question of the day: Is ‘American Idol’ sexist and racist?

I don’t watch American Idol. Never have, never will. But I read something like this — by Melissa McEwan at the excellent blog Shakesville — and I’m not at all surprised:

All—all—of the women of color were voted off first [during the current ongoing season]. (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.

McEwan goes on to discuss a few of the reasons why this may be: The show has a geographical bias that favors Southern contestants, or, you know, the U.S. is basically just rife with racism and sexism.

But it gets way more interesting than that:

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….

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.

I’m not surprised because it sounds as if some pretty standard American memes are playing out, as you might naturally expect, on the most-watched TV show in the United States, and one that thrives on audience participation. It’s practically a poster child for “lowest common denominator.”

Is American Idol sexist and racist? Or is the rap unfair for reasons that I can’t appreciate because I don’t watch the show? If it is indeed racist and sexist, how could the show overcome that and still be popular with a nation for whom sexism and racism is seemingly entrenched?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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