Sunday, April 19, 2009

Susan Boyle: inspiration, or exception?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

The first thing that's mentioned when talking about Susan Boyle is her age and unattractiveness - and how shocked the viewers of "Britain's Got Talent" were last week when she turned out to have an extraordinarily lovely voice. Boyle's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" made her an instant sensation, despite the fact that she lives alone with her cat, is unmarried (and unkissed, as she told reporters) and unemployed. She is also unfashionable and not conventionally attractive, and the judges and audience of "Britain's Got Talent" were more than ready to dismiss her, until she began to sing. Her story has been touted as the triumph of talent over ageism and sexism, and almost a kind of Cinderella story. But I'm not sure how inspiring her story really is. Yes, it's amazing that she has so much talent that was almost ignored - but how many Susan Boyles are there out there, dismissed because of their failure to conform to standards of attractiveness or age, who have hidden gifts? More than just one, that's for sure.

Basically, I think we're guilty as hell about our propensity to judge men and women for their appearance rather than any other merits, and we love any opportunity to congratulate ourselves for "getting past" this stumbling block. But really, the fact that we're making such a huge fuss over Susan Boyle for triumphing over adversity proves that we haven't made any progress at all. If the social unacceptability of the life that she's chosen wasn't a factor, we wouldn't be talking about it, and we certainly wouldn't be swamping her with this kind of media attention, which persists in calling attention to her strangeness - and how she has talent anyway!

Last week, I blogged about French Elle's new issue, which features actresses who haven't been made up or airbrushed, and I was among the voices who praised the magazine for its courage. But honestly, I think it's the same kind of problem - making Monica Bellucci our ideal for beauty, regardless of whether she's wearing makeup, is pretty unrealistic. And it is a small, small step to admit that she's beautiful without being airbrushed. I'm glad that Susan Boyle is getting a chance to finally sing in front of a large audience, which she told the BGT judges was her dream before she blew them away. But I think if we're going to make her a celebrity, we need to be doing it because her voice was extraordinary because her voice was extraordinary, not in spite of her "ugliness" or age or nontraditional lifestyle. Then we'll really have made progress.

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