Color me shocked. Ellen DeGeneres is joining the cast of American Idol judges? The kind, charitable, classy Ellen DeGeneres who regularly raises awareness about bullying? Seriously? Is she lying in a pod somewhere?
Full disclosure: I’m not a regular viewer. Susan Boyle’s triumph got me paying closer attention and talking about the show with my students in South Africa, who watch both the SA and American versions.
I was going to post my thoughts on the show closer to its season premiere. But this can’t wait. American Idol, and its many spin-offs, reproduce the dynamics of bullying that kids all over the world deal with every day. By making it family entertainment, the franchise legitimizes cruelty.
In a recent middle school class I taught, my eighth grade students compared American Idol to bullying because:
- comments were unnecessarily degrading
- criticism was not constructive or intended to help
- humiliation was public and intentional
They recalled a recent episode when the judges actually sneaked out of the audition room while the singer performed with closed eyes.
It was Susan Boyle who put the cruelty of both judges and audience on the radar of millions. Idols is a franchise built on nastiness; it thrives precisely because meanness is understood as the price for chasing your dreams. The rules that guide the Idols empire became very clear with Susan Boyle: only pretty, thin, well-dressed women can possibly be talented, and if you’re not, you’re fair game.
Ellen’s choice doesn’t square with her advocacy for bullied youth and marginalized people. And even if she ends up playing the “nice girl” to everyone else’s nasty, her association with the show gives it a credibility it does not deserve. Really, Ellen, I can’t believe it.
Ranting aside, I want to share a discussion I had about American Idol with my students; it’s relevant for parents and teachers. Most of us have used the Boyle story as a parable about pursuing your dreams and not judging a book by its cover. But this story is also a fantastic opportunity to discuss bullying and teach media literacy.
If you’re a teacher, play the YouTube video of Susan’s performance and ask students to point out the moments that resemble bullying. Focus on the aggressive body language of the people in the audience and the comments and sneers of the judges.
Then, broaden the discussion by asking students to compare the audition process with bullying. What happens to the contestants that reminds them of bullying they have witnessed at school?
Ask students what would happen if they held talent show auditions at school and treated student contestants the way Idol aspirants are? Most kids say they’d lose friends and get in trouble with the assistant principal, not to mention parents.
If we wouldn’t do this in real life, why is it okay to watch it on television? What role do we play by tuning in? Are we bystanders or accomplices?
Ask your students why we enjoy watching others get humiliated. Remember, these are real people. We’re not watching fictional humiliation. Would we be as interested if the people were actors? Probably not. How does television as a medium allow us to depersonalize violence?
Some students say that it makes them feel better to see people who are worse off than they are. Encourage them to think about when they are most likely to judge others or want to see someone “worse off?” It’s usually when we feel worst about ourselves. Extra points if you, as the adult, can share your own confessions about judging in a moment of insecurity.
I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t watch a show they enjoy. But if we allow kids to dissociate from what they are seeing, the message many get is that this is an acceptable way to treat others. What’s happening on Idols is closer to your kids’ lives than you think. Help your kids to watch wisely.