The only woman in the room: Mariah Carey’s Dorothy Parker problem

A SYTYCB entry

After news that Nicki Minaj may be joining American Idol as a judge, TMZ is having a field day with Mariah Carey’s supposed furor that she may no longer be the only woman judge on the show:

Sources connected with “Idol” tell TMZ…Mariah was led to believe she would be the only woman on the judge’s panel. Choosing Nicki would not only crush that expectation, it would add insult to injury because Nicki (29) is a lot younger than Mariah (42)…we’re told some of the honchos believe it’s a mistake to have 2 women and a man on the panel, and a 4th male judge would be necessary…And there’s one other thing…Sources connected with the show say they’re worried…if the judges end up being Mariah, Nicki and Randy…middle America might not welcome the blackout.

I’m so sick of the girl fight narrative—is there any more tired storyline than powerful women hating each other because, you know, bitches—that I’m tempted to just dismiss the buzz about the fight and get right to the super problematic “worries” of the producers (don’t worry, we’ll get to that). But I’m intrigued by this open discussion of the desire to be the only woman in the room, which certainly is not unique to Carey (or TMZ’s version of her).

On the one hand, we have what Norah Ephron called her “Dorothy Parker problem”: the drive to distinguish oneself as the single woman in a cast of men. In case you haven’t seen Mad Men, being the sole woman in a work environment can present a whole range of problems from a lack of allies in the face of sexual harassment to regressive childcare and maternity leave policies (and these drawbacks obviously tend to be worse if you’re not insanely rich and powerful like Ephron and Carey or fictional like Peggy Olsen). Yet still, in a professional world very much run by men, being “one of the boys”—the only one of your gender invited to the club—bestows a certain male approval and thus worthiness. This process of legitimation is obviously problematic and should be challenged, but no matter how we deconstruct these power dynamics, today they are quite real and have real effects. I’ve felt that glow, a highly scientific survey of my friends on GChat indicates they have enjoyed this sense of approval, and public figures are often praised for exactly this status as the only woman allowed into the “real world” of “real men.”

File:82nd Academy Awards, Mariah Carey - army mil-66460-2010-03-09-180308.jpg

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, and perhaps more immediately pertinent to Carey’s career, fitting into a singular, scripted female role can ensure security in a position. Since Paula Abdul first took to her throne in season one, the “nice lady judge” has been a mainstay of American Idol, which has had majority-male panels for ten of its 12 seasons. If Minaj joins the team, Carey could gain the freedom to differentiate herself further from this trope, but the change will also shake the refuge of that post. Again, this isn’t to say “WOMEN LOVE MALE-DOMINATED WORK ENVIRONMENTS,” or that the benefits of being the one woman in any way outweigh the risks, but we have to acknowledge that, given the sexist structure of many industries, including popular television, there are reasons for women to feel threatened by female coworkers. That’s not a justification for gender disparities in hiring practices; it’s an illustration of the harm such inequalities produce.

Yet as much as I understand the impulse to cling to such a singular status, it’s a shame that Carey’s resentment toward Minaj is distracting from the real story here: American Idol doesn’t want a panel that is majority-female or all-black (as it’s been called, though Carey identifies as bi-racial). If TMZ is right, the two women are missing out on an opportunity to join forces (side note: can you imagine that single?) to call out the American Idol “honchos” on this BS. A joint statement of outrage from the potential judges demanding an explanation from the show could impact this season’s line-up and spark a larger discussion of representation on television. Of course, it’s easier for TMZ and similar outlets to highlight the Carey-Minaj drama because, even if this girl fight contains some nuance worth exploring, it doesn’t demand we ask the tough question hidden in the rest of the story: If American Idol thinks it needs more men and white people on its show to please the audience, what does that say about us?

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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