The Fem Spot

Did Susan Boyle have something to prove?

Posted in Film and Television, Pop Culture by femspotter on April 16, 2009

April 16, 2009

I’ve never seen American Idol or most of its counterparts. Let’s just say that reality television isn’t really my thing. It doesn’t make me feel good about myself to watch other people make fools of themselves before a large studio audience and the masses watching from home. I’m not “above” it; I just don’t like it. I take the contestants’ public humiliation personally.

I stumbled across the “singing sensation” Susan Boyle and her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on CNN.com while perusing the news. People have posted her Britain’s Got Talent performance on YouTube and the video has garnered more than 12 million views (as of 12 p.m. EST 4/16/09) in less than a week. Now, there’s talk of her winning the top prize in the competition and the possibility of her performing in person for Queen Elizabeth II as a reward. She’ll also cut a record, perhaps before she officially wins.

Why is this clip popular?

It’s a matter of opinion, but some say her voice is “extraordinary.” By that reasoning, millions of viewers have tuned in to listen, not to mock.

But I believe the real reason this video is popular is the same reason I shared it with my husband and watched it three times myself: joy! Oh, it is joyful! It’s a perfect, little narrative of an underdog rubbing smug spectator cynicism in their smug spectator faces. Boyle is set up to fail. She confidently marches out on stage and takes her place at its center. All eyes are on her – the self-proclaimed never-been-kissed, 47-year-old unemployed charity worker from Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland, who lives alone with her cat. People in the audience roll their eyes and snicker thinking, “This old hag hasn’t got what it takes; just look at her!”

Just look at her.

Susan Boyle, Singing Sensation

Susan Boyle, Singing Sensation

It would seem that Boyle had something to prove: she had to prove that she could sing…well. Not just because she’d stepped up to the plate and promised that she could. Not just because all eyes were on her, by her own choice. The main reason she had something to prove to us – the viewers and consequently her judges – is because she is (arguably) ugly. “Just look at her,” we tell ourselves when watching the YouTube clip, feeling superior in our state of moderate attractiveness. “She’s too ugly to be a really good singer. Nobody has ever kissed her. Nobody ever will. And now, sadly, the whole world will know about this pathetic loser because she’s deluded enough to believe that she can sing. Hah! She should have stayed home.”

And then she did sing…and everybody – including the prejudging judges such as hateful Simon Cowell – melted into her song and forgave her for looking the way that she does.

When I shared the video with my husband, I cried. Oh, the joy of seeing and hearing Boyle’s prejudgers respectively drop their jaws and eat their words! “I like her,” my husband said. “I like her confidence.”

I realized that sometimes I forget that my husband, in his quietness, has the most noble thoughts of anybody I know. He never looked at Boyle and thought to himself, “She’s too ugly to sing.”

He never thought that the standards of beauty that keep Angelina Jolie in film roles and Jessica Simpson in a perpetual state of body weight scrutiny would limit this jolly woman’s vocal abilities. He never questioned her: if she claims she can sing, then she can.

I didn’t consciously prejudge her either, but I did find myself falling into the mob’s mentality, and all of the laughing and hissing and eye rolling convinced me that what was about to happen was going to be terrible – even painful – to hear. And then afterward, the mob would huddle together and say, “I knew she couldn’t sing. Just look at her!”

Just look at her.

We have become so conditioned to value a person’s worth by his or her appearance that we forget that vocal ability has nothing to do with hip measurements, skin clarity or fashion sense. Vocal ability has nothing to do with what’s on the outside and everything to do with what’s on the inside: the size and shape of one’s vocal chords and lungs, the size and shape of one’s heart… But American Idol voters often consider looks and not just talent when they vote. I can’t say for sure because I don’t watch, but from what I hear around the water cooler I have discerned that people watch the show to mock appearances more than to celebrate ability, raw and trained alike. And beauty standards are higher for women than they are for men.

My first reaction to Susan Boyle’s performance was smiles and tears. I was ecstatically happy for her: she proved the naysayers wrong.

But when the first judge told her that she had handed him the biggest surprise of the competition, I felt sick to my stomach, and that queasy feeling continues today. Basically, that judge was telling her two things: “You look like you can’t sing and if you didn’t surprise us with your good voice, we would laugh at you and consider you worthless.”

And if Boyle hadn’t wowed them all with her talent, and they had laughed at her instead of cheered, what would have happened to her? Would she have lost that self-respect, which my husband praised her for and which carried her to the competition and onto the stage in the first place? Would she have cried as the audience continued to laugh and jeer? Would she have traveled home to her cat Pebbles and gassed herself with her oven in a fit of self-loathing?

Somewhere, in that audience or watching on television or YouTube, there is a person (or two) who is less than conventionally beautiful and who additionally can’t sing well. What can that person do to prove his or her worth? Nothing?

The things I value in my loved ones can’t be performed on stage or seen on television. My husband’s ability to discern Boyle’s “best” quality is what makes him dear to me. And where I love, I find beauty…and he is beautiful to me because I love him.

Perhaps because she can sing beautifully, someone will kiss Susan Boyle sometime soon. But if she had failed on that stage and suffered our scorn and righteous indignation…then it’s doubtful that anybody would kiss her, isn’t it? That’s tragic. The real reason she should be loved by others is for her self: her confidence, her humor and her love for humanity.

I hope she knows that she had nothing to prove to us beyond the boundaries of her vocal ability; she only had something greater – something about her character – to prove to herself. And she proved she is brave just by getting up on that stage and singing, however skillfully (or unskillfully, if that’s your opinion). If people are tuning in to listen to her song in droves in order to experience vicariously the joy of her achievement rather than gawk at her “unlikeliness” to achieve it, then that’s a very good thing indeed.

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8 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on April 17, 2009 at 6:15 am

    Susan Boyle has a lovely voice. How has she kept it a secret for so long? You are, of course, correct, that the visual, that which we see first, tends to make us expect certain things. Thanks to Susan Boyle and humbled by you and your husband’s perceptions, we are reminded not to take things (people) at face value; not to judge a book by its cover.

  2. femspotter said, on April 17, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Thanks, Mom. I didn’t mean to sound preachy! Over time, I’ve become more disturbed by this remarkable occurrence rather than elated by it. It seems to me that we are an image-obsessed culture.

  3. femspotter said, on April 17, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    P.S. There’s now talk of the show giving her a makeover for the rest of the competition. Doesn’t the nearly 20 million views of the YouTube clip (as of 1 p.m. EST 4/17/09) prove that audiences are ready to listen to the voice and “forgive” the appearance?

  4. Mom said, on April 20, 2009 at 6:13 am

    We will never learn it seems!

  5. faemom said, on April 21, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I know. It’s so sad that everyone was going to dismiss her because she’s not pretty, she’s not young. I hate those talent shows because they’re so mean to people who fail. No one has to be mean. I liked her confidence and her humor. I’m glad she can sing because it really got everyone’s attention.

    As for the make-over, they do that to every contestant. And I actually think it would be good for her. Not to make her beautiful, but that she seems the type of woman who has never got to pamper herself. You know a pedicure or manicure, a splurge on a really good salon. I don’t want anyone telling her she has to be more beautiful, I just want one of those make-overs they do for moms and busy women. I hope that came out all right.

  6. femspotter said, on April 22, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Fae, thanks for challenging my own cynicism. As you know, my favorite relaxing activity is to get a mani/pedi every other week. You’re right. Perhaps Susan will enjoy having others primp her if she’s never experienced that girly joy! I imagine she did feel quite pretty in her gold dress on the day she sang. A professional makeover might give her the opportunity to bask in the adoration of others and feel pretty again. Aren’t we as pretty as we feel?

  7. faemom said, on April 22, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I’m so glad that came out right. I was a little worried that it would come out that I want them to do a total make-over, to change her. I agree with you that she must have felt pretty in her own dress, but I think she would enjoy the attention that a good make-over specialist would give her.

  8. femspotter said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:46 am

    BTW, the New York Times had an article about Susan Boyle and our prejudice over the weekend, which concluded that scientists think it’s normal to pre-judge people based on looks. That may be true, but it’s the snickering and eye-rolling that we can definitely control and didn’t in this instance. Our behavior is what we can critique.


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