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Speaking of we Big Girls...

Sexualizing a larger black body signalled the end of her Idol fantasy

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The size limit on fame
We celebrate larger-sized African-American women when they sound like Aretha or Ella, wearing a suit or concealing dress, but they mustn't be too sexual
Kip Pegley
Citizen Special

CREDIT: Ray Mickshaw, The Associated Press; Fox
Mandisa Hundley scored well in American Idol when she performed in a concealing black suit in March.
CREDIT: Ray Mickshaw, The Associated Press; Fox
She was bounced after she bared her shoulders and wore tight jeans in April, seemingly crossing a sexuality line for a full-figured black women.

It is easy to see why American Idol has such a significant following. Millions of people consider themselves to be good, if not great, singers and visualize for themselves a professional career on stage. They just have yet to be discovered. Many of them tune in during the first few weeks of auditions and revel in judges putting less talented souls in their places, satisfying a deep desire for social justice.

American Idol also presents as the perfect vehicle for transforming an individual's status from minimum-wage worker to vocal recording artist within a matter of weeks. All you need is a spectacular voice and a dream.

But the last few weeks clearly have illuminated that talent alone will not advance you to the finals, and it's wise to know your social and musical limitations before you step on stage.

On April 5, powerhouse singer Mandisa Hundley was eliminated, although arguably she gave a stronger performance than numerous other contestants. What was so unusual about this collective decision to expel her from the show was that this was the first time Mandisa appeared in the "bottom three," the weekly three contestants with the lowest number of votes. She was always on top of viewers' lists, but suddenly was dropped from their favour. Why?

Many theories have circulated. That night Mandisa performed Shania Twain's Any Man of Mine, and Idol judge Simon Cowell thought she made a poor song choice. Some would disagree given her energetic performance, the "catchiness" of the tune, and the popularity of both the song and original artist (Any Man reached number one on the Billboard Country Chart and Ms. Twain has the honour of releasing the best-selling album by a solo female artist of all time).

Other media observers thought it was because of a comment she made before her Idol performance a week earlier: "This song goes out to everybody that wants to be free." She continued, "Your addiction, lifestyle or situation may be big, but God is bigger." Human-rights groups interpreted this song introduction as homophobic and that it may have hurt her chances for continuing in the competition. I believe her statement likely was too vague to have a negative outcome on the voting results. In fact, her comment, with its reference to God, may have appealed to the sizable pro-Christian American audience.

What's more probable is that Mandisa, a full-figured African-American woman, simply overstepped her social boundaries.

We relegate larger-sized African-American women in popular music to particular genres, fully clothed. We celebrate them when they sound like Aretha or Ella, wearing a suit or concealing dress, but we simultaneously encourage them not to be too sexual.

Not surprisingly, when Mandisa sang Dinah Washington's I Don't Hurt Anymore in a long, black dress in March, the judges (and the audience) praised her performance. But on April 5, when she bared her shoulders and wore tight jeans (keeping with the style of many new country female artists today, including the other women performing alongside her in a country-themed episode), she was panned.

Americans told her through their voting power that she crossed a dangerous line. Sexualizing a larger black body, particularly within this musical genre, signalled the end of her Idol fantasy.

But what about Ruben Studdard, the 2003 American Idol? Ruben was a large black man but, significantly, he didn't have the same social expectations to show skin as women do.

Moreover, there is a category within popular music history for large black men, and they are nicknamed as such: Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker and, more recently, the Notorious B.I.G. ("Biggie"), to name a few. Playful naming has been an important part of African American-originating genres, from blues to R&B to rap. In the 1950s, naming blacks vis-a-vis body size served in part to desexualize artists who were bringing dangerous new passions and bodily expressions into collision with "safer" white musicians. Who could be afraid of a guy named Chubby Checker? The industry has created a place for heavier black men in mainstream youth music, but not for black women.

Over the past few decades we have had larger black women in other popular musical genres. Queen Latifah (Dana Owens) seems to be our cultural threshold for women in rap and R&B. But from the outset her bodily presentation has been nothing short of deliberate. In her first hit video, Ladies First (1989), she premiered in full military uniform as she paid tribute to black women's historical contributions. She later adopted a baggier, hip-hop style and more recently became associated with popular standards, which means projecting an elegant persona with carefully shown skin.

Other women have not been so fortunate with their slightly larger bodies. One needs only to look at Janet Jackson's figure from the mid-1980s to see how her body was disciplined into an idolized shape. Today, her official website, captioned "Celebrating 20 Years of Control" (her 1986 breakthrough release) features a photo gallery highlighting Jackson's tight abs and sculpted shoulders. Control, indeed.

Having said all this, it is likely that Mandisa was able to stay in the competition as long as she did because she was black. We have even fewer categories in popular music for large caucasian women. They are usually voted off sooner, if they make it that far. Often they are highly ridiculed by at least one of the male judges in the audition process.

This season of American Idol will do nothing to expand audiences' expectations of women's acceptable body sizes within popular music. Instead, it goes a long way to promote discrimination against a population, unfortunately, now without a voice.

Queen's University musicologist Kip Pegley is writing a book on music television, globalization and recent shifts in cultural boundaries.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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