When "American Idol" fans bounced Pia Toscano from the competition on April 7, the stunned responses of the judges and the subsequent blogospheric supernova (as well as producer Nigel Lythgoe's reaction-goosing tweets) suggested that it was the most shocking development on the show in quite some time. But it was all too predictable, if only you were to notice which side of the gender line Toscano happens to call home.
Yes, "Idol" has a women problem. Every week that there's been an elimination this season, at least one female contestant has gone home. The one time that the pattern might have been interrupted, the judges chose to reinforce the issue by using their one save on Casey Abrams. The following week's double boot took out not one but two women: Naima Adedapo and Thia Megia. Of the seven female singers in the final 13, only two remain. All six of the men still stand.
This is not a new problem. Last season, it wasn't until seventh place that an elimination week went by without a woman going home. Just like the current season, the judges' save was used the very first time a male singer (Michael Lynche) would have gone. While Andrew Garcia went home a week later, so did Katie Stevens, who is, let's see here ... oh, right — a girl. And in season eight, only five women made it to the top 13, and only one of them — Alison Iraheta — was still standing a month before the finale.
It was a far cry from the previous time the producers had opted not to force an even gender split. That was the third season, where, left to their own devices, voters picked a top 12 where the women outnumbered the men two to one and the show featured its first (and only) all-female top four. That's starting to look like something that will never happen again. Some are saying the same thing about a female winner.
So what's going on when, for the second season in a row, "Idol" is taking every opportunity during the first half of the performance portion to get rid of yet another woman? It's not necessarily a matter of the voters being sexist or only watching the show to find new TV boyfriends, though certainly Adedapo hasn't been shy about her feelings about that phenomenon in interviews and on Twitter. But whatever's driving it, the fact remains that "Idol" has settled into a definite, stubborn bias against its female contestants.
One step toward finding a solution would be for the judges to do a better job of selecting women for the voting rounds who are both talented and interesting. That goes double for their wild-card picks during the semifinals.
Adedapo's case is admittedly cloudy. She promised to be quirky and strong, but quickly abandoned the latter soon after getting her second chance as a wild-card selection. Ashthon Jones, on the other hand, seemed as though she was picked more out of demographic expediency. Without her, the show would have lacked the type of traditional belty R&B diva that's been synonymous with the show since day one.
But it's not day one anymore. What used to win "Idol" — big, bold, stun-power voices like Kelly Clarkson's, Carrie Underwood's and even, to a degree, Ruben Studdard's — doesn't work in a post-David Cook world. That's what made Toscano such a head-scratching contestant.
The biggest nit about her was that she came across as stiff and personality-free as she stood stock-still in the middle of the stage in pageant dress after pageant dress, banging out ballad after ballad. Last week's performance of Tina Turner's version of "River Deep, Mountain High" — in an look styled by Gwen Stefani — only underlined that even further.
It was as though she were competing to be the "American Idol" ... in 2004. That's less than a decade ago, but in "Idol" terms, it's more than enough for her to be, as Simon Cowell might have told her, hopelessly old fashioned. Toscano was playing a game that had long since moved on from the obsolete tactics she was using. Meanwhile, ask yourself when the last time a male singer in the mold of Justin Guarini or Clay Aiken made it to the top 12.
On the other hand, look at the highest-placing women of the past few seasons. Crystal Bowersox. Brooke White. Iraheta. Heck, just take a look at the last two remaining this year: Haley Reinhart and Lauren Alaina. None of them were the pageanty vocal acrobats stereotypically associated with "Idol." For those, you'd have to go to Toscano, Thia Megia, Jones and Karen Rodriguez ... who were four of the first five women eliminated this season.
Maybe it's no surprise when you consider the most successful female pop stars of the moment, like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Pink, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Ke$ha. Of the only two who actually fit the traditional "Idol" mold, Beyoncé released her last album in 2008 and Kelly Clarkson ... well, she already won.
Or maybe there's simply nothing that can be done about the fact that women have become marginalized as the opening acts on "Idol" while men are the headliners. It could very well be that the demographics of the viewers who choose to vote unavoidably skew sharply female and crushy, whether it's screaming teenagers or older women who wave signs that say things like "Cougars for Cook" without a shred of embarrassment.
Regardless of the cause, the problem not only persists, but is a thorn that's digging deeper and deeper under the show's skin with each passing week. There will surely always be room for singers without Y chromosomes on "Idol" so long as the show lasts. But future female contestants should take note: The odds are very much stacked against you.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.