On Exploitation in American Idol

Exploitation and reality TV go hand in hand. They always have. Producers chose contestants just shy of mentally stable to create interest. From the consistent casting of rural Americans who've never left their hometown and don't know how they will be edited into backwoods stereotypes to college students who are crucified for making the same mistakes that all young people make, reality TV producers are a particularly insidious breed of muck rakers. They will take either the absolute best or disgusting worst of a person from hours and hours of footage and turn them into a flat stereotype. The producers tip their hats towards dramatic interaction by stacking house-based shows with gallons and gallons of alcohol or denying contestants food and sleep. Whatever pushes the contestants out of the comfort zone becomes acceptable practice if it brings in the ratings. But American Idol is a particularly bad offender in exploitation tactics. From the very first season, the executive producers have made sure people were cast with sob stories. The trend started with Season 1 finalist Jim Verraros, who did not give a single interview that didn't mention how his deaf parents never heard him sing. While my description is cynical, I am not the one who thought exploiting a young man's most personal regret in life was a good idea. I'm not the producer who goaded the information out of the contestant and I'm not the contestant who gave the show permission to reduce me to a sob story. I'm a viewer who was disgusted back then and remains disgusted now.

There are those who claim the contestants have no choice in what information is revealed on national Television. That is simply not the case. Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino successfully hid many parts of her life she didn't want aired out on national television. We may have learned she was a single mother who dropped out of high school to raise her child--something she did not view as a sob story but an integral part of her life--but we did not learn about illiteracy until well after she won the show. We didn't learn about the fights in her family, her great financial struggles, or even her hopes or dreams beyond American Idol. While the producers exploited the single mother angle, she did not allow herself to be turned into a stereotype by refusing to play into the producers' machinations. If a contestant can win the show on the strength of her voice and character over any sob story, then these contestants who reveal even the most minor tragedy to advance have no excuse. If you don't feed the producers information, they can't use it against you.

And yet, many contestants feel it is essential to exploit themselves to be on American Idol. We've had contestants talk about losing everything in Katrina. We've had rape victims, assault victims, car crash victims, spider bite victims (in full casts, nonetheless), and molestation victims. We've had former drug addicts, people dating drug addicts, and people raised by drug addicts. While I am not trying to take away from the horrible experience of these contestants, I do believe that after a certain point, the sob story angle and exploitation of it become a joke. It quickly swings around from tragedy to comedy as you can see the judges acting very out of character and passing mediocre contestants through because they have character arcs over good singers who lived happy lives. The comedy comes from the constant assertion that "this is a singing competition." It is not and never has been. So long as the show pushes the judges to exaggerate their praise of the poor paint salesman or the girl who grew up barefoot on a ranch over working singer-songwriters, it will never be a singing competition.

None of this is new. What could have possible spurred me to write about exploitation on American Idol after ten seasons? The answer is sad and disturbing.

On 26 January 2011, American Idol's tenth season aired its Milwaukee audition episode. The producers showed their usual melange of sob stories, including the horrors of working a full time job and the monumental tragedy of being rejected from the show in the past. Then they went to the most disturbing story I've seen on the show.

Contestant Chris Medina became engaged to his girlfriend, Julianna, a little over two years ago. They agreed to be married two years to the date of the engagement. Two months before the wedding, his girlfriend was left mentally and physically disabled by a car accident. She was left in a coma and suffered brain damage. Juliana's mother and Chris are his primary caretakers.

I'm going to stop right here and ask why? Why is this relevant to a singing competition? Why would anyone in their right mind reveal this information in a way that leads to camera crews descending upon a suffering woman and filming her twitch in a wheelchair for a lengthy audition segment? How is this deemed appropriate? How is it entertainment? And, again, what does Julianna's physical and mental conditions have to do with a singing competition? Nothing.

I want to blame the producers here. I really do. But that would be short-changing a particularly horrible breed of contestant's behavior. Chris Medina didn't allow his girlfriend to be filmed for Idol; he brought Julianna to the audition with a big shiny sign encouraging the judges to vote for her boyfriend. While the families are often invited to the first televised judging round, they aren't always invited into the audition room. More than that, most contestants aren't shameless enough to say they are only there because of their disabled girlfriend and how it would be her dream to see him advance in the show. He actually said to the judges, "If I were to make it to Hollywood, it would get her to be happy about something again." He sang a mediocre rendition of "Breakeven" by The Script, slowed down because he doesn't have the breath control to make it through the long, tongue-twister-like verses, and was told to bring his girlfriend inside.

I don't know who made the decision to bring Julianna into the audition room. I don't know how much prep the judges were given about the situation and how long Chris Medina's audition actually was. They conveniently edited the home package into the middle of his audition, which would suggest that he volunteered all these details to the judges. The judges did, however, ask him if he had a wife before the segment began. It's scripted, yes, but to what extent?

The producers could not have known about Chris's girlfriend at the open call. He had to reveal that information himself. If he really believed in his singing voice, he could have said something like "Yes, I have a girlfriend, but she does not want to be on the show" or "Yes, I have a girlfriend, but she recently became severely injured and I don't know if she is mentally or physically ready to appear on the show." I know from personal experience the hard sell the producers of any reality TV show give to convince you, as a contestant, to spill everything. I also know from experience that if you hold fast and are right for the show, you can make it pretty far into the process. So I don't buy the excuse of "having" to tell anything to the producers. Chris Medina volunteered this information and he is just as responsible for the exploitation of Julianna as the show is.

But bringing his girlfriend into the room would not be enough to upset me. The judges' behavior was disgusting. They all left the table to give Julianna hugs and kisses and talk to her like she was a two year old. I was waiting for someone to give her tummy kisses and hand her a rattle. Only Steven Tyler managed to treat her in an appropriate way during those interactions, but he's been involved in the industry as a public figure long enough to have experienced this before. He went down to her eye level--suggesting they were equals--and spoke to her like an adult and talked about how he reacted to Chris's audition. He gave her a hug and a kiss and left it at that. The other judges leaned over Julianna like they were staring at a baby in a crib and acted like meeting them would be the thrill of her life.

As if the baby talk moment wasn't bad enough, the golden ticket to Hollywood was put in Chris's wife hand. He then wheeled her out of the room while everyone celebrated around his girlfriend holding the ticket in her permanently closed hand. It was physically slid in and there was nothing to suggest she took it voluntarily.

I am not trying to explain this in a cynical way. Julianna's expression did not appear change once during the episode. She appeared to be struggling to breathe and her body was constantly twitching, as if she was suffering from constant minor seizures brought on by the brain damage. She didn't seem to be able to close her mouth and she didn't seem to be able to make eye contact with anyone. The one time Julianna was shown outside of the wheelchair was when Chris was literally carrying her down a staircase. If the woman cannot walk, cannot talk, and cannot respond to stimulus around her, there is absolutely no way Chris, his family, her family, or the producers of American Idol received her consent to put her on this show. There just isn't. I don't care who has power of attorney or what her dreams may have been before; parading that woman around on national television just to help someone advance in a singing competition is pure exploitation. I can only hope that the appropriate rights organizations go after this show to explain point by point everything that is wrong with what they showed in that ten minute scene.

I know that I will be writing the Fox network to let them know my disgust with the show they put on last night. I can only hope that you will do the same. If we stand up for people that have been convinced they have to be exploited for the sake of a TV show, we can start to make a change in the system.