Oy. I finally sat and watched the entire Youtube video of Susan Boyle performing recently on ‘Britain’s Got Talent.’ I had to. I’d been reading about it all over the Internet. Well, actually, I’d been reading comments from fellow media scholars on a listserv. I try to shield myself from some forms of popular culture as long as I can. I actually never watch American Idol or related programs. But that doesn’t mean I’m some sort of pop culture snob. I love the show “Brothers and Sisters,” and one TV season, years and years ago, I was absolutely hooked on a segment of “The Bachelor.” It was like watching an amazing train wreck. But I digress.
Susan Boyle certainly does have talent. Her voice is beautiful. Everyone was buzzing about her and especially about the video of her surprising the studio audience and panel of judges who, by the rolling eyes and snarky comments during her introduction, were expecting a train wreck of sorts themselves. That she surprised them is quite an understatement, by the way. They were shocked that a woman of her age, who looks the way she looks, could sing…. really sing.
The obvious comments here are that we should all be ashamed of that audience and those judges–and ourselves–for assuming that those who deserve to win on a TV program showcasing artistic talent should be physically beautiful by the standards set by over 100 years of visual media. That we should never again assume that someone–a woman–who is 47 (gasp!) should dream of hitting it big through her talent and determination, despite the fact that she looks so completely like someone’s ordinary, middle aged mom. Shame on all of us for our superficiality and our emphasis on a woman’s looks and youth. We’ve all learned our lesson.
Of course, we haven’t. That’s why this video has been given so much buzz. Susan Boyle’s appearance on British TV, and her subsequent big win, will fade away quickly and she will be replaced on the program with more young, skinny, booby, plastic women who may be able to sing a little, but who don’t have nearly the raw talent that she does.
But all of that is not really what I was wrapped up in as I watched the video. Though angry with Simon Cowell and all the rest of them for that matter, I was mostly amazed at the very fact of the video. Who set up those cameras that focused on Susan? There was at least one backstage and one on-stage. Why do we see such deliberate, focused footage of her backstage before she goes on? And who were those guys waiting back there with her? Do all of the participants get the same coverage? It all seemed a bit rehearsed to me, like a dramatization of an actual event. Or the staging of a would-be event. And what about that song, “I Dream A Dream?”
I’m not saying it was a dramatization of a would-be event. Clever editing can create the illusion of events that didn’t exactly happen the way they are presented later on Youtube (or any other video venue). There was something weird about those first cut-away shots to the audience and the panelists. We were all visually set up to be surprised by the amazing transformation of this ugly duckling into a beautiful swan once she opened her mouth.
But as one media scholar pointed out, it wasn’t actually she who was transformed. It was us, the audience. She stayed the same. We were transformed from a culture/media-shaped expectation that she would embarrass herself because she wasn’t physically fit to be on that stage, to an audience appreciative of her talent IN SPITE OF her physical shortcomings.
This video on Youtube made us all into fools. Or did it?
Today’s New York Times Styles section article about Susan Boyle just put us right back into our naughty, looks-obsessed ways. The article deals with the necessity, even the science, of stereotyping, and how snap judgments are made about people, things and situations because it has some sort of survival value that goes way back in time. No room for history here. In that article, Susan Boyle herself is quoted as saying that, with regard to people judging you on your looks, “There’s nothing you can do about it.”
All of this ignores how we’ve been shaped by our media. To make a short point from what could be a very long diatribe, visual media such as television (and digital extensions like Youtube) have been training us for years to value appearance so that it becomes center stage. Ask any young (or old) woman and she’ll tell you, the pressure is on to look not just good, but hot.
It wasn’t always that way. Really. Maybe that was a long time ago. But Susan Boyle and her beautiful voice are around right now. Let’s see how long we give her visual media attention that’s NOT ultimately about how she looks. Oh, that’s right, we never did.
–Katherine G. Fry