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?
Click to view
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,
"Look at this dowdy cat lady with a decent singing voice!" is just as much as a gimmick as giving someone attention based on their good looks alone. It's the average person with no back story that really has less of a chance to be seen on these shows.
There is indeed something worrisome about plucking someone from obscurity and feting them for a week or so to make the rest of us feel better, reducing her to a two-dimensional character who reaffirms our belief in the Power of Dreams, never mind that Boyle seemed neither miserable before, nor particularly turned by the attention. (Indeed, she seems insufficiently willing to play the role for many of the interviewers, who seem reduced to portraying her as "lovable character" rather than "tragic redeemer.") It is a relief to know that Boyle's precursor, the opera-singing mobile-phone salesman Paul Potts, has actually gone on to a recording career and has not been abandoned by a fickle public, after having briefly Saved Us From Shallowness.
Why are we so delighted to have been mistaken? Why are we so happy to have the joke be on us? However manufactured and edited the shock of Boyle's performance — surely a producer's dream — we clearly choose to accept it at face value and cast ourselves as the villains needing to learn Important Lessons. It could have something to do with a deep-seeded sense of societal self-loathing, and a frustration with a pre-programmed and air-brushed world. It could be rooted in a sense of collective guilt, or identification. I think we just want to believe that cliches are true — and that we, too, are capable of Learning and Growing. Said Boyle, "Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances... There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example."
It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on Britain's Got Talent so much as our reaction to her [Guardian]
Susan Boyle [The American Scene]
She Dreamed the Dream [CBS]
Demi Moore Loves British Talent [The Star]
The beauty that matters is always on the inside [The Herald]
Who's laughing now? [Kate Harding]
YouTube's Unlikely New Superstar: Susan Boyle [Radar]