One of our favorite things about watching competitions is feeling like one of the competitors represents us. We cheer for the home team, the contestant from our town or someone we identify with.
But one of those competitors was representing an entire gender? We may claim to be a progressive society striving for equality, but that isn’t reflected in prime-time TV, particularly talent-search shows.
How is a Los Angeles singing competition in an allegory for society’s view of women? It all comes down to bias, expectation and execution.
A Brief History of the Reality Competition Genre
The first talent search shows aired in the late ’40s. These variety shows evolved into competitions that focused on specific skills, such as dancing, tattooing or cutting hair. These types of shows really started to take off in the 2000s, spawning more than 90 different shows. This spike coincided with a U.S. economic decline, particularly the Great Recession.
Reality TV competition gave everyday people a chance to “be discovered.” Not everyone could sing or dance, but if you spent 40 hours a week busting your ass in a restaurant, sewing dresses or even just being an interesting character, you could probably become a reality TV star. Social media also revolutionized how these shows were judged. “Letting America Decide” became a new way to determine the winners. However, when we look at who is watching and voting on which show, it’s clear to see how, and where, biases form.
Americans, Idol, and Bias
Consider one of the most popular American talent competitions, American Idol. With several spin-offs in different countries, this talent search is the American adaptation of Pop Idol, a popular UK singing competition. In 15 seasons, there have been winners from all over the United States, especially the American South, which 48% of the winners have connections to.
There are analysts and experts who predict who won’t win — and exactly why. For example, season 11’s finalists were Phillip Phillips, a Georgia-born white guy, and Jessica Sanchez, a half-Mexican, half-Filipino SoCal native. In the end, the White Guy with Guitar bias was more important to voters than singing talent alone.
Even behind the scenes, Idol can’t escape controversy. Lawsuits accuse the show of unfairly disqualifying black contestants. If winners are determined by viewers’ bias, what does it mean when a contestant’s gender is a consideration?
A Woman’s Place is in the Top Chef Kitchen
Cooking is a job for millions of people in the U.S. But we also have gender expectations regarding who is supposed to do the cooking at home, where they aren’t paid. The early 2000s kicked off the era of the celebrity chef, and in 2006, Bravo launched its cooking-based reality competition, Top Chef.
Ask any female professional chef and she’ll tell you that there is no shortage of men in the kitchen who don’t want women there. This is the climate the accomplished female Top Chef ’testants come from, and the expectation they bring with them into the competition. In 13 seasons, there have only been three women to win the top prize . The struggle is still very real. Gender expectations make it socially acceptable for a woman to “find her place” in the kitchen, but when she tries to make a career of it, she’s shut down — or worse, met with abuse and humiliation.
The “Surprising” Execution of an American Ninja Warrior
This is Kacy Catanzaro. If you’re not familiar with the American version of Japan’s popular obstacle-course competition Sasuke, watch the video:
In 2013, Catanzaro was the first woman to complete the first round of obstacles since American Ninja Warrior premiered in 2009. What I found most intriguing about Catanzaro’s win was the reaction that her trainer and boyfriend, Brent Steffensen, received (at 1:16):
Steffensen’s run came after Catanzaro’s; it might only be this writer’s opinion, but there is certainly a correlation between her victory and where he was mentally, which lead to his defeat. Maybe this is the mindset many women bring with them, whether they’re entering a kitchen or an athletic arena. When women win, it often ends in backlash — but, more importantly, in inspiration.