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Is American Idol Having Its Most Racist, Sexist Season Yet?

The pop-star-making TV program has always had a problem with sex and race, but it might be worse than ever.
 
 
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[Spoiler Warning: This post includes discussion of who was voted off American Idol last night. Trigger warning for racism, sexism.]

American Idol has a racism problem. American Idol also has a sexism problem. That's true generally—four of its nine winners have been female; three of its nine winners have been people of color (two women, one man). But it's especially true this season.

The season started out with 13 finalists: Six men, seven women. So far this season, only one man has been voted off—and the judges used their one and only "save" to rescue him from elimination. At this point in the season, we are down to eight contestants—six men, and two women.

[Spoiler warning for image below the fold and related discussion that reveals who was eliminated last night.]

From left to right: African-American contestant Ashthon Jones, Puerto Rican-American contestant Karen Rodriguez, African-American contestant Naima Adedapo, Filipina-American contestant Thia Megia, and Italian-American contestant Pia Toscano.

Above are the contestants who have been eliminated so far this season. All— all—of the women of color were voted off first. (With the exception of the white male contestant who was voted off and saved; the next week, two women of color were sent home.) When only three white women were left, the most "ethnic"- looking of the three women, who was widely regarded as one of the best singers in the competition, was eliminated.

A woman of color hasn't won since Season 6 (Jordin Sparks); seasons 7, 8, and 9 were all won by white men (David Cook, Kris Allen, and Lee DeWyze, respectively). All but one (Jacob Lusk, who was in the bottom three last night) of the remaining male contestants this season are white (or present as white*), so odds are that a white man will win American Idol again this year.

There is an argument to be made that this isn't American Idol 's fault, but America's. The show has a geographical bias that favors southern contestants—six of the nine winners have been from southern states, and the three exceptions were Jordin Sparks who was from the southwest (Arizona), David Cook who was from the upland south (Missouri), and Lee DeWyze who was from Illinois but living in Oklahoma when he auditioned for the show. Four of the five female contestants voted off have been from New York, California, or Wisconsin. Only Ashthon Jones was from Georgia.

And then there's the argument that the US is itself a deeply sexist and racist place, so it ought to be no surprise when the voting reflects those values. Of the top 10 best-selling music artists in the US, only Barbra Streisand is not a white male.

Except.

If you start looking at best-selling lists of recent decades, things start looking different. Best-sellers are not a sea of white male faces, anymore.

(And there's a separate issue about, for example, Motown music being covered over and over, instead of originals considered untouchable canon, which affects all-time best-sellers lists, and which is a whole other post I will write someday, but suffice it to say all-time US best-sellers lists are deceptively white, anyway.)

Yes, American Idol votes skew based on the same prejudices that affect all parts of US culture and the same clan-championing that goes on in US politics. But the show treats female and male contestants fundamentally differently, encouraging creativity among the boys and conformity among the girls. (Gee, where have I heard that before?)

And, beyond the creative-compliant disparity, there is the routinely reinforced narrative that (straight) male voters should support male contestants because they're cool, and (straight) female voters should support male contestants because they're hot. There were no staged scenes of teenybopper boys running onstage to throw themselves at Pia's feet (like Scotty McCreery got, with teenybopper girls)—or staged scenes of young girls running up to ask for her autograph. The only reason to vote for a female contestant, it seems, it because she's a good singer. "This is ultimately a singing competition," the judges like to say, so that ought to be enough.

But it's not enough, because calling American Idol just a singing competition is dishonest. And all the little staged extras, and the opportunities to show "personality," and all the other "showbiz spectacle" detritus that increases exponentially every year, favors the boys.

Which would just be exasperating, and nothing more than a reason to change the channel, were it not for the millions of little girls vested in the show—and internalizing the lessons it's teaching about how "America" treats men and women, especially women of color.

[Note: All of the female finalists this year were also thin.]

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* Earlier in the season, the country contestant, Scotty McCreery, told Lopez his grandmother wanted him to tell her that he is one-quarter Puerto Rican. McCreery, however, trades on a cowpoke image inextricably associated, if wrongly so, with whiteness, and his family history did not come up again until this week, when he awkwardly attributed his dance moves this week to "the Puerto Rican blood."

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