Is 'American Idol' Too Cruel to Kids?

I find it sadly coincidental that the current "audition" period of American Idol -- during which the show takes as much delight in mocking the foolish as it does in celebrating the sensations -- runs concurrently with "No Name-Calling Week" (Jan. 24-28), an anti-name-calling, anti-teasing, anti-bullying initiative created by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

In one corner, we have an organization stressing the inarguable importance of interpersonal tolerance, especially among kids. In the other, we have a prime-time celebration of ridicule -- montage after montage of off-beat and deluded young people who think, for whatever reason, that they have singing talent, while adult judges often crack up and mock them.

Simon Cowell elevated such mocking to an art form (and we'll miss him for that). But even when Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler show sympathy (Randy Jackson is consistently -- and gratifyingly -- cold), the program itself is explicitly soliciting your scorn with creative effects that might as well include a cuckoo, plus Ryan's condescending banter. These oddball contestants do not fall into public spotlight by chance -- producers purposefully select them to proceed to the celebrity-judging round.

Is it funny? Sometimes, sure. But is it right? If this were high school, such targeted humiliation would be seen as not just offensive, but destructive. And kids that age and younger make up a large subset, if not the bulk, of Idol's audience and contestants (who, this year, could apply at age 15). What message does it send?

Don't get me wrong -- I've been watching Idol for years now (The Melinda Doolittle and Brooke White singles in my iPod attest to that). But these weeks of auditions make me queasy. One minute, we're sentimentally celebrating ethnic, geographic, economic and experiential diversity. The next minute, we're laughing at a "weirdo." So much for "It Gets Better."

Perhaps I'm overreacting; maybe it's all just good fun. But that's easy for us to say. Like dozens of lucky and charismatic contestants, we too get to "go to Hollywood!" and not stay behind to ponder a world in which our worst self-doubts have just been cruelly affirmed... by our own idols no less.

Does American Idol send the wrong message to kids? Chime in below!

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