Sexuality and Idol paper

Following the excellent Gender Cultures and Reality TV symposium held in Auckland this past weekend (a follow-on from one held in Dublin earlier this year), I thought I would post the full text of the paper I presented. Obviously, I actually talked around it a little, and it is written for oral presentation, but I’m always interested in getting further feedback. The full text is after the jump. The suggestion was made that there might be enough of an idea here to work up for publication too, so that is also floating around in my mind.

“You keep singing like that and you will be able to afford the rest of that dress” : Nascent Sexualisation in the Idol Franchise

This paper was inspired by a single incident from the most recent (2011) season of American Idol. There was a moment between contestant Lauren Alaina and judge Steven Tyler which when I first watched it left me feeling just a little uncomfortable, and seemed to leave Alaina feeling uncomfortable too. The incident made me think about the history of Idol and the Idol franchise, and how some of its ideological frameworks might gradually be shifting. It also inspired me to think about the cultural variation between the various regional versions of Idol, and I will make a couple of quick comments about that towards the end.

In order to understand why this particular moment (which I will show you in a few minutes) stood out, there a few things about the history of American Idol which need to be clarified. The show began in 2002, making its most recent its tenth season. The show was very successful in its first few years, garnering ratings which went counter to the downwards trend being experienced by most US network broadcast television at the time. During this period, Idol maintained a fairly consistent form, didn’t play around with the rules, the appearance, or the format. As the ratings eventually began to slide a little, the producers began making a few changes. The series had been relatively consistent in terms of its staffing, maintaining the same judging panel for the first 7 seasons. In season 8, a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, was added, and in season 9, Paula Abdul left the panel and was replaced by Ellen DeGeneres. Finally, in season 10, the judging panel was completely reformed, with Randy Jackson being the only original judge remaining, and being joined by Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Adding two highly successful musicians to the judging panel alongside a well-regarded musician and producer was seen by many as an attempt to bring authenticity to a competition that had begun to lose some credibility. However, this change may have also had some unforeseen consequences…

Another change which happened in season 10 of the show was a shift in the rules which govern eligibility. The initial age range allowed to audition was from 16-24, and the upper age was extended to 28 in the fourth season. However, with the success of shows such as The X Factor, which in the US allows contestants as young as 12, the decision was made to lower the age of eligibility for the 10th season of Idol to 15. This had an immediate impact, with 2 of the top 13 contestants in the season being 15 at the time of their first audition.

One key aspect of American Idol that I have noticed (although it doesn’t seem to have been highly theorised) is the relatively conservative ideology that it tends to portray. There is a consistent history of playing up religious affiliations that any contestants might have (assuming that they are connected to a dominant Christian organisation), and removing any forms of sexuality. Partners tend to be glossed over, unless “sanctified” by marriage, and even if the contestant is married, the reference is usually to devotion or dedication, rather than to romance, emotion, or sex. Homosexuality is also something which is completely glossed over during the show – I’m not aware of any finalist who has come out as gay during the run of the show, although several have following the completion of their respective seasons. Even Adam Lambert, who it could be argued coded himself as gay throughout the run of the show, refused to confirm his sexuality until after the finale of season 8. Part of the ratings success of Idol has been it’s appeal to the conservative and religious sections of the US, and this has been reflected by the fact that most of the successful Idols have at least made reference to their faith. Quoting Katherine Meizel: “As in the American presidency, a person outside the spectrum of Christian faiths has never filled the role of American Idol. It is perhaps not coincidental that, of the American Idols to date, most have spoken publicly about their faith during their Idol campaigns, seven of the nine hailed from southern states – as did recent Presidents George W Bush and William Jefferson Clinton – and six were elected during the presidency of Bush, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian” (104-5).  Sexualisation and sexuality seem to hold no place in this depiction. Meizel again notes that sexuality “is one of the only identity markers not plainly exploited for its audience potential. Not only sexual alterity but any kind of sexuality is articulated more subtly here than is typical of the commercial pop world” (47).

Against this backdrop of conservatism, the selection of Steven Tyler to the judging panel seemed to impact the relationship between judge and contestant. Tyler seemed to be a slightly odd choice as a new judge for the Idol producers, given that his stage persona is one of overt sexuality, and that his addictions to drugs and sex have been well documented over the years. His lyrics are frequently sexual or profane, which does not seem to be a good match with the traditional conservative ideals of Idol. However, many critics, and I agree with them, suggest that Tyler was actually inspired casting, adding a new energy to a flagging series. He often acted as a provocateur, frequently needing to be censored for swearing, both in pre-recorded and live segments. In fact, in the first live show of the season, Tyler was given a sign to hold in front of his mouth when he swore, matching the censoring bubble used by editors to cover his lips.

Video of Steven Tyler – Package from final episode of Season

Steven Tyler and contestant Lauren Alaina  seemed to have had a specific connection since her first audition. Alaina was one of the youngest contestants to audition, still 15 when she first met the judges. There was immediate chemistry between the two.

An edited clip from Lauren Alaina’s audition

Tyler went on from this to frequently refer to Alaina as one of his favourites, if not his favourite, to win the title. The footage of Alaina doing a cartwheel in this clip was also used repeatedly during the season, with the effect of playing up her child-like qualities.

All of this led up to the moment which really piqued my interest, in the 22nd episode of the 10th season, where the top 11 were competing. Lauren Alaina performed Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, and I will run the clip from the end of her performance.

Lauren Alaina and Steven Tyler Incident

Alaina seems completely uncertain how to deal with Tyler’s comment, but the most telling moment of the segment for me comes a moment after the comment, as Alaina covers herself with the tail of her dress, and another hand covers her chest. She seems to feel completely exposed, needing to cover herself, to protect her modesty. Alaina until this point has come across as childishly sweet, young and immature. However, in this moment, she is cast as a sexual object, and made directly aware of it. As one of the youngest contestants ever competing on this stage, this moment seems to be even more jarring.

When I was first considering this paper, I did quite a lot of thinking about the sexualisation of children, especially the sexualisation of children towards a capitalist end. The Australia Institute produced a study in 2006 entitled Corporate Paedophilia, looking at the way that media and advertising might be sexualising children for corporate aims. While I think both the methodology and the conclusions drawn from the study are actually problematic, relying heavily as it does on media effects theory, I think that it shows a heightened concern for the depictions of pre-teens and teenagers in modern media imagery.

In retrospect, having engaged with the Tyler/Alaina incident in more depth, I’m not convinced that the concerns expressed by studies such as the aforementioned actually reflect what happened here. I don’t believe any particular corporate aims were accomplished by this moment, nor do I believe that it was in any way choreographed or planned. However, I do think that it might have been in some ways inevitable, when combining someone like Steven Tyler, not prone to self-censoring, and the lowered age bracket of Idol.

Alaina seems to have not been overly affected by this moment, after her initial shock and instinctive reaction. Immediately after coming off stage, her initial comment is “Apparently I need a longer dress”, but a clip from seemingly only a moment after that has her a lot more certain of herself, declaring “My dress is not too short”. The moment also did not seem to do much harm to Alaina’s performance in the competition, falling only at the final hurdle by coming runner-up. She also matured and grew throughout the course of the show, becoming visibly more comfortable with herself, and on stage. As Tyler said to her in a subsequent episode, following her performance of Carole King’s Natural Woman: “4 months ago you came in here an immature little girl, and tonight you are a natural born woman”.

I would also suggest that throughout the series, Tyler adopts an almost paternal attitude, especially towards Alaina, which might provide a slightly different frame of reference. [NB – in questions after the paper, it became apparent that some had read this comment as a nod towards a paedophilic, incestuous connection, which was not my intent. I was more interested in the way that a teenager might be embarassed by comments from his/her parents, although I do accept that the alternative reading could warrant further thought]

As I said earlier, I have thought about this moment in the context of other national versions of the Idol franchise, to try to decide whether this type of sexualisation could have happened in other editions, and whether it would have been noticeable. I didn’t have access to full seasons of other versions to confirm my suspicions, but these observations are based on having watched 3 seasons of New Zealand Idol and 4 seasons of Australian Idol as they aired. The key for me is that I don’t believe that either Australian or New Zealand Idol is based in the same conservative ideologies as the US version – religion seems to play a much smaller role in the New Zealand franchise, and is almost invisible in the Australian. The second side of this is that the judges in both antipodean versions made comments that were much more based around sexualisation or appearance, most famously Australian judge Kyle Sandilands, who made several derogatory comments around the appearance of female contestants, and was eventually fired due to an incident on his radio show where he had a 14yo girl attached to a lie detector, and then had her admit that she was raped when she was 12. On the third season of NZ Idol, shock jock and new judge Iain Stables told a contestant that she couldn’t sing, but would “make an excellent shag”. While these moments are all problematic, arguably a lot more problematic than the Tyler/Alaina incident, the incident on the US version seems to stand out even more because of the conservative context within which it occured.

Carmine Sarracino and Kevin Scott, in their book “The Porning of America” discuss the idea of  sexualisation. They note: “sexualised (…) does not mean hypersexed. It means, rather, that a person, male or female, young or old, is divested of all other qualities he or she is said to possess – intelligence, spirituality, sense of humour, athleticism, compassion, talent – and reduced to an outward husk, utterly empty but for a single potential, the ability to satisfy someone else’s sexual needs” (198-199). I think that this idea perfectly encompasses the “make a good shag” comment from Stables, but seems to not quite explain the affect of the Alaina/Tyler moment. There, Tyler is not seeking to reduce her to a sexual object, but simply makes a comment that is inappropriate for the contestant’s age – Alaina is not objectified in that moment, mortified possibly, but I would argue not sexualised.

So where does this leave us? I think that reality television does need to keep in mind its treatment of children and youth, especially in these competition reality shows which blur the boundaries between competition and commodification. While the apparent sexual gaze which falls on contestants might often be problematic, it is even more so when the contestants are younger. And as competition reality shows age, they seem to be seeking out a wider contestant base. The success of 13 year old Rachel Crow in the US version of The X Factor indicates an ongoing appeal of younger contestants. What producers and presenters do need to be aware of is how these younger contestants are addressed, presented, and constructed. Is there, as I suggest in my title, a nascent sexualisation in American Idol? I remain unconvinced, although I do believe that the presence of Steve Tyler does mean that there might be more moments where his liberal and open attitude, and the traditional conservative ideologies of American Idol, collide.


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