive to fit in to the categories that have for too long been considered dominant The surveying of women of color (and men as well, however based on different standards) continues to perpetuate heteronormative stereotypes about
64 what these women are supposed to look and act like, creating serious consequences for those who do not comply. For white wome appearance which conveys that they are good and pure, but it is also understood that their appearance and behavior should be that which will be desirable to men. When the surveying audience rewards these chara cteristics, they are also reinforcing these women, just Black women (Turner, 1994)). So to a of color are supposed to look and act is then carried out of the television set and into the experiences of women (and men, with their own stereotypes and set of expectations) of color, where the (largely white) population demands this set of appearances and behaviors as well. Every vote for an American Idol contestant, regardless of gender or stereotypical standards which have been set out for her, while simultaneously telling the person who is doing the judging that she, too, is under constant surveillance and must also conform the set of stereotypical expectations set out for her if he wants to find success. There are a few (too few) examples of reality television shows which treat male and female bo dies of all colors in a more egalitarian manner, such as Survivor or The Amazing Race where all participants are pushed to their limits both physically and
65 emotionally However, if shows such as American Idol could address that what their contestants are achieving is in fact performance both performing gender as well as ethnicity, the n that would be a huge step forward in the recognition of bodies as doing gender rather than these traits being inherent in the body Further, we need to recognize that these gendered and racialized certain characteristics are seen as inferior to others, as we saw with Kimberly Locke being rewarded for passing as white, or Fantasia for passing as more feminine. As noted above, I began watching the show because the concept intrigued me as someone who liked to sing: That could be me up there! I continue to watch, along with the millions of Americans who still follow the program throu gh its eighth season, partly because I still enjoy singing, popular music, and the (pseudo ) drama of who will stay and who will go. Being drawn to the program for these reasons makes me much like those millions who are also viewing the show. The other r eason I am still parked on my couch every Tuesday and Wednesday night, however, is in an attempt to critically performances, rendering me a different kind of audience than many of the viewers in this respect. Long before I took on this project, I observed how those who progressed far into the competition did not necessarily have the most talent, or the most unique look or sound. I found (and still do find) it incredibly hypocri tical that the judges incessantly scene, and yet those who win, as well as the runners up, seem to be carbon copies of all the pop stars who have preceded them.
66 It would be of little use, however, to blame the judges for the success of such American Idol. viewersh ip are difficult to obtain, or even if it is the voting audience who decides the winners each week. Even so, approximately thirty million Americans tune in each week eno American Idol however, will probably not last forever, and like its predecessors ( Star Search etc.), it will eventually be replaced in the popular culture by a newer, hipper, edgier, competition show, and yet, the viewing audience will remain unchanged. The surveillance and accountability that the audience exercises during American Idol is the same form of judgment and scrutiny that Americans implement on each other every day. Worse yet, individuals begin to internalize these judgments so that they often hold themselves accountable to sometimes crippling successful. Programs like American Idol wor body. Gazing at the Idol contestants through the white, straight, male lens has impacted the audience such that they have turned the focus on themselves in an attempt to en sure that their performances are not deviating from their prescribed routines. While American Idol can certainly not take credit creating docile bodies, the program provides an thus
67 Theory, and the act of theorizing, has been long criticized as not being useful to people in their everyday lives. Often trapped in academia and written in inaccessible language, even some feminist, queer, and post mo dern theory can seem useless when too few feminist theorists are devoting attention to media studies, particularly those of reality television, and while on the surfa ce this subject can seem trivial, faddish, and unimportant, the fact that so many Americans are tuning in to them every week, year after year, suggests that there is a definite need for feminist theorists to critically examine these programs and the impact they have on the viewing audience. More importantly, though, how can we turn this critical theory into actual activism? I still want to watch my favorite superficial, reality competition show, yet I also want to alert the rest of the viewing audience of the homogenization that such mass marketed programs create. While most viewers are surely aware of the fact that commercial products are being pushed upon them during the episodes (the Coca Cola cups and Ford commercials are regularly satirized on progra ms such as Saturday Night Live and Family Guy ), the awareness that the audience itself is pushed as a product is surely missed. Here is where the feminist conviction of praxis is needed: feminist media theorists must reach the masses in order to expose th e viewing audience to its adherence to homogeneity. Rather than suggest that we eliminate these reality programs, I propose that the work of those who are critically examining this material be made accessible to those viewing the shows. Critical feminist race, and queer theory pertaining to the media that Americans are so rapidly consuming needs to be published in more popular magazines, newspapers, and
68 online media outlets in an effort to shed a broader light on how deeply reliant on the I n any gi ven season, if that particular Top T welve were not there, there would be another crop of young, idealistic hopefuls waiting right behind them, making each most disposable And sure enough each season ends and another begins with that new group of fresh faced Americans ready to make their mark on popular culture The last group however has had a taste of stardom and rather than slink back into the obscu rity from whence they came, much like the winners of Survivor, Big Brother or The Amazing Race the young Idols seek record contracts, movie and television deals or Broadway headlines More than any other reality shows on television today, the American Idols are here to stay, whether we like them or not Money and numbers talk however, and they say, we So it is vital then that these programs never stray from the critical eye, and those of us who are drawn to the show season afte r season continue to be thier biggest critics.
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