thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Healthy Blindness: The Voice and Body Image

In body politics, reality TV, Television, The Voice, Women's health on February 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Chelsea H.

This is only the second time I’ve watched “The Voice,” and it intrigues me. I’ve never seen anything outside of the initial blind auditions. I don’t know what comes after that, I don’t know how the mentoring goes, I don’t know how eliminations work. But I have to admit, I love the idea of the blind audition part of the show: four music quasi-moguls choose contestants to nurture and mentor based only on their vocal performances. This eliminates a lot of what I hate about American Idol. There are no silly costumes, there is no jumping up and down and showboating and begging for second chances. There is only, until the moment one of the coaches decides to pursue a vocal training relationship with this person, a voice.

That means this is based on talent, not on appearance. There are times when it is clear a coach was expecting something totally different when s/he turns around. But the beautiful thing about this show is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the voice belongs to a tiny skinny petite girl or a muscular athletic guy or a full-figured diva. Once that person is chosen, it’s done. It’s based on the voice.

Obviously this means clear, appearance-free assessment for men as well as women. And I think that’s great, and it’s important. This is Girls Like Giants, but male body image is becoming a bigger issue than we think it is, as this disturbing article about rising male adolescent anorexia proves.  I’ve been considering body image a lot lately, and trying to step outside what I usually think. In a world – or at least a country – that is really anti-fat, with instant and vitriolic troll-hate on anything plus-size, a world where Rush Limbaugh can critique Michele Obama for eating ribs and yet telling America to try to be healthier even though she’s not the size of a Sports Illustrated cover model, we need to be forgiving of bodies that are bigger than model-skinny.  And yet we also live in a world where the weight demands on professional models are so extreme that models have actually died on the runway. And there is a lot of thin-hate out there too: sniping and poking and accusing visible ribs or vertebrae or knobbly boney knees of not being as beautiful as full-figured breasts and hips and thighs. And I find myself – an average size 8 who fits neither into the plus-size nor the “sample size” category – often committing the latter of these two forms of hate. Where are the “normal-sized” women, I find myself asking, forgetting that people with naturally skinny frames are also “normal-sized.” And that’s something I need to work on. And so does the rest of the world.

But in this respect, if in no others (again, I’ve spent approximately 2 hours of my whole life watching this show), I think The Voice gets it right. Clothes, face, build, hairstyle: none of that matters if your voice speaks to one of those coaches and they decide they want you. This is self and worth based in performativity rather than appearance. The audience in the studio reacts to your performance and appearance, but even if they think you’re ugly or you have awkward dance moves or you aren’t wearing a trendy outfit, they aren’t the important part. The coaches are, and they can’t see you. They can only hear you. And your beauty is based on the potential they hear: you come through in what you do, not what you visibly “are.” You are a moving, evolving, soaring amalgam of what your voice sounds like and what it can do, not the way your bones and muscles fit together. This seems important to me, and something we should focus more attention on. And of course some of us (me included) do not and will never have a wonderful – or even a decent – voice, which means saying “open your ears, not your eyes” is an incomplete and insufficient response. But it feels like a move in a better direction than this body-obsessed dance we’ve been watching for so long. It reminds me of that wonderful old Shel Silverstein poem “No Difference.”  The Voice doesn’t quite “turn off the light,” but it requires a choice in what I think is a healthy kind of darkness.

  1. Chels, I think you bring up a lot of really great points (I’m totally a mildly devoted Voice watcher) and you got me thinking … One of the things that I’ve noticed on this show is contestants who firmly believe that they would not be given a chance were they to be seen–and this worry varies/goes across size, gender, sexuality, and race. At the same time, the male judges–Blake, Cee Lo, Adam–consistently praise girls that meet typical beauty standards once they’ve turned around. However, last year the final contestants were an awesome and awesomely diverse group (which I wrote about on GLG last season). That said, I feel like maybe the blind auditions, which I also like in some ways, turn a blind eye to body politics particularly given that the male judges generally celebrate the appearance of some (like Adam remarking on a female contestant’s hotness) and not all of the contestants. And all the judges sometimes feel oddly excited when they turn around to someone considered classically good looking, which only reinforces the worry those contestants who express worry about their appearance feel.

    Not like one TV show can tackle body politics writ large, but I think what bothers me is that The Voice seems to believe it is not beholden to body politics, and it is. Particularly given that ultimately most of the decisions are made while the coaches watch their teams and then “America votes.” But perhaps therein lies some of my frustration. Alas, I might be rambling now … but I would be curious to know your thoughts!

    • Phoebe,
      I think you are absolutely right – the system is flawed here, it’s just not as flawed as something like American Idol. I haven’t watched enough of The Voice to see the coaches respond super favorably to someone who is classically attractive; maybe the episode I watched last night was special somehow.
      I did see, last night, something that made me happy about this issue, though I felt sorry for the contestant: it was a young man with a thin muscular frame and decently attractive features who did not get chosen. Cee Lo almost turned his chair, and then didn’t.
      When they all turned at the end of the guy’s audition, Adam was surprised to see a man – he’d thought the voice belonged to a woman. They all agreed this guy would have been perfect for Cee Lo’s team, and Adam asked if they could cheat and retroactively add him. Cee Lo, who clearly really wanted this kid to join his team, declined to break the rules, saying it would go against everything the show was supposed to be about.
      I appreciated that move, because it showed them removing some of the importance of appearance even after the reveal. But I do agree that a system that crosses its fingers that someone with a great voice will also be beautiful is a problem. It’s a patch, maybe, and a small one at that. But it’s not the gaping wound of appearance-based reality TV that so many shows are.
      To give a really good assessment, I would need to watch more (and reread your previous post!)…

  2. I’ve never seen the show (and doubt that I will), Chelsea, but I like your reading of the “audience factor” here. You should chat with HP about this some time — I never realized, until she described the process, just to what extent most music performance auditions are “blind.” Deep carpets so that high-heeled shoes are muffled, strict “no scent” policies that prevent the panel from guessing gender based on cologne / perfume, etc. When she auditioned for her current spot in the symphony, it wasn’t until the pool was narrowed down to the two finalists that they actually met the panelists in person.

    Re: the male body image issue, I think you’re hitting the nail right on the head. I think this is a very troubling and growing problem. When I’ve taught body image units in my WR classes, I’ve often shown the scene from “Fight Club” where Brad Pitt and Edward Norton make fun of an underwear advertisement on a bus as promoting an unrealistic notion of what “real” men look like…just before the scene switches to show Pitt, shirtless, looking like he’s carved out of a rock. I hadn’t heard about an upswing in male anorexia before (disturbing, indeed), but sadly, it doesn’t surprise me. Pop culture is increasingly fixating on the male body in ways that were heretofore reserved for female bodies, and I shudder to think of what the results will be.

  3. I definitely agree with some of the above comments about how the audience’s reactions could play a role, but the audience has also cheered for people before that were not stereotypically “facially blessed”

    I appreciate what the show is trying to do… as Adele said, “I don’t make music for eyes. I make music for ears.”

    That’s what music should be about… I think The Voice (in a way) is making an attempt to get back to that… it may be a gimmick, but it’s one I can get behind

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