I don't really watch American Idol. I did tune in for an episode or two last season, when everyone on the planet was going nuts over the fact that Adam Lambert, a more-or-less openly gay dude and confirmed musical weirdo, had an actual chance at winning it. Unfortunately, the episode that I tuned in for was the one where he sang "Feeling Good," a song I have always really loved coming from Nina Simone, and around the time he hit that bizarre three-year-long air-raid-siren high note ("feelAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGG") I was like, "oh. Good for you, Adam Lambert! Allow me to support you through the use of the 'mute' button."
So, no. Aside from seeing the clips that everyone else sees (because they are everywhere, and there is no way not to see them) I'm not a fan. Still, the news that Ellen DeGeneres is going to be replacing Paula Abdul as a judge in the next season of the show is interesting.
Hey guys, what's up? Just sittin' around, bein' wholesome.
To be entirely honest, my first reaction was just deep relief that they hadn't gone with Quentin Tarantino. But, for those less Tarantino-averse and Idol-friendly than I, it's big news, which has drawn reactions both negative (unlike Paula, Ellen does not have a background in music!) and positive (unlike Paula, Ellen is not a crazy free-associative slow-motion train wreck!) from Idol fans and bloggers. The most interesting reaction that I've seen, thus far, has come from Gawker:
[One] reason DeGeneres gives us a thrill: she's a lesbian. Shocking, yes, but it's true. After homosexual Adam Lambert made it so far last season, Idol producers are now publicly acknowledging — or, at least, accepting — the show's innate gayness... This isn't only a step for out celebrities, but for the show itself.
You know, I don't think they're wrong! I do, however, think that this step may be less radical than some of us might hope.
Ellen DeGeneres has done a lot, just by showing up in suburban households every day via TV and being that nice lesbian lady who does the funny dances. For people who don't have many (or any) gay friends or neighbors, she's evidence that GLBT folks aren't scary and weird, and that they can be nice people whose company you might enjoy. Although it gives me a headache to think about the fact that some people need to be convinced of these things, I do realize that her visibility serves an important function. It's great that she is going to be an integral part of the most-watched TV show in the country, because it will make her even more visible and allow her to continue her charm offensive against cultural homophobia on a much bigger scale.
However, I worry that Ellen's very niceness, her aggressive wholesomeness, is a kind of trap. Like many gay celebrities, she's allowed to be out just as long as she isn't sexual – although she's talked about her marriage and her lesbian identity, her desire is always toned down or left out of the picture entirely. It's odd, and sad, but true: America likes its gay stars neutered, cleaning up straight dudes' apartments or talking about puppies. It's when they talk about sexy feelings – one of the more central factors in determining whether or not you are a gay person, or so I'm told - that we get uncomfortable.
Of course, on the surface of it, "American Idol judge" is not a sexy occupation. And demanding that Ellen get sexual for the edification of the American public would be gross and invasive: I'm not recommending that she end every show by Frenching a different audience member. But the other judges express desire all the time. Queer folks are ostracized or looked down upon for "flaunting" their attraction to members of their gender - but what goes unnoticed is the privilege that straight people have to indicate their sexuality or attraction to others, in dozens of big and small ways, every day. I wonder if it's a privilege that Ellen will share, or if, as usual, she'll have to play by a different set of rules.
Consider: Randy and Simon routinely get all googly-eyed about "hot" female contestants. (Remember that time with the bikini lady? And they googled like mad while she jumped up and down and twirled? Ha, yeah. CALM DOWN, Randy and Simon.) Similarly, Kara sexualized herself in a fairly huge, public way when she stripped down to a bikini herself last season. Of course, you could argue that the male judges got to sexualize themselves by objectifying others, whereas Kara got to sexualize herself by being objectified, and that would be fair. But even Paula and Kara made comments if they found a male contestant's performance particularly alluring. I DID, as it happens, catch one of the early seasons, due to a college roommate's enthusiasm for the show, and I recall being positively embarrassed by how gooey Paula could get if a boy captured her special attention.
So, what happens when Ellen finds a female contestant cute, or hot, or what-have-you? It's a show about choosing pop stars, after all – attractiveness is a major factor in the contestants' success. (Consider: could Kris Allen have beaten Adam Lambert if he weren't cuter than a muffin basket full of kittens?) I wonder if Ellen will be safely able to speak to it when it inevitably occurs – or if she'll just be stuck playing "nice," and nothing else.