When my visiting kids, 11 and 14, arrive on my couch, they steal the remote. Which means I’ve been a semi-devoted X Factor viewer for the past three years. This has resulted in good, harmless fun like me cheering for Altiyan Childs, whom my daughter hated, then sending her a text (yep, I watched the final when she wasn’t there) that read ALLLLLTEEEEYOOOON!!! when he won, and her replying with, BOOOOOOOOOOOO!
But this year, with ever-younger contestants, some of the harmless fun has disappeared from the X Factor. In fact, this week I saw something that was close to child abuse, a kid in the kind of atmosphere that we spend millions of dollars in advertising campaigns to prevent in our homes, workplaces and schools.
For those who don’t mark their TV with the giant X, here’s a highlight reel: during ‘Legends Night’, much-praised 16-year-old rock god vocalist Reece Mastin sang Celine Dion’s version of ‘All by Myself’, at the behest of his mentor, Guy Sebastian. From our couch, we thought he did a decent job; he hit the high notes, his heart went on, even if it was a big departure from Bon Jovi.
The judges, except for his mentor, ‘went in hard’, to quote Sebastian’s post-show assessment. Mel B, yes, ‘Scary Spice’, accused him, without irony, of being ‘angry’. Ronan Keating, a boy band singer, said, again minus the irony, ‘That was weak!’ Judge Natalie Bassingthwaighte just tried to get heard above what became a roaring mob. There were the judges, all adults, arguing heatedly in front of a minor, making harsh public judgments of him, some of them demeaning. We had a large crowd booing, jeering, cheering – and the boy’s mother in the audience, seemingly powerless to do anything to stop what was happening.
During this slanging match about Reece’s effort, the home audience was offered several close ups of his face. He didn’t cry, but his face was frozen, his eyes darting. He was a rabbit in the stage lights. Having been consistently pumped up for his performances over the past few weeks, the kid didn’t know what to do or where to look. If he were my son, I’d have taken him off stage and out for a hot chocolate. And pulled him out of X Factor.
The argument for the kind of treatment Reece endured is that competitors know it’s a competition when they sign up, they know the stakes are high. Another argument for it is that they receive high praise, so they have to learn to deal with criticism. Yes, all’s fair in love and reality TV wars, but there’s a big problem here: we are talking about a child’s fragile and developing psychology.
Those who, like me, only remember what it’s like to be 16 might share my memories of it: I tried to form my identity, attempted new things, moved my dependence away from Mum and Dad, discovered my sexuality, and what mattered to me. And I remember it as a time when people’s judgments, their opinions about who I was and what I did, could shake me to the core.
Reece endured a core shaking experience this week. And, frankly, it was no better than having his ego pumped up with words like, ‘You are the most amazing singer I’ve ever heard.’ This week, adults he trusted shouted at him and judged him harshly, while a mob yelled, admittedly mainly for his cause, but their volume and hysteria added to a bullying atmosphere that no apprentice or student should have to endure. A child’s growing psychological make up shouldn’t be fried like that anywhere – let alone on national television. It’s time for the X Factor to live up to another sense of its name – Adults Only competitors.