The party line on "unlikely sensation" Susan Boyle is that we're all obsessed with appearances. But if that's true...why do we all love being wrong so much?
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The media furor surrounding Susan Boyle is noteworthy: today alone she appeared on CBS's Early Show, and was lauded by Patti LuPone for her rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream." Having only appeared in the qualifying round for Britain's Got Talent, it's already assumed that Boyle will receive a lucrative recording contract. The blogs are a-twitter with this Magical Woman, come to teach us Lessons. What fools we are! we self-castigate. Here's a dowdy lady who doesn't look like an American Idol contestant and we judge! Because she hasn't received validation from the patriarchy, we assume she's unworthy! And we were wrong! Stupid, stupid, shallow idiots! We judge! And are found wanting! Ad nauseam! For the record, I do believe the outpouring of emotion elicited by Boyle's bravura performance was completely genuine; it's our critical reaction that gives me pause.
Never, in the history of reality TV, have so many been so happy to have been mistaken. From the judges, who delightedly speak of their surpassed expectations, to the live audience as thrilled by being wrong as by the triumph of Boyle's soaring vocals. Ironically, all of this points to a miscalculation on the part of the media. Sure, we're inured to the prospect of taut 17-year-olds belting out Mariah Carey, but clearly we prefer Susan Boyle. Says the blog The American Scene, "The irony is overwhelming: by singing this song about broken dreams, Boyle — whose life has apparently, up to that moment, been difficult enough to justify the lyrics as autobiography — makes her lifelong dream of success as a professional singer effectively come true."
Sure, part of it is probably novelty. It's not just Boyle's unmanicured appearance, but the fact that, to Americans especially, she's one of the few exotics left to us: a figure seemingly from another era, not merely old-fashioned in presentation but in her total disregard for norms. For let's face it: it's not just Boyle's appearance that generated skepticism, but the fact that she wouldn't realize it to be a deterrent. It seems to me disingenuous and simplistic to keep harping on our judging Boyle because she was "ugly" — which she is not — when the issue seems more one of juxtaposition than anything. To attempt this sort of show, but not to buy into the accepted mold, was an act of impunity that seemed to disregard of all the rules of the game, and made one fear that here was another deluded, oblivious person being exploited for laughs. Our joy was as much relief as surprise. And that joy is very real.
Boyle's story — that of a small, quiet life, in which she struggled with learning problems and devoted her adult life to caring for an elderly mother, giving her talent to a church choir — is probably not uncommon. We don't love stories of the everyday; we love stories of triumphing over adversity. It's the same in movies or TV; a character can have a small life or a blue-collar job as long as he has Big Dreams. We like our slumdogs to end up millionaires and our Britons to actually have talent. It is moving to see Boyle singing a song of broken dreams and lost youth, knowing what one does of her life — but only because we know now there are better things to come. If we didn't have a happy ending, could we bear to think of Boyle rehearsing the same song, the same words, by herself in her modest home? These triumphs are of value to us only as they comfort — even if, as in this case, it comes at our own expense.
Yes, there is something exploitative about it: it may seem patronizing for Demi and Ashton to tweet about the inspiration of her performance, or for Patti LuPone to praise her rendition of the song. Everyone seems amazed that she "triumphed" over a normal appearance and quiet life, and none of these interviews is complete without someone reminding Boyle, forcibly and repeatedly, that everyone was "laughing at her," and was "shocked" by her voice. (Said judge Piers Morgan, "When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, 'I want to be like Elaine Paige', everyone was laughing at you." Concurred Amanda Holden, "I am so thrilled, because I know that everybody was against you.") Said one commenter on Margaret's original post,