“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Putting disabled people on display

As I was doing some work on my computer last night, I had the first night of the new American Idol season running in the background. As I watched something bothered me.

With such a program you have the typical people who are entering a singing contest who cannot sing. You have people who act crazy just in the hopes that they can be on TV, particularly on a show that is watched by a lot of people. You have people who think they can sing, and can to some extent but just not to the level of being selected to move on in the competition. But I saw something very different last night.

There were at least two people in the competition who struck me as being either mildly intellectually disabled, people who had perhaps high functioning aspberger's syndrome, or perhaps even mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. At times it seemed that these people provided the "comic relief" for the program. No doubt they provided "entertainment" value. Put a person with mentally illness in front of a camera and upset them (whether or not it is justified) and they will do things that are very different than what people might typically see in the community. But the "entertainment" they provided was comparable to watching someone with a physical disability in some sort of sideshow display. They draw our interest in a prurient kind of way (although not sexual in this context). It is an interest in seeing someone self-distruct, watching the mentally ill person act mentally ill. The individuals portrayed did not draw our compassion as did one of the scenes where an African-American woman was actually comforted by the evaluators. We were drawn to look because people were acting crazy due to a disability, all the while knowing that they were in some way aberrant which was the actual reason for their acting the way they did. Yet the camera did not turn away. It forced us to look and was actually a catalyst for the inciting of further irrational behavior.

I was very uncomfortable with the whole presentation for this reason. The program in some ways incites devalued people to aberrant behavior and then watches. It hopes for, aches for the crazy person to act crazy.

If I were to present myself before the judges thinking that I had a singing voice worthy of even moving to the next level, you would do me a favor by telling me that I should pursue some other area in my life as my singing voice will not take me most anywhere. However, if I am cognitively or emotionally disabled in some way, to use my display of irrationality due to my disability as a point of entertainment is not appropriate.



Julie said...

I am with you on this. I saw the same thing last night, too.

Last year's American Idol auditions really got out of hand. Comedians even got in on the act. One in particular joked, on two different talk shows, about how they should make a Special Olympics type of American Idol and then further joked about the contestants eating the microphones.

bethany said...

good point. and in general, i think the whole concept of these audition episodes is to make fun of people and let people watching feel better about themselves because at least they are not like *those* people. i agree that it is particularly distasteful when they are mocking someone with disabilities...it can seem okay when it's obvious the person just wants to be on tv and knows they can't sing (when they are "in" on the joke). but a lot of them are just not like this.

and recognizing all this, why do i keep watching? argh.

megan said...

I do not agree with you because these people know what they are getting into. This show has been on for 7 years.If people want to put themselves though the humilliation just to be on t.v. they have the right. this show does not force them to addition.

MJH said...

My post is in response to Megan's comment. I understand that most people on AI are aware of the format and critique structure. However, a couple points must be made. Frist, the fact that people with cognitive disabilities are expected to understand the structure, regardless of how long AI has been on the air, is a stretch. Second, saying that I have a right to ridicule and demean someone because they "knew what they were getting into" brings is logically and morally flawed. A crack user knows the dangers of crack, so a crack dealer should be let off the hook because "buyer" (or in AI's case auditioner) beware. Whether it is predatory practices by finance companies or within the entertainment business we each have an moral obligation. More importantly, to not stand up when those who are most vulnerable are being ridiculed or demeaned is moral cowardice and bears no justification.

Anonymous said...

Well, last year there were two contestants that got a lot of attention. Kenneth and Johnathan were two contestants that met at American Idol and became friends. They both have dissabilities, and were made fun of on American Idol. When they appeared on the Today Show they both tried out thinking they could win it. Both also stated that their feelings were hurt when they were made fun of. I know that in order to get in front of the judges you have to go thru 2 or 3 other auditions. I don't understand why they would let them get that far knowing they would not be winning. It was like getting their hopes up. I think they should be more careful as to who they allow to move on in front of the television.

Anonymous said...

I think if you are to audition to be on American Idol, you are aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is a show based on ratings and not ethics or morals. In the previous season for American Idol, the abilities were not glamorized but it was the inability of the people who caught the attention of viewers.

Anonymous said...

I agree and i disagree. I am a disabled singer and I've accepted the reality of the music business. It's a very cruel business that does not sympathize with disabled people. When I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, I really struggled with continuing my career because I know that it will be by God's grace that a cripple will ever make it in this industry. Despite suicide attempts, drug use and aspirations of alcoholism, God would not grant my request to screw life as a gimp. I've had people talk me back into my career after quitting God knows how many times and I've had people tell me because I'm not beautiful like Carrie Underwood I can forget it. I have lived both sides. I now realize how fortunate I am to have a career. Even though I'm told I'm talented, I've never been picked at an audition and may never be picked. The difference in my life will be God because I'm not enough but He is.

Miss Money
Soundclick's No. 1 Gospel Singer Since 2004