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*
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.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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