America’s Got Talent- and, Apparently, Race Issues

Others have written before about their (un)feminist guilty pleasure of watching television shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent, and the problematic practices these shows often have behind the scenes. Despite the obvious cheesiness, as well as the more problematic and unfeminist aspects of these shows, there’s something about them that keeps me tuning in. I don’t know if it’s the dramatic story-line videos that make me feel like I am actually getting to know the contestants and identifying with their struggle, or just the reminder that there are other people out there who are pursuing their dreams without letting the threat of criticism or rejection prevent them from doing so. Or maybe it’s watching people sweat through songs and the undeserved power I feel in being able to judge from the safety of my own home a skill I don’t have or plan on getting anytime soon…ever. ;-)
Anyway, I’m invariably less than satisfied by the feminist values, but usually I suck it up and take from the experience what guilty-but-oh-so-sweet pleasure I can. Until now. This just cannot fly.


Last night in the quarterfinals of America’s Got Talent, a group called the Diva Lounge, which is made up of black men in drag, performed a dancing and lip-syncing routine to Rihanna’s song “Disturbia” to compete for a coveted top-5 spot in the finals.
Sharon Osbourne loved them and told them “go for it – fabulous.” David Hasselhoff called it “very entertaining,” and said “I think you guys could sustain a show in Las Vegas.”
Piers Morgan, the third judge, criticized the group by saying the following:

“There’s no easy way of putting this. We are trying to find an act that can represent America on the world stage, and from where I sit a bunch of lip syncing old drag queens who can’t dance is not…not what America needs right now. Not exactly Barack Obama, is it?

*Record scratches as party grinds to a shocked halt*
HUH?
I mean it’s totally fair game to criticize their singing and dancing skills (this is after all a reality talent show gig) but mentioning the fact that they are drag queens in the same breath that he’s telling them they aren’t good enough to represent America “on the world stage” is at best insensitive and at worst downright homophobic and racist. He’s not in the habit of premising his criticisms of acts by discussing their ability to “represent America on the world stage”- that was a comment specific to this act. So why did it occur to him all of a sudden as he watched an act featuring drag queens of color that this act didn’t represent America?
As for the second part of the statement and mentioning Barack Obama, I’m just mystified. Diva Lounge wasn’t auditioning to be the next President of the United States, or American ambassadors, or anything related to politics, so my first reaction was that mentioning B.O. was just bizarre, confusing, and semi-random.
Having given it some more thought, and connecting the last part of his statement with the first part of the statement, it becomes obvious and more than a little problematic. Diva Lounge is unfit, in Pier’s estimations to “represent America”, while Barack Obama, our President, is the prototype for good representation. Yet no other acts have been held to this Presidential standard of world representation, including some pretty silly acts that I suspect would also fail this “representing America in Presidential ways” litmus test but somehow magically did not get the Piers treatment. The implication being that because they are “old lip-syncing drag queens” that don’t fit into Piers idea of what America looks like, they are not just an act that Piers doesn’t like- they’re unfit to represent America. Le sigh. Truly a cringe-worthy moment.
I think we can all agree that Piers could use a viewing of Paris is Burning and a time machine to go back and think about his words a little more carefully- or at least a 30-second gap between filming and live broadcasting in which those skillful reality show editors could take a shot at editing out the ignorance.
You can watch the performance of the Diva Lounge, as well as the judge’s comments, here.

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31 Comments

  1. enigma
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    “So my first reaction was that mentioning B.O. was just bizarre, confusing, and semi-random.”
    Exactly. Not racist, just random.

  2. llevinso
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    No, I think it is racist. He’s saying that there’s a certain kind of black person that we want to hold up for the world to see. That would be someone like Barrack Obama. Middle class, educated, well mannered, etc… Not crazy drag queers that sing and dance! They don’t have the appropriate black image we want to present to the world. That’s the way I saw the Barrack Obama comment.

  3. Destra
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    [Deleted due to violation of comments policy]

  4. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Piers Morgan is just a stuck up, snooty, posh, rich Englishman with an unrelevant opinion. I don’t take him seriously and neither should you.

  5. Katie93
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    From the point of view of someone who’s had dance/theater experience, that was a really sub-par performance, considering they’re looking for Vegas quality. They aren’t a bad group overall, their audition was great, but this time they picked a slower theme that I don’t think they were suited for, and for some reason, they weren’t really together and some were off the music. Diva Lounge is not fit to be considered the greatest act in America, if we’re basing it solely off that one performance.
    However, 100% agreed with this post. The comment was homophobic and rascist, and just flat-out unneccesary. You can critique someone without critiquing who they are.

  6. Jessica Lee
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never liked the man.
    Plus, I don’t get why two out of the three judges on America’s Got Talent are British. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for all of the judges to be American?

  7. Steveo
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    The only possible way to claim that his comments were racist is if you were discussing the inclusion of some statement about Barack Obama, which Lori didn’t do. I however don’t think that his statement was racist in any way. Very homophobic, yes, but racist, no.

  8. Jessica
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Lori actually mentioned this directly: “Not exactly Barack Obama, is it?”

  9. llevinso
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Did you actually read Lori’s post? She specifically talks about the Barrack Obama comment.

  10. rustyspoons
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    So it’s racist AND homophobic. Oh, joy.

  11. rustyspoons
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    So it’s racist AND homophobic. Oh, joy.

  12. Shaniquequa
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing that up. I don’t understand why blacks in this society can only fit into certain standards anyways. Anytime a black person steps out of the thing that people want them to represent well, there’s something wrong with that. It truly makes no sense.
    I really don’t understand the third judge for talking about how their don’t represent America. I didn’t realize they were suppose to represent all Americans. I thought the show was simply just a contest.

  13. Gular
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I dunno, enigma, using one person as the gold standard by which all people should behave is pretty racist.
    Just because it’s someone upstanding like Obama doesn’t mean it’s any different than if they picked a drug runner. It’s still dangerous and racist.

  14. Mina
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    “…However, 100% agreed with this post. The comment was homophobic and rascist, and just flat-out unneccesary. You can critique someone without critiquing who they are.”
    I totally agree!

  15. ahopper
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I think what we’re seeing here is the response to of a white, upper classed male with lots of privileged to something that threatens the patriarchy.
    That performance was fantastic. They play with gender in an excellent way. They pick Rhianna who is considered a sort of sex symbol and they sing a song titled Disturbia. They are disturbing the sexed, gendered, homophobic society they live in. The dance moves they were doing are traditional choreography seen performed by scantily clad women and they looked fantastic and sexy doing it. These performances, traditionally done by women, are sexual in nature, meant to arouse. They are for the male gaze. The Diva League disturbed the male gaze. Piers didn’t wait much longer than when they actually came out to nix them. And then he said they picked the appropriate song because their performance was disturbing. Even the lyrics of the song are accurate to the situation. They are revealing the performative nature of gender and sex roles while simultaneously deconstructing the male gaze and revealing the fluid and even performative nature of sexuality.
    I think Piers’ reaction exemplified a general patriarchal reaction to a threat. Demean, shame, and remind the individuals of what they are supposed to be like. He hit all the high points. He called them disturbing, old, fake, unAmerican (by implication), and he makes reference to a “model” that they should be trying to be like (Barack Obama arguably portrays not a person but a role of mimicry as he tries to tap dance through a racially charged US political scene). His attempt to correct the Divas is exactly the same tactic used to correct us naughty feminists. Think about the various attack parallels (unfeminine, fat, ugly, old maid, unmarried, etc. etc).
    I’ve got to say. I don’t watch the show but I think their performance was pretty feminist and that encourages me to watch the show. I know I’m coming from an ignorant point of view in that concern because I don’t know about the rest of the show. Yes, Piers’ remarks were unacceptable but the comments from the Divas and from the other two judges are heartening [although I'm a little irritated by the constant references to the Divas masculinity and maleness (you guys, you don't want to mess with this dude, etc.)]. More open, obvious challenges to the patriarchy where the representative of the patriarchy gets boo’d for his defense is what we need, I think. And I don’t think that Piers’ reaction was unexpected or unusual or even surprising. The reaction of the crowd and the other two judges (especially Hasslehoff who is seen at least on the internet and in a lot of popular culture as a bastion of masculinity) did surprise me and made me happy, gave me a little hope that things can change and are changing.

  16. i_muse
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    excuse me, did you just say you can put up with sexism but not racism?
    WTF?
    until sexism is eradicated all other isms continue-

  17. cattrack2
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    The homophobia is obvious, but even understanding your argument about the BO reference, I don’t see the racism. I don’t think this is the old “House Slave” vs “Field Slave” dichotomy as you suggest, so much as it was Piers’ shorthand for saying they aren’t marketable because they’re old & gay. So I decline the racism, but raise you 1 ageism.

  18. Shaniquequa
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    If there’s no racism, how come Obama was brought up in the judgment? What does a black man have to do with the performance?

  19. cattrack2
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    I’ve gotten that backhanded compliment, “oh you aren’t like those other blacks”, more than enough times to know it when I see it–or see it in reverse as this case would be. Just because you compare 1 black person to another doesn’t make it racist. I could say Kobe Bryant is no Michael Jordan & that wouldn’t make me a racist (and, really, I say that all the time). Piers’ point in comparing them to BO was just to point out that, in his opinion, they don’t capture the imagination the way BO does (not many people do). The reason why? In his opinion they’re old & gay. If it had to do with their dialect, their intellect, or them being “too urban” then it would be fair to call it racism. Just old & gay? That’s ageism & homophobia.

  20. Shaniquequa
    Posted August 5, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    I’ve gotten enough racism to know it too and Kobe Bryant is no Micheal Jackson is different because they both have had similar things happen to them. What does Barack Obama have to do with a performance on America’s Got Talent is the question no one can answer? His comment at all made no sense and no one is questioning why he made a comment about them being no Barack Obama. He doesn’t say that to all the other performers why these guys? Especially looking at a white person saying it can say a bit as well.

  21. YouGuysAreRetarded
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    [Deleted due to violation of comments policy]

  22. Jennabun
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    Umm. Did you get lost?

  23. Aym-bear
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Please return to the
    bridge you live under, trolly–
    we don’t need you here.

  24. Aym-bear
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    Just one more small note:
    punctuation is “you’re” friend.
    Use it correctly.

  25. Liz
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P8VzQ_Uz4s&feature=related
    do watch, it’ll make you smile about British humour again

  26. lost_calendar
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, in Britain I believe Piers Morgan would be considered middle-class or upper-middle class, given his family background, education and career as a journalist.
    (Just a side note, not relevant to the discussion… But I find American attitudes to class fascinating; upper-class just seems to be short-hand for rich/famous/powerful, when in the UK a penniless tramp can be upper-class.

  27. cattrack2
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Shaniquequa–Sorry, I’m not dismissing your experience. You’re right that its a bizarre comment. And he very well could have meant it in a racist way. Since that’s not perfectly clear (at least its not obvious to me) I prefer to single him out for what I’m sure he’s guilty of (homophobia & ageism), than for something its not clear he’s guilty of. That’s all.

  28. YouGuysAreRetarded
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    [Deleted due to violation of comments policy]

  29. Katie93
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t catch what you said before, but between the ableist screename and the OMG CAPS LOCK, I doubt you are worthy of a valid argument.

  30. YouGuysAreRetarded
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    [Deleted due to violation of comments policy.]

  31. YouGuysAreRetarded
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    [Deleted due to violation of comments policy.]

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