I’m finding the story about Susan Boyle, a “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant whose audition video has been very popular on Youtube, interesting.
The video (which can be found here) is great fun to watch, because Susan Boyle herself is very appealing, her voice is great, and because it’s always satisfying watching a high point in someone’s life.
But primarily, the video’s fun because everyone likes watching the underdog kick ass.
But the weird thing is, why is she such an underdog? Partly it’s because she’s not TV-pretty (Boyle herself was apparently dismayed by how she looked on TV), and TV has taught us for years that only thin, pretty people have any talent. Partly it’s because she’s heavyset (at least by TV standards, which are harsher for women than men), and partly it’s because she’s nearly fifty. I agree with Crowfoot, who in Shakesville comments wrote:
This has made me bawl my eyes out. I’m also fat and in my forties and feel ugly and I know no one would take me seriously as a performer. I also gave up on acting because of the sexism and the lookism. So watching her up there blowing them all away in the face of their bigotry.. *sniff* The sexism/sizism/lookism displayed by the audience and the judges just breaks my heart. How dare they laugh at her because she isn’t skinny and young and beautiful. Douchebags. How many people’s lives are diminished by this crap? We are a stupid stupid stupid species.
Even more than that, however, I think people were shocked because of the class markers she carries — in her voice, her attitude, and her hair and clothes. Ms Boyle’s presentation fairly screams “working class,” and people don’t expect working class to do good work. Colette Douglas Home writes:
Susan [was] roundly patronised by such mega-talents as [Britain's Got Talent judges] Amanda Holden and the aforementioned Morgan, who told her: “Everyone laughed at you but no-one is laughing now. I’m reeling with shock.” Holden added: “It’s the biggest wake-up call ever.”
The answer is that only the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person. [...]
She lived with her parents in a four-bedroom council house and, when her father died a decade ago, she cared for her mother and sang in the church choir.
It was an unglamorous existence. She wasn’t the glamorous type – and being a carer isn’t a glamorous life, as the hundreds of thousands who do that most valuable of jobs will testify. [...]
Then, when a special occasion comes along, they might reach, as Susan did, for the frock they bought for a nephew’s wedding. They might, as she did, compound the felony of choosing a colour at odds with her skin tone and an unflattering shape with home-chopped hair, bushy eyebrows and a face without a hint of make-up.
I’m not above judging people by their presentation. Presentation is one of the ways we assure each other that we know what we’re doing. If someone hasn’t learned how to present themselves professionally, we assume that they also haven’t learned how to do their work professionally. And sometimes that’s justified.
The trouble is, a “professional presentation” is bound up in a lot of things — voice, grooming, body shape, clothing — which are in turn connected to class, to race, to body shape, to gender presentation, to disability status, etc.. None of these are hurdles that it’s impossible for (say) a fat Black person auditioning, or applying for a job, to overcome, if they have sufficient talent and drive. But these are hurdles that well-off, abled, gender-normed, thin white men don’t face.
And for the judges and audience to be so utterly shocked that a woman whose presentation isn’t “professional” sings beautifully… it’s says something pretty sad.
But that Ms Boyle was such a hit — and that millions of people have viewed her on YouTube — maybe that says something optimistic. Maybe it says that there are a hell of a lot of us who are sick of the sick, slick standards TV promotes. That would be nice.