The talent show is not free of criticism, but this season’s all-female group of finalists is sending a strong message, says Tina Boyer.
In all its corny, commercial excess, American Idol isn’t exactly the highest form of culture, but there’s something brewing in the current finalist round of the competition that’s challenging the established formulas of reality television. This season has come with its share of criticism: boring singers, poor judging, and producer manipulation in favor of female contestants. There may be some truth to each of these assessments but buried beneath what some are calling poor entertainment lies a subtle but undoubtedly feminist moment unfolding.
After a five-season run of winners from the “WGWG” (white guys with guitars) camp, this season’s final five have all been female. And they’re good. Some of them are really, really good. But more intriguing than their singing abilities is the confluence of qualities that make them great role models. Here’s what I’m seeing among the remaining group of contestants: a strong work ethic; a mature attitude toward receiving feedback; a self-confidence that enables them to risk failure on live television each week in a culture that has endless outlets to criticize and scrutinize; a passion to pursue their dreams; and a camaraderie in which they support and care about one another, despite being competitors.
Some may argue that like any reality show, the audience is shown brief, producer-driven moments, and that the personalities we see are as scripted as any fictional series. And while I don’t entirely disagree, I offer two considerations: 1) the majority of footage in the finalist segment of the competition is live, minimizing opportunities for producer manipulation and 2) so what? If the producers of American Idol want to create talented, strong, supportive female “characters” for their show, more power to them. I’ll take that group of girls any day over the bikini-clad vixens duking it out in the countless “dating” shows that rely on pitting women against one another in the name of entertainment.
Speaking of pitting women against one another, OK, yes, there was some sort of “feud” this season between the two female judges, Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. The situation was an unfortunate one, especially given the “Year of the Woman” theme that has transpired on American Idol since the incident in question. However, whether the whole thing was trumped up to boost ratings or there was/is genuine animosity between the two ladies, it shouldn’t undermine another, more positive tone that all four judges have created this year.
According to some, this year’s judging panel is too soft. There are no Simon Cowell-types telling contestants, “that was the worst thing I ever heard” and waiting for a ratings surge every time one of them cries. Nope. Mariah, Nicki, Keith (Urban), and Randy (Jackson) just aren’t cut out to cut down. They’re the diva goddess who tweets “#pow” about you, the record industry veteran who calls you “dawg,” your crazy girlfriend with the fashion advice and clever nicknames, and the cute, floppy-haired boy who will get down on his knees and bow when you sing like Billie Holiday. They are more mentors than judges and this is a good thing. Whether they love every performance or not, their underlying interest is in helping each of the remaining contestants to succeed. They point out what went well, they tell them what to do next time, and they cheer for them. Even Mariah—who often has trouble standing for the standing ovations because, as she’s explained, her dress is too tight or caught under her chair—raises her arms high and requests a copy of the performance for her own personal enjoyment.
Yeah, it’s goofy and theatrical, but it’s also sending a message. And as far as I’m concerned, watching a group of successful adults encourage and affirm talented young women makes pretty compelling television. Anyone who’s ever taken a basic writing or theater class (or watched Breaking Bad) knows that tension equals drama equals audience interest. I’d argue that the schedule and requirements of the competition (did I mention they perform live in front of roughly 20 million people?) provide plenty of drama without the contrived meanness that has become such a staple of reality television.
Maybe all this positivity and empowerment won’t deliver the same astronomical ratings as seasons past. Maybe a judge or two won’t return for Season 13. Maybe next year we’ll be back to choosing between rumpled, sensitive new age guys in plaid shirts. But for the next few weeks, I’m going to sit back on Wednesday night, enjoy some sweet Adele covers, and cheer for the girls.
Tina Boyer lives on the West Coast and writes grants when she isn’t volunteering as a “writercoach” at her local middle school, where she helps eighth graders master their English assignments. Her first novel, GOOD GIRLS, is in the final throes of revision.