Monday, December 12, 2011

Competition and Children: Lessons from Rachel Crow's X-Factor Breakdown

I hesitated to embed the following video because I think that it's exploitative and embarrassing, but it is already embedded in hundreds of articles and popping up in dozens of YouTube videos. Not to mention, it already aired on national television. The exploitation is already happening, and I think that it's important that we talk about it, so I'm including the video to frame the discussion.

Here's 13-year-old Rachel Crow getting eliminated from the X-Factor. She, like most 13-year-olds facing that kind of pressure would, breaks down.

The minimum age for competing in the U.S. X-Factor is 12 years. (In the UK it's 16, but there is talk that that is also too young.)

Watching the clip, it seems to me that there's a battle between contrived drama and real drama. When judge Nicole Scherzinger is near tears and sends the final vote to the viewers, the drama is working for the show. (I'm not saying that Scherzinger wasn't being sincere, just that the cameras and the overall tone of the show were lapping it up like warm milk.) When Rachel breaks down, however, no one's quite sure how to handle themselves. The host pushes the winning contestant away abruptly, even as he's trying to console Rachel. Rachel's mom and judge Simon Cowell rush to shield Rachel from the camera and hug her. Her mother can be heard telling her "It's okay. I promise." This is not the kind of drama the show wants because it's too real, too raw.

Don't get me wrong. Losing a contest is not the end of the world, and I know there are literally millions of children around the world going through far worse.

But I bet this felt worse than anything young Rachel Crow has ever had to deal with, and pain is--among other things--relative. It's also something you deal with differently as you mature. As bizchickblogs explains:
She’s 13 years old, competing for a $5 million record deal with adults. Maybe that’s no big deal, but I remember being 13. 13 is pretty young, and I think as a society we are so enamored with the talents of the young that we refuse to accept the idea that they may not be able to handle the lows that come with the territory.
Since I like to mix my pop culture analyses thoroughly, let me turn your attention now to an old episode of Boy Meets World, a show which may hold the answer to most (but probably not all) of life's big questions.

In this episode, Cory's little sister Morgan refuses to sing at the school's talent show because a talented girl in her class always wins. At the same time, she is hanging out with a young art prodigy who is world-renowned but lonely because her talent makes it hard to connect with kids her own age. Also at the same time (this show is more intricate than we usually give it credit) Cory is angry at his parents for not pushing him to become great, and he laments his mediocrity over a bedroom full of "eighth place" and "honorable mention" trophies. In the end of this episode, Morgan sings even though she's probably not going to win the competition because the art prodigy tells her she has to be true to who she is, and she is a talented (though probably not going to be world-renowned) singer. Cory takes this message to heart and breaks into horribly off-pitch song in the middle of Morgan's performance, embarrassing pretty much everyone.

While this show is obviously light-hearted, I think that the scenario is bringing up a lot of the nuances of the competition in childhood issue.

Competition can be a valuable tool. When we compete, we learn how to lose with grace, push ourselves to the next level, and recognize our own strengths. But in an age where the doling out of trophies to everyone who participates is so common it gets its own term (Everyone Gets a Trophy Syndrome, which was written about in Newsweek way back in 1992) and grade inflation is hitting all-time highs, Cory's anger over not getting pushed to his best might have some bite.

The benefits of competition are complicated, however, by our culture of constant pressure. The X-Factor is just one in a series of shows that highlight people being eliminated in order to get us to the "best": American Idol, The Voice, Top Chef, America's Next Top Model, The Biggest Loser, etc. Children are constantly bombarded with images of "losers" losing. There can only be one winner.

And it's no wonder that Rachel Crow expected it to be her. Have you heard the girl sing? She's talented. I'm sure she's been told--with good reason--just how talented she is over and over again in her young life. And she's 13--a tumultuous age when ego runs high and confidence abounds mixed with the need to belong and a constant fear of rejection.

I do think it's important for children to see that not everyone wins all of the time. I also think it's important for children to recognize natural strengths and interests and realize that they don't have to do it all. And some healthy competition can be an important tool in those regards.

At the same time, hoisting a child in front of a national audience (which is getting easier and easier with our technological landscape and the breakdown of privacy norms) and telling her to compete goes beyond those goals.

And just to round out my pop culture analysis into a triumvirate, I can't help but think about young stars who have had other very public meltdowns--many of which are much longer and deeper than Rachel Crow's. Lindsay Lohan, for example, is thrust into the public eye once more as her Playboy cover has been leaked, prompting an early release of the issue. Mail Online has a picture of Lohan as she prepared for the shoot, unairbrushed and beautiful, but as the article reports, "there is something uncomfortable about the image; a little girl lost beneath lashings of red lipstick and a confused expression." Surely Lohan's life has been complicated by rising to fame at such a young age. 

Is raising the age on shows like the X-Factor the answer? And--if that's (part of) the answer--should we raise the age for acting as well? What do we determine as "competition"? Is there a way to let children hone their natural skills while still protecting them from public humiliation? 


  1. I completely agree with you, great post. I firmly believe that kids should be kept out of reality tv competitions no matter what their talent is. Being a teenager is more than enough to deal with.

  2. I got chills watching this. This little girl...she said 2 things that broke my heart and have me very worried about her:

    1. When her mom was hugging her & saying "It's okay," Rachel kept asking her rather desperately, "Are you sure? Do you promise? Do you promise, Mommy?"
    What was this about??

    2. In her speech to the audience, she says, again rather desperately, "I am nothing without you." That is the saddest thing I've ever a kid say to absolute strangers. How does she feel about herself??

    There's so much desperation in this little girl. It breaks my heart...

  3. "Is there a way to let children hone their natural skills while still protecting them from public humiliation?"

    Not with parents willing to pimp them out as young as possible for fame & fortune to an industry obsessed with youth. The power to protect kids is the hands of their parents, and my view is that it is the parents to blame for this exploitation. They have the power to just say no to pimping out their child. Look at those babies in beauty pageants all hussied-up like grown starts that early, this parental pimping of children for fame.

  4. Saw this in the SSP thread at Feministe. I like your style, and I'll be checking out some of your other work. :-)