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Susan Boyle and the Idolatry of Perfection

Posted in Access and Disability, and Politics and Public Affairs

I avoided what’s being called the Susan Boyle Phenomenon as long as I could. I first learned about it from distant acquaintances on Twitter, then from some fellow book club members. More links followed, all pointing to a video of a woman appearing on an American Idol-like TV show called Britain’s Got Talent. Words like “amazing”, “inspiring” and “it gave me chills” accompanied each link, along with an admonition that I “must watch this!”

The trouble with “amazing” and “inspiring” is that they are most often applied to disabled people by their non-disabled observers. You’ll have to trust me on this one, folks. It’s kind of like using “girl” in reference to a grown woman. Alarm bells go off until and unless some context is applied. To be amazing is to accomplish something that a “normal” person judges to be impossible for you. To be inspiring is to tug at heart strings; to bring tears, or renewed faith in humanity, just by doing what one’s own inner compass directs. Amazing and inspiring are two of my least favorite words. They evoke shallowness and emotion that is disrespectful of the life force and intellect of the person about whom they are used.

I finally clicked on Susan Boyle when her link came to me from sources I know to not be soft-headed. and I’m glad I did. Like the majority of people who have reacted to this middle-aged, unprepossessing woman’s star turn in front of skeptical judges, I was captivated. and I cried some, too. As it turns out, Ms. Boyle is not physically or mentally disabled, merely ordinary, and outside the normal demo of televised talent contests. and the surprise in the room, from judges and audience, seemed sincere. Great stuff!

As someone who has always disdained the televised talent show TV format, it occurs to me that Ms. Boyle’s triumph is an excellent illustration of what bothers me so much about American Idol and its ilk. Unassuming, less-than-attractive, or odd people brought onto such a show are put there to serve as comic relief, or as punching bags for cynical, mean-spirited judges who apparently get paid by the putdown. Audience members discuss their flaws endlessly, much to the delight of show promoters. Their very presence, and ultimate dismissal serves to reinforce stereotypes and norms about physical beauty and conformity to social norms. Not to mention conformity to the demands of music marketing. Even the people who have a chance to win out, do so by studying to the test; generating the kinds of performances, with the kinds of singing styles expected by the show’s stakeholders. No great guitarist or captivating songwriter wins such a program. It’s pure pop candy; songs we’re al supposed to know, performed on a bare stage. I want to see the band, thank you very much.

Ms. Boyle won because she first presented an unacceptable package to the judges and audience, then shattered their expectations. She could do that only because she had an extraordinary talent. If she had been a singer of middle quality, she would have been laughed off the stage. If she had matched the physical stereotypes of the show and had a middling voice, she might or might not have won, but her story would not be an Internet phenomenon today.

The victory is Ms. Boyle’s. It makes me no more likely to embrace televised talent shows. I hope that she grabs her 15 minutes of fame, and makes it pay off. She will be feted, offered makeovers, interviewed on television, and, depending upon the people around her, will have the chance to make some money and record some music. That’s her dream, and I hope she gets it.


  1. dray

    Nice article, though you are incorrect about one thing. Susan does and has always had some mental limitations. She was deprived of oxygen at birth and has had problems ever since. Watch her interviews, she almost never understands the questions asked, even when they re-ask the same question in preschool terms. I’m not saying being mentally disabled is a bad thing, only that she is in fact mentally disabled. Having learning and comprehension problems due to oxygen deprivation at birth fits the definition. Go read her story.

    April 18, 2009
  2. linda

    I am so happy for her . She got on stage just like anyone of us ordinary hard working middle class people and just belted it out. I enjoyed the look on Simons face because she wasn’t polished- welcome to the real world.She is fantastic and she does not need to change who she was to satisfy anyone else.I played her new cd for my preschool children at rest and it was fantastic. They made me play it over and over.
    Koodo”s to you Susan- don’t ever change- we like you as you are.

    April 24, 2010

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