Sunday, April 19, 2009

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...


JackP said...

I like the idea of someone crying every time a paralympian gets a medal. What do they expect? That under most circumstances they would all give up after about 35m of the 100m and no-one would win?

Surely 3 medals per event is a minimum expectation, regardless of who is taking part...?

re: Suzie B (just wait, it'll happen), we would be wrong to judge her as a person on her looks and the like. Judging how effective she will be in a talent competition isn't unfair though.

While singing ability and looks are not tied, looks and voting patterns frequently are. It's not ridiculous to be expecting to judge her as 'found wanting' in that regard, even if it would be ridiculous to assume that because she wasn't 'presented' so well she has less inherent worth as a person.

Good lord, is Dennis Palumbo suggesting I should take part in the next series of the X-factor and shouldn't be judged more harshly because I can't sing (or dance)? Of course not. It's fine to judge someone within the remit of that competition. That would appear to be the whole bloody point of the competition, after all.

[takes deep breath, calms down a bit]

...but then maybe I'm just backlashing against all the hand-wringing I've heard about it. Which is why I agree 100% with your bit about people generally not seeing past the covers, and surprise oughtn't to be the point.

I would bet she will now do better because she has public sympathy (aw, bless her) and the surprise thing than she would have achieved on her voice alone. And that's not right either; that's making her out as a novely freak for the nation's entertainment. And that, to me, is even worse than assuming she couldn't be any good because she didn't 'look right'.

The Goldfish said...

Good lord, is Dennis Palumbo suggesting I should take part in the next series of the X-factor and shouldn't be judged more harshly because I can't sing (or dance)?It didn't occur to me that this could be interpreted this way and now seems a less than perfect way of putting it. But no, the point is that people shouldn't have sniggered and made faces at her before she sang, and that's the case even if she sang out of tune. Although afterwards, if she had sang out of tune, well, it would be okay to be unimpressed.

Yes, you're right about the novelty thing, which ties into all this. It's like a lot of disabled people, who have no problem with identifying as disabled, nevertheless don't wish to be known as the disabled actor, the disabled lawyer and so on.

Anonymous said...


The reason why I stopped watching these talent shows was that I quickly learned discovering new talent was less than half of the point. The main business was and is about putting pathetic, deluded, no-talent shmos, desperate-for-attention on a national stage and having the judges and audience tear them to shreds.

I let out a huge breath of relief and shed a few tears on seeing the clip because Susan DOES have an abundance of talent and I thought, from the few words of her introduction that night, that she was too sweet and naive to be subjected to the bile of the mob.

Like you, I've been hearing and reading a lot of bullshit about how Susan is teaching us not to judge surface appearances.People can change, but we aren't going to change that much.

Stephen said...

To answer your question:

Gary Miller said...

I saw the episode in question and, have to admit that I knew Susan was in for a rough ride from both the 'judges' and spectators. This feeling surfaced as Susan appeared. Not, I hasten to add, because I thought she looked sad and pitiful; but because having worked with people with 'learning difficulties' I genuinely felt she was going to have problems. I willed her to have the voice of an angel - she did not disappoint. Good for you Susan.

As a footnote, I hope she resists any attempts to glamourise her image for next appearance. She's obviously comfortable with herself - and so she should be - and so should the TV show producers.

Anonymous said...

All this from someone who suffered oxygen deprivation as an infant!

irasocol said...

You get quoted in the teacher training policy brief I'm presenting tomorrow (Wednesday). How do schools contribute to this nightmare? And how might we limit that damage.

I thought about this all day today as the "Craigslist Killer" was referred to on all US newschannels as,"shocking" because he was "good looking and rich." oh yeah. Never been an pretty killer or an ugly singer. And if we're good we're just "Super Crip" or "Mighty Retard" - the exceptions proving the rule.

Diane J Standiford said...

I was moved BECAUSE I knew how others would see her and she shoved their assumptions down their ears!

Gone Fishing said...

Susan's success has,
in New Zealand,
(seemingly particularly on the Government Owned Tv1 Breakfast channel)
brought into focus the very nasty sarcastic demeaning undercurrent in our society to mention only one comment (approximately) "perhaps you could be the first to kiss her" there have been others of similar Ilk which hopefully have disgusted others as much as we.

No wonder we watch Tv3.

seahorse said...

This week a supply teacher enthused to my son's class about how 'fascinating' she finds it when she watches the 'special' Olympics and sees people with one leg (and so forth) doing 'amazing' things.
The whole class saw through her and thankfully, 'patronising' was the general opinion. Go kids! There is hope ;-)

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ecobunni said...

Good post. I watched the clip through Youtube and can't stand the sneering looks the audience gave her before she sang. I know it's great she 'shoved their assumptions down their ears' as nicely put by another - but I feel rather depressed that she has been portrayed as the 'hairy angel'.

I hope she comes through all this with her dignity intact.

Gary Miller said...

The final accolade? Appearances on The Simpsons and Oprah no less.