Pop Idol

Natasha Forrest explains how Pop Idol demonstrated a fear of women's sexuality

, 16 March 2002

“50% of the population are female and I think you need to have some respect”. That was the reaction of the token female judge when contestant Sally performed wearing something resembling a bra in an early episode of the above ITV prime time national phenomenon that was Pop Idol. I wonder how Nicky Chapman would have elaborated on this statement had somebody asked her exactly what she meant. These days the word ‘respect’ has become such a cliche, banded around freely by talk show guests as an easy objection to anything that pisses them off, that people seldom question what it actually means or whether it’s in any way relevant. In this case it seems quite clear that Ms. Chapman’s use of the word had absolutely nothing to do with respect for women and everything to do with our society’s deep-rooted fear of female sexuality.

These days, as we all know, being a successful pop star has just as much to do with image as talent, and the Pop Idol judges have no qualms about making this perfectly clear. The overweight Rik Waller was told ‘you’ve got a great voice but you’re not a pop idol’ before he withdrew from the competition with a suspicious throat problem which, one could speculate, was probably more along the lines of an offer he couldn’t refuse, on condition that he stop ruining the show’s image. For female stars particularly, having the right image comes down to showing as much skin as possible. Therefore you’d think Sally was right on target when she wore the offending outfit; but nobody had explained to the poor girl that there’s an invisible, but very real, line between ‘nice girl being a bit naughty’ and ‘slut’, and that night she unwittingly crossed it.

Ever since the sexual liberation movement of the mid-twentieth century, when female sexuality was finally acknowledged, the mainstream media have done a great job of incorporating and controlling the movement to their own advantage. TV stations and magazines use sexy women to attract and maintain their audiences, while continuing to take a moral stance on porn stars, strippers and prostitutes. As long as they continue to oppress us with the notion that sex is wrong, while simultaneously sexualising women, women themselves can only end up looking bad or, at the very least, incredibly naive and stupid.

Young female stars of the manufactured variety are well trained in the art of innocence, denying any interest in sex to the point of absurdity. Sex symbols like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, two of the many overgrown ‘virgins’ who populate the pages of men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim in their underwear, frequently express confusion and concern that these images are perceived as sexual. When Jennifer Lopez stripped in her video for ‘Love don’t cost a thing’ she was apparently encouraging us to renounce material possessions. At least porn stars and strippers admit they’re selling sex and, for the most part, give the impression of enjoying it. While the current sex industry is far from ideal, surely the fact that it allows women their sexuality puts it streaks ahead of the mainstream media in terms of progressive potential. The idea, propagated by shows like Pop Idol, that a sexualised female body is disrespectful to women derives from the assumption that she is sexualised purely for the gratification of men. Until we admit the possibility that the woman in question might actually enjoy being sexy, we will not be able to fully explore the numerous possibilities of female sexuality.

Incidentally, when hosts Ant and Dec held up an image of Rik’s head super-imposed onto the enormous body of a pro-wrestler for the remaining thin contestants to laugh at after his untimely departure, I was surprised to note that the show’s policy of ‘respect’ clearly doesn’t extend to the 90% of the population who aren’t as stunningly gorgeous as legitimate pop idols.

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