When Pia Toscano was eliminated by the voters on the April 7 episode of American Idol, all the judges looked and sounded shocked. But why? The last few years of Idol should have shown that a female singer won’t get far. While the early years produced such winners as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, the last three champs were men. Only one woman, Crystal Bowersox, made it to the final round in those three years. And this season’s finals eliminated five women in a row before finally voting out the first man. After Toscano departed, Jennifer Lopez admitted that she was afraid to criticize the two remaining females: “I feel like all of the girls are getting voted off, and I don’t like that.”
There have always been arguments about bias on Idol; until Lee DeWyze won last year, there were rumours that the show was biased toward southerners. But this season has turned the voters’ alleged anti-woman bias into a major issue. Deadline.com TV reporter Nellie Andreeva, who rarely expresses personal opinions, made an exception and asked, “Why are Idol female singers vanishing?” arguing that “the voting is so heavily skewed in the male singers’ favour that the voting results can’t possibly be random.” A report by The Today Show put it more bluntly: “Sorry, ladies. Idol’s just not that into you.”
Democracy is rarely pretty, so the first step in the anti-Idol backlash was to blame the people. More women than men watch American Idol—the show is especially popular with young women—and now that online voting is available on the show, they’re free to flood the system with votes in support of the boys they love most. Thia Megla, one of the women who was eliminated early on, said in a press conference that, “We sort of figured since there were more females watching this show the votes were going to be more for the guys.” Another eliminated woman, Naima Adedapo, accused her fellow females of voting for sex appeal instead of talent. “When it comes down to it,” she told the Hollywood Reporter, “the reality is that more than 50 per cent of the audience is little teenage girls, and once they get a crush, we’re done.”
If good-looking men have an advantage on Idol, then some observers have argued the flip side: voters are harder on women who are perceived as being too sexy. Daniel Fienberg of Hit Fix explained Toscano’s departure by writing that the show “is tough on women and it’s even tougher on beautiful women and Pia Toscano is a beautiful woman.” Early winners like Clarkson and Underwood managed to get votes based on what Fienberg called “girl-next-door” appeal; they were attractive enough to make people like them, but not enough to be a threat. Steven Tyler summed it up when he told reporters that Toscano lost because “guys aren’t voting and girls are jealous,” which led Entertainment Weekly’s Kate Ward to accuse him of an “unbelievably sexist viewpoint.”
Others have argued that the people are less to blame than the elites—in this case, judges who are too positive. Without Simon Cowell, most of the judges are so friendly there’s no sense that anyone is in danger. Chris Matyszczyk of CBS News said they made us think Toscano “was safe, so why bother casting a vote.” And while Lopez said she was “shocked and angry” about Toscano, the judges couldn’t keep her on: they’d used up their one-time chance to save a contestant from elimination by picking Casey Abrams—a man. Producer Nigel Lithgoe told TV Guide he was considering changing the voting “so that America votes for the bottom three and then the judges decide who goes home.” But those judges may not have better judgment than we do.
Besides, as Lithgoe admitted in another interview, a new voting system would hurt the show by preventing ballot-box stuffing: “People would turn around and say, ‘Votes have been bad this year. You only got 20 million votes.’ ” And the things fans are saying about the show are already bad enough. A commenter on Andreeva’s post wrote that “Until they get to one person/one vote, you’ll have these situations.” The inability of the U.S. or Canada to elect a female head of state is a minor matter. But when Pia doesn’t get to sing on American Idol, that’s going too far.