On Being Moved Without Moving
|Everyone has to have seen or heard this Youtube clip of Susan Boyle singing on Britain's Got Talent and even I am blogging about it.|
But something bugs me in the thousands of articles that have been written about this event. People are going to great lengths to tell of how very moved they were. Not because she sang an rather lovely song extremely well. But because she surprised everybody who imagined that the physical appearance of a person related to what talents they might have. But Dennis Palumbo speaks my thoughts when he asks What if Susan Boyle Couldn't Sing?
“The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?”Lisybabe calls this disablism, which I am not entirely convinced about – although you ought to read her post on it anyway. However, it is fair to say that the same thing happens to other disabled people all the time. We aren't admired for the talents we happen to have or the things we happen to do, and we aren't respected just for ourselves. We are admired and respected because we defy expectations. Expectations being so low, most of us defy them at least some of the time. When we fail to do so for some reason, we are no longer afforded the basic respect to which everyone is entitled.
There is this awful phenomenon where people talk about how they have been moved by some event, to demonstrate what a sensitive person they are, as if the sheer strength of an emotional response makes them good. This is especially the case when a member of a minority group has achieved something. A lot of what was said in the UK about Barack Obama before he took office was along these lines - especially given our usually poisonous levels of cynicism about politicians. People seemed to forgot that the reason the election of a black president was not about the novelty of a black man being highly intelligent and charismatic, but about the US electorate doing the right thing for a change (apologies to my American readers; I know you have been doing the right thing all along, but your countrymen have not).
Last summer I heard a certain famous person say on the telly, in all seriousness, “I love the Paralympics, I genuinely do and I cry buckets every time one of them gets a medal.” This is a ridiculous thing to confess to. It is kind of groovy when someone who is into sport declares an interest in the Paralympics, because it is taken much less seriously than other events - it suggests that they consider disabled athletes as legitimate as non-disabled athletes. But then crying when inevitably, some of them get medals? No athlete, disabled or not, trains as they do in order to compete for our tears.
I cry rather easily - I would have cried if it had been a clip Lily Allen singing I dreamed a dream (though for perhaps slightly different reasons) and I would have cried during Obama's inaugural address if he had recited On The Ning Nang Nong (which, let's face it, would still have raised the bar for US presidential eloquence). But this doesn't reflect very much on me or my values.
And this is my worry. Everyone is saying that the Susan Boyle story just goes to prove all that stuff about books and their covers, but if everyone who says this or nods their head really means it, a social revolution must now be taking place. Not that people will stop judging by appearances, just that we'll start acting on the obvious premise that it's not just very young and pretty people who have talents in the performing arts. We don't enjoy music with our eyes.
But in order to do this, we have to realise that the surprise isn't the point. The point is that there ought not to have been any surprise. Susan Boyle's novelty is her great singing voice, not her talent in contrast to our expectations of her.
Incidentally, the article that amused me most about Susan Boyle, mostly on the grounds of its title (although it's analysis is reasonably sound) is Susan Boyle: The New Face - and Voice! - of the "Spinster Cat Lady". I'm just wondering who the old face of the Spinster Cat Lady was...