I know those sneers. I’ve heard them too
Susan Boyle’s worldwide fame is a triumph for all those who have ever been judged by appearances
- The Observer, Sunday 19 April 2009
The first email about Susan Boyle was forwarded to me by a friend who works for a human rights organisation. Her message fumed that Boyle had been “disrespected as a woman”. The second email came from a retired neighbour who was unnerved by the ageism on display from Simon Cowell and the other judges. The third was from a vegan who despises the cosmetics industry for experimenting on animals and was delighted that Boyle hadn’t worn a speck of make-up that anyone could tell. The fourth was from a law school classmate who saw her success as the apotheosis of a just order, the fifth from an Indian friend who deemed it a liberatory moment for persons of low caste.
Tears, delight, awe. We’ve all seen our portion since Boyle marched on to the stage ofBritain’s Got Talent, did that cheerful little hip roll and opened her mouth to sing.
The enchantment she generated – 20 million hits so far – is largely attributable to her heavenly voice. But the great hook of the YouTube clip in its entirety is that glorious voice rang as ultimate reprimand. Boyle is a phenomenon because she acquitted herself with such dignity even as the judges treated her with such hostility and open condescension.
Her supposedly “unlikely” triumph has all the elements of a compelling fairy tale: vulnerable virgin, the unassuming frock from another era, bullies straining like hellhounds at their chains, a cat named Pebbles no less, and a throbbing heart of purest gold. Indeed, YouTube’s opening image of Boyle innocently, hungrily, consuming a sandwich in the background of the green room is nothing less than the modern equivalent of Cinderella smudged with cinders.
My fairy tale construction of Boyle’s performance idealises her as a black American woman revealed as princess. I know that must sound like a stretch, but as a black American woman, I live in a world where the colour of one’s skin is at least as powerful an indicator of status as whether Boyle wore open-toed white heels with sheer black hosiery and let her hair go grey.
So to me there’s an important link among the otherwise incoherent metrics of race, class, gender, age and so forth. Boyle’s ability to up-end conventional preconceptions is akin to what the “black is beautiful” movement of the 1970s tried to accomplish: a debunking of surface-based biases in favour of deeper commitments to fairness, intelligence, courage, humility, patience, re-examined aesthetics and the willingness to listen.
I grew up in a culture of racial hierarchy, where being black and female automatically meant that you were oxen-like, stupid, undesired. Such measures are insidiously, seductively easy and they are powerful; hence I spent my life grasping for that Susan Boyle moment when I might open my mouth and rock the world to its foundations. Yes, I admit, this is an impossibly romantic figuration. But this dreamy yearning for visibility is what purchases communion with those millions of Boyle’s other fans, still rapidly increasing.
Boyle’s rendering of I Dreamed a Dream was a powerful artistic comeback to the smirks with which she was greeted. But unlike a fairy tale, her story continues to unfold in real time, and whatever magic she deployed to wipe the contempt off the judges’ faces for a few seconds began to diminish as they regained their composure.
“When you stood up there with that cheeky grin, everyone was laughing at you,” marvelled Piers Morgan, with vulgar grandiosity and encompassing certainty. “Everyone was against you,” agreed Amanda Holden, with sympathetic cruelty. “You’re a little tiger, aren’t you?” simpered Simon Cowell.
Then began what quickly turned into a mighty media river of faint praise. Good Lord, no one would have ever guessed it! Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover! How “surprisingly” wonderful she was on the inside, particularly given, ahem, the outside!
For all Boyle’s success, this relentless narrative of “who’d have thought it” must be painful. One of the loveliest aspects of Boyle’s demeanour was how straightforward, lively and confident she was. I should think it might be hard for her ever to be so unaffected again. Cowell and his snarky team hold up a distorting mirror that is often quite irresistible; it invites its victims to internalise the unkind gaze of the supercilious. Thus is born the etiology of embarrassment. Did Boyle really see herself as old, dowdy, unfashionable and undesirable until she was told so, in public, in no uncertain terms?
In subsequent television appearances, Boyle has been made up, gussied up, fluffed, coiffed and crimped. Debates rage about whether she should stay the way she was at the magic moment of first discovery, forever the ugly duckling on the cusp of swanhood. I am not one who believes that she must never change – it seems rather inevitable, for better or worse. But the reason Boyle is a heroine has little to do with her transforming any aspect of herself. Rather, it was she who transformed the audience, it was she who challenged their beliefs.
Boyle’s lesson is not that she is a book whose “cover” deceived people. That’s as crass as the supposedly well-meaning comments I sometimes heard growing up: that I might look black on the outside, but I was nice and white inside. Rather, the problem was the audience’s self-deception. Dismissing her – or anyone – based on careless expectations about what age or lack of employment supposedly signify is the habit of mind common to all forms of prejudice.
Those who lead us to that understanding open our hearts to the most sublime sense of connection. It’s why many of us didn’t just cheer when Barack Obama was elected, but wept like babies. And when Boyle sang, we didn’t just root for her, we wept for all the slights that ever were.
So Boyle should be able to wear what she wants, whether a canvas feedbag or an evening gown. The true measure of her success must be our gratitude for the mirror she held up to us.
• Patricia Williams is professor of law at Columbia University