Too HAWT To Win

Curator's Note

In my book American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity and Reality Television, one of the theories I propose is that there is an inversely proportional relationship between female physical attractiveness and the odds of a contestant winning the entire competition - the "hawter" a female contestant, the less likely it is that she will win. In fact, any female contestant labeled early on as "sexy" is essentially doomed. 

The term "hawt" is used purposively here in a "trololo," internet meme-y fashion. One of the truisms of American Idol is that an unattractive woman will never get near the top twelve. Even those outside of the traditional Western conception of beauty - Mandisa Hunley, for example, or Crystal Bowersox - are by no means unattractive. But "hawtness" - that is, a stereotypical adherence to male fantasy perceptions of attractiveness - is a step above "attractive." This Carrie Underwood is "attractive;" this Carrie Underwood is "hawt" (Underwood won, in part, because her farmgirl-next-door persona was somewhat played up by the program to avoid hawtness). 

Hawtness is, paradoxically, both encouraged and punished in the Idol context. For example, Simon Cowell once famously instructed S6's Haley Scarnato to "wear the least amount of clothes as possible. Because, look I’ll be honest with you, you can’t do well in this competition based on your voice because there are much better singers." This becomes the Sword of Damocles hanging above the head of the hawt contestant: eventually, no matter who she is, the criticism will turn from her voice to her looks, and those looks will be the petard upon which she is hoisted. Eventually (or, in the case of someone like Megan Corkrey, almost immediately) the conversation will end up in a place where the contestant only achieved her position because of how she looks rather than the quality of her voice. The latest victims - Pia Toscano and, especially, Haley Reinhart - stood no chance of winning. The concept of a powerful, sexual woman creates cognitive dissonance in Western culture and must either be rationalized or rejected. Either the powerful, sexual woman is a bitch/whore or she is outright rejected so we don't have to think too hard about her. Or both. 

"Haley is good, but she dresses like a slut, so that must be why people are voting for her, so I am not voting for her and I hope she gets voted out."


Your photo examples of “attractive” Carrie vs “HAWT” Carrie provide an excellent illustration of your argument. I agree that with the possible exception of Season 8 Runner-up Adam Lambert, finalists—both female and male— have generally avoided presenting themselves on stage in a sexualized manner. And again your photos also illustrate the strange juxtaposition of Idol vs the current visual landscape of the recording industry. Your first photo appears to be an Idol promo picture of Carrie while the second is a red carpet event she attended after she began her recording career. While “HAWTness” may be detrimental to reality show contestants it is an apparent asset for “real world” celebrities. I think this paradox highlights further the conservative nature of the Idol voting audience members that Katherine Meizel discussed in yesterday’s essay. Pia Toscano's movie-star, good looks and Haley's sultry performance style added to their "HAWTness" and may have, in fact, hurt their chances while Lauren Alaina's girl-next-door appeal propelled her to the finale.

Of course hawtness is an attribute that bears real fruit in the commercial marketplace, because the net is cast much wider - more potential consumers and more likelihood of establishing and/or filling a niche (and more men who will buy merchandise/CDs simply to apprehend the sexualized, fetishized object).

However, as you point out, hawtness becomes an albatross on Idol,  because in essence, it loses the hawt contestant two constituent groups one cannot hope to win without: southern conservatives and female teenagers. 

The sexuality of a Haley Reinhart or a Pia Toscano is going to put off the southern conservative who is moved to rally around a Scotty McCreery or a Taylor Hicks (Katharine McPhee found out at the 11th hour that trying to vamp it up in the finale was a super bad idea). Equally, who cares less about Reinhart's hawtness than the teen girl that is going to powervote for Scotty McDreamy? 

Lauren Alaina's squeaky-clean "all-American girl" schtick plays perfectly to both constituencies, keeping her in far longer than superior singers. Like many other sectors of American society, to be a woman who proudly embraces her sexuality is to be materially penalized for doing so - both Reinhart and Toscano are testaments.  

Let's not forget the favorite arc of the American Idol contestant. The object of the show is to take 'talented', 'self-motivated', 'all-American', 'hardworking folks', and 'give them a shot' at the 'big games'. Contestants, in the preliminary auditions, are surveyed for indications of power, for the ability to inspire, to quiet and to arouse the pain and desires in audiences. I like your use of the word "hawt"--A woman who walks in off the street 'as' "hawt" is seen as a woman who has exploited her sexuality to cater to mens' tastes. She is masquerading, is not truly hot. If she has played up her features with excessive makeup and worn something along the lines of lingerie, she is demonstrating, it seems, that she is not truly beautiful. She has no 'inner beauty' that can be 'brought out' by the stylists and the encouragement of fans during the show. A woman who walks in to the audition room with nice features that are played down is instead the perfect target for being 'taken under the wing' of some mentor who knows what they're doing in the 'big games'. A "hawt" idol, instead, is viewed as someone who has mastered her sexuality and has by virtue mastered men. 

An idol is seen as a master of his/her own talent. A girl-next-door has the talent to be "hawt"...and she must rise to the occasion and reveal such 'talent' if she is to win. An idol is not supposed to be a threat; her mastery of her body/sexuality must be by the rules of the big game. She must be mighty but she must still be contained. The audience likes to see itself as "the mentor" ('southern conservatives' and 'teenage girls', as you put them, seem to fit nicely in this category). Should she threaten us with her 'uncontained nature', she will be booted off. 



I've always found it curious that Idol in general kind of discourages almost any explicit articulation of sexuality (even heterosexuality, and especially female sexuality). It's a pop show, and pop is so about the body. Usually there is very little dancing on the show, even though it's typically paramount in the commercial world of pop performance (Britney, boy bands). The Idol judges and producers talk a lot about how the show is a singing competition, and I think in view of the above, it is implied that the voice is not part of the body. Maybe it's understood as spiritual instead, appropriately for all the contestants who talk about their (Christian) faith onscreen and off. (Or maybe it's implied that the voice is all the body we need?)

btw, the clip you chose was one of my very favorite performances of the season!

Excellent post and intriguing comment thread. The last comment references the Christian faith so many contestants reference and this is interesting when juxtaposed with "hawtness." I am guessing no amoung of "appropriate" attractiveness (i.e. non-threatening and able to be molded by the Idol machine) could trump an out atheist... And, of course, non-heterosexuality also remains closeted on Idol. Not being a Christain believer who thanks god at the Idol win (and presumably in any future grammy wins) OR being out and proud as non-hetero would be just as dangerous as being "hawt." Of course, these things would doom one to being voted off sooner rather than later (in spite of voice talent) ESPECIALLY if female. A powerful, sexy lesbian atheist idol ? Can you imagine?

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