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Thursday, March 15, 2012

American Idiots: Idol Producers Shame Contestant With Criminal Past

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 2:00 PM


American Idol is quickly becoming the dinosaur of reality singing competitions (pit against the flashier and more hip The Voice and The X-Factor), and it's revealing more of its true cornball sensibility with every episode. The show, perhaps, has reached a point of desperation to grasp ratings, and desperate times can lead to highly questionable programming decisions.

Wednesday night's taped disqualification of contestant Jermaine Jones (repeatedly and obnoxiously referred to by host Ryan Seacrest as "The Gentle Giant") for not disclosing past run-ins with the law and current outstanding warrants felt manipulative and highly problematic.

To set up the scene, a young black man in his early 20s is given a paternalistic lecture by two white multimillionaire British men -- Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe -- who babble about the follies of youth and how they understand how we can all get into trouble at that age. They inform Jones that they now know about past arrests (that include giving fake names to the police) and his warrants.

Jones stammers and attempts to explain himself, which was embarrassingly futile because he was sent home anyway for breaking eligibility rules. The rule that contestants must be forthcoming about their past seems reasonable, akin to completing a background check for a job. Yet it seems wholly unreasonable to tape this conversation as an exploitative segment to air on an episode of a flagging series, particularly when past disqualifications were addressed by brief public statements to the press and nothing more.

Producers apparently had no qualms about broadcasting this smug, faux-disheartenment over sending Jones home and its condescending message of "Oh, if only this troubled youth had just come clean, he could have gone so far." Their inability to detect how race and class dynamics play out in this segment perhaps indicates how out of touch American Idol really is. The show has not progressed from its second season in 2003 when it booted black contestant Frenchie Davis for once posing for an adult website -- which is not a crime. Yet white contestant Antonella Barba was not disqualified in 2007 when a series of her topless photos surfaced on the Internet, photos that apparently didn't bother producers at all.

Lythgoe was quoted as saying, "It won't affect anything, Antonella is about her looks and her talent, and that's the only thing that will affect her journey on American Idol."

It certainly brought up questions of difference: Davis is a plus-sized African American woman with a shaved head, whereas Barba is a conventionally attractive, white Jersey girl. This also brings up the stigma around working in the sex industry vs. "leaked" MySpace photos meant for a significant other.

This got me thinking. If American Idol really wanted to continue its inadequate approach to race and boost ratings, it should have kept Jones and re-created its own Blind Side-version of helping this tall, misguided youth reach his full potential. Then its public shaming of him would have at least fit a narrative rather than just being a few choreographed minutes of pre-recorded exploitation.

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Sylvie Kim


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