From Paternal to Patronizing: The Declining Credibility of Female Contestants

Curator's Note

At the outset of Season 10, the new judging panel on American Idol repeatedly stated that they were looking for an artist. From the beginning, they indicated that image would not be the deciding factor; rather, talent would be. However, also from the beginning, they revealed that artistry was best associated with being male.

Make no mistake, American Idol has never espoused a feminist agenda. In the Simon Cowell era, female contestants were often picked apart for appearance alone. However, Cowell’s ethos was primarily that of father figure. The show was set up so that the goal was to please him in order to avoid the very harsh criticism he was known to give out. This is not to say that male contestants didn’t face the same scrutiny, but to note that women didn’t have it particularly easy during Simon Cowell’s reign as the "bad cop."

The casting of Steven Tyler completely altered the landscape of criticism and the relationship between the female contestants and the "father figure." Long known as hard-partying, Tyler frequently (and proudly) referenced his exploits with women in off-handed comments. The clip provided here aired early in the season during the auditions phase. The scene revealed what would remain Tyler’s persona for the duration of the season. He’s not the commanding patriarch who sets the rules; rather, he’s an admirer of women regardless of their age. His flirtatiousness is only one part of the changing treatment of female contestants this season.

While they might be looking for talent over appearance, Tyler and the other judges highlighted the feminine qualities of the female contestants—their tentativeness, lack of uncertainty in their identity, and appearance—while focusing on the artistry of their male counterparts.  Ultimately, in the post-Schadenfreude era, American Idol reduces the artistic credibility of women (girls). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the early voting period, female contestants were picked off one after another or that at the end, the two “girls” left, one was a fifteen year-old who often emphasized her own insecurities and the other was a diminutive twenty year-old frequently criticized for not knowing her own identity. When Pia Toscano was voted off, an ABC News article asked whether sexism was to blame.

Ultimately, sexism on American Idol isn’t new, but the current era of judging embraces and encourages a disturbing trend toward weaker women both in image and identity.


Your essay has reminded me of Simon Cowell’s interactions with season 8 contestant Lil Rounds. The judges considered her an early front runner, but by the time she made it to the voting rounds it seemed nothing she did, be it her wardrobe choice, song selection, or interpretation of her number, could please Simon. And yet it also seemed that she did take his criticism each week and try to incorporate his “suggestions” into her next performance.

I have often thought that Simon worked to “weed out” finalists to leave, not necessarily the most talented performers, but rather the most commercially viable contestants within the voting pool. I am not certain at all what Steven’s agenda was. His gluttonous admiration for females was evident and he clearly exhibited his love for many genres of music, but I cannot remember a time (beyond the auditions) where he actually judged any of the contestants.

I will admit that I was a fan of Haley and I did not see her as a weak contestant. She was a fighter who took the brunt of the little criticism that the judges doled out and she shockingly gave the judges attitude and talked back to them without suffering voter backlash (a rare thing on Idol). As for Lauren, Randy did often attempt to push her to show the confidence she exhibited during her auditions. After rereading your essay I think I do agree that in the end, the show itself does not take the female contestants seriously. Michael Slezak of TVLine has often stated that women are rarely given credit for creative arrangements or song interpretations while male contestants such as Season 6’s Blake Lewis Sesason 7’s David Cook, Season 8’s Adam Lambert and Kris Allen and Season 10’s James Durbin were all praised for performing creative renditions of their songs.

What I find most odd about Idol’s treatment of female contestants is that in the pop music world men are a rare commodity while women such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Pink, Katy Perry reign supreme. Perhaps the program’s conservatism prevents female contestants from presenting themselves in the marketable, sexualized manner that has contributed to the aforementioned female pop stars’ success. Idol the TV show and Idol the recording artist manufacturer apparently lack synergy.

 Yes, yes, yes. I keep talking about this, but I think it might also have something to do with the recent focus on rock, which is traditionally more gendered as male than pop--which, as Maria points out, is ruled by young women.  

Re: the importance and disadvantages of knowing your identity, I am thinking a couple of thoughts: 1) according to rock discourse, you have to be certain of your identity as an artist. In discourse about pop (infused with rock ideology), singers, usually female, are positioned as pawns of the music industry. It's pretty tough for Idol contestants to negotiate this genre/gender maze. 2) Recalling Christopher's concept of HAWTness, I remember that Simon Cowell never criticized any men for being "pageant-y." That always intrigued me, that "pageant" was assigned this negative quality--was it because of a perceived over-emphasis on looks? a singing style Cowell didn't like? And yet, when Pia got voted off, I thought, "yeah, great voice, but kind of pageant-y." Simon, what have you done to me??

I loved Christopher's contribution on HAWTness, and I couldn't help but draw parallels.  Such an interesting way to to characterize the issue.  You both raise such excellent points about how these issues intertwine.

Clearly, it's not a new thing.  Don't get me wrong.  I loved watching Steven Tyler, but he did add an interesting layer to the use/misuse of female sexuality on the show. 

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