Misplaced sympathy for Paula

'Gender-bias' not at heart of Abdul departure

Despite Paula Abdul and Sarah Palin’s similarities — both are attractive, in their mid-40s, polarizing, occasionally incomprehensible and, having quit high-profile jobs, presently unemployed — they might seem like odd dance partners. But their supporters have mastered near-identical routines.

The most interesting development since Abdul tweeted her way off “American Idol,” in fact, has been the groundswell of compassion directed her way, in much the way that Alaska’s former governor has found no shortage of supporters who appear to feel personally every sling and arrow lobbed at her.

However improbably, a sizable number of TV viewers — and some women in particular — strongly identify with these privileged celebrities. They relate to the idea of feeling powerless and victimized, even if their hero isn’t. Small wonder that image-polishing flacks and consultants spin so vigorously to achieve this sympathetic status for their clients, as highlighted by the endless war of US Weekly covers surrounding the “stars” of TLC’s “Jon and Kate Plus 8.” Kate Gosselin dutifully wept for the “Today” show this week.

Nor is the ardent rallying behind Abdul confined to mere fans, with several in the media also taking up her “spurned woman” cause.

New York Post critic Linda Stasi sounded battier than usual, for example, by comparing the “Abdul out, Kara DioGuardi in” resolution to “All About Eve,” writing that it was “horrible to watch that scenario play out last season with Paula in the Bette Davis part.” Wow, there have been plenty of badly cast movie remakes, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one worse than that.

Others have seized on Fox and the producers balking at Abdul’s salary demands as a sign of “gender bias,” as the New York Times reported. And Slate’s culture blog — under the headline “Paula Abdul Got Shafted” — called her “America’s conscience,” presumably with tongue (or perhaps just prescription painkillers) at least partly in cheek.

Yet to paint Abdul as a victim (or, for that matter, Palin, selected as a vice presidential candidate in large part because she’s a woman) is an enormous disservice to those who face genuine discrimination. So a bit of perspective, please.

First, Abdul’s value to “American Idol” hardly qualifies as an “equal pay for equal work” debate, any more than Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant earning more than seldom-used reserve Josh Powell is.

Fellow judge Simon Cowell instantly became the heart of the show with his tart analysis, and host Ryan Seacrest has a burgeoning career producing schlocky reality fare and as a radio personality.

Abdul, on the other hand, has been a frequent source of friction and occasional embarrassment to the producers — accused of entering into a questionable relationship with a contestant, appearing impaired during satellite interviews and regularly uttering on-air babble that sounded as if she was reading from “The Canterbury Tales.” For Fox’s PR department, at least, her exit must mean sighs of relief all around.

Turning to the bottom line, with “Idol” ratings having likely topped out — though still hovering at enviable levels — gambling on a new dynamic among the judges is almost surely a blessing.

Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Rice may have been speaking the God’s honest truth when he told reporters, “We very much wanted her to return” (while leaving off “…but not at any price”). After all, why tamper with success? Nevertheless, the opportunity to alter the show’s chemistry could easily renew interest more than dilute it. And if the ratings are destined to slide regardless, the last thing the producers need is to carry more fat long-term contracts than necessary as the audience drifts downward.

Finally, poor Paula still finds herself with numerous career options, since it takes a great deal of bad behavior to dissuade executives from pursuing those associated with top-rated hits (ABC and NBC have already expressed interest) as they hope that elusive magic may rub off.

And yet, for fans determined to believe Abdul has been mistreated as they project themselves into her shoes, no dosage of reality will convince them otherwise. Assuming that softens their own feelings of powerlessness, then I suppose more power to them.

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