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Katy Perry’s Kiss and the Regressive Sexual Politics of American Idol

American Idol contestant Benjamin Glaze prepares to give Katy Perry what he thinks will be a kiss on the cheek.
American Idol contestant Benjamin Glaze prepares to give Katy Perry what he thinks will be a kiss on the cheek. YouTube

After 15 seasons on Fox and a two-year hiatus, American Idol returned this week on ABC, which promised a “kinder, gentler” version of the competition. Indeed, this year’s audition clips featured fewer bizarre showboaters and laughingstocks than in years past, and the hosts seemed to do their best to refrain from insulting the poor dupes at their mercy.

Most everything else about the show remains the same: the forced banter between the judges, the simpering, vaguely menacing nationalism, and, of course, the tragic and/or uplifting personal stories. Oh, the tragic and/or uplifting personal stories! In the two-episode season premiere alone, there was a guy who FaceTimed his beloved grandmother during his audition, a guy who works to support a mom with lupus, a guy who was just 5 years old when his dad was murdered, a guy who was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident, and a guy who both overcame chronic depression and lost 162 pounds since the last time he auditioned for the show. The glaring absence of any kind of military storyline made me suspect the producers had lost a bit of their mojo, until I spotted a guy in olive drab in the season promo. Guess we’ll have to wait for episode three.

American Idol also trades on the interplay between starstruck contestants and goofy, self-assured celebrity judges who dole out flattery like it’s a precious gemstone. Katy Perry is the obvious star judge of the season, outshining the surprisingly uncharismatic Lionel Richie and store-brand country boy Luke Bryan. Her shtick is making contestants sexually uncomfortable with over-the-top flirtation and unrelenting innuendo. With the right contestant, like smooth-talking D.C. shoe salesman William Casanova, it’s rather cute. Casanova (his chosen name, if that tells you anything about his stage persona) keeps pace with Perry’s teasing, making eyes at her during his song and gamely accepting his ticket to Hollywood from between two of her clenched toes.

But other aspirants make for clumsy targets. In Episode 2, Trevor Holmes, a 27-year-old who resembles a hot youth pastor, steps onstage just after viewers learned from the male judges that Perry is “lonely” and turning American Idol into “her own eHarmony.” Holmes immediately begins explaining that the money he earns at his construction job helps him care for his mother, who lives with lupus. Perry looks concerned at first, then interrupts his story to muse, “You’re so hot.” She remarks that Trevor is a typical name for a hot guy, and that his profession and love for his mom make him even hotter. When Holmes calls Perry ma’am, she says, “Don’t call me ma’am!” When he stammers out an apology—“I just, I respect you so much”—she feigns infatuated exasperation: “Don’t respect me!” “She doesn’t want you to be a nice boy!” Bryan says.

The joke, if it can be called that, stretches on for a five-minute segment that feels more like an hour. Perry asks if Holmes is engaged, he says he’s not, but has a girlfriend. (To make things even weirder, she’s listening from backstage.) When he sings, Perry makes a big show of blushing and grinning and hiding like she’s embarrassed to catch his eye. Holmes makes the cut, but the audience takeaway has nothing to do with his vocal talent or stage presence.
It’s Katy Perry’s show, and Holmes is a dreamy-eyed prop.

This week, another one of Perry’s bloodless sexual antics went semiviral on the internet. In the New York Times, Katherine Rosman reported that a young man Perry kissed during his audition wasn’t thrilled by the encounter. Benjamin Glaze, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma, had never kissed anyone before, and he’d hoped to save the moment for someone he really liked. “I know a lot of guys would be like, ‘Heck yeah!’ ” Glaze told Rosman after the Times contacted him. “But for me, I was raised in a conservative family and I was uncomfortable immediately. I wanted my first kiss to be special.”

Glaze’s American Idol segment is embarrassing to watch. It seems like producers coached him to come up with a fun fact about himself or his job, because his first lines sound staged. “I’m a cashier at an electronics store, and I love it because sometimes there’s cute girls, and they’re not going anywhere without saying hi,” Glaze says. Bryan asks him if he’s ever kissed a girl—another sign that producers were setting up a scene here—and Glaze says, in an incredulous tone, “No, I’ve never been in a relationship. I can’t kiss a girl without being in a relationship.” Perry then asks him to approach the judge’s bench and twice presents her cheek for a kiss. The second time, she twists her head at the last second and plants one on Glaze’s lips.

Glaze is a good sport throughout the encounter, going so far as to take a pratfall after Perry does the deed. (American Idol has used this particular clip in all its Season 16 promos.) Though Glaze is visibly uncomfortable, he responds as society would expect of a sheltered young man who was just smooched by a glamorous pop star. “Well, that’s a first!” he exclaims. “That’s going up on the fridge.” He takes repeated glances backstage, perhaps at producers or his parents, as if wondering how anyone allowed this to happen. It’s not difficult to imagine, standing in the spotlight, surrounded by cameras, facing three celebrities who hold the fate of a deeply desired dream in their hands, not knowing what else to do but go along. And then, flustered, blowing the audition, as Glaze did.

In the months between Glaze’s October audition and the March premiere, he digested the event with friends (“they agreed with me that it didn’t really count”) and decided that it was a net positive, since it increased the air time for himself and his music. He emphasized to Rosman, the Times reporter, that he does not consider the kiss an incidence of sexual harassment. But, as Rosman pointed out in her piece, the scene feels even more lewd and exploitative post-#MeToo than it would have last March. ABC’s decision to treat it as a playful, feel-good moment—and use it to advertise the show—is bafflingly obtuse.

Viewers seem to agree, up to a point. “0:48 assault 🤣🤣,” wrote one comment on the YouTube clip. Another commented, “He must signed for #metoo, what do you think ? lol hey I am just kidding!” These kinds of responses clarify the missteps of Perry and the show’s producers on two levels. They indicate that even people who thought the kiss was funny recognize that it seemed manipulative. They also fall in line with the injurious sexual worldview that men are the desirers and women are the desired, that men are bumbling horndogs and women are temptresses leading them on. Of course, Perry’s flirtation isn’t truly sexual at all. It remains in the realm of PG-rated jest—this is family television, after all. By framing Perry’s contrived romantic interest as innocent play, American Idol doubles down on the idea that women can think boys who love their mothers are cute, but they can’t be credible sexual aggressors. If the show had had Luke Bryan trick a 19-year-old girl into her first kiss, there would have been a third-party investigation into the matter.

Much credit to Glaze, then, for speaking honestly about the complex feelings Perry’s kiss provoked. Now, he is stuck with half the country treating him like the harassment victim he insists he’s not, and the other half calling him a wimp and wondering why he isn’t thanking his guardian angel for placing Perry’s lips in the path of his. After the heated response to the New York Times piece, Glaze posted on Instagram that he is “not complaining about the kiss from Katy Perry at all,” and that his “true intentions are not accurately represented in every article you read about the situation.” Online commenters have called his masculinity into question by calling him a “beta” and suggested that he will spend some “extra time in the bathroom tonight,” a reference to masturbation this conservative now-20-year-old will surely resent.

The past week of cultural processing has proved that American Idol, like most reality shows, succeeds by slurping up what is idiosyncratic, humble, and dear about its characters and puking it out as artificially-sweetened commodity. ABC is already getting dual mileage out of the Holmes situation by hosting him and his resolutely smiling girlfriend on Good Morning America to “speak out” about Perry’s crush; the chyron read, “American Idol Love Triangle.” (One wonders whether Glaze will get similar treatment.)

The lasting effect of Perry’s capers is that of a gender-reveal party: Since the nuances of human experience are too round-edged to make an imprint on the mold of a reality television program, the people onscreen are left shouting the contours of their heterosexed roles into the microphone. I am a girl, and thus I am rendered gooey by a construction worker with a guitar. I am a boy, and thus I am perpetually primed for a come-on.

The title of American Idol is an apt descriptor of the show, especially with Perry in the leading role. To watch it is to glimpse a reflection of some of the values America holds most dear: reverence for celebrity, dutiful performance of gender roles, and the transmutation of personal tragedy or triumph into marketable product. Anyone who enters the apparatus emerges stamped with these motifs. And to think, Benjamin Glaze signed up for a singing contest.