Let's Stop Gushing about Susan Boyle Long Enough to Take a Hard Look at Ourselves

Everywhere I look this week, all I hear about is Susan Boyle, the British woman who wowed the judges of "Britian's Got Talent" with her performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" from Les Miserables.  She's got a great voice, a nice story and a wonderfully pleasant, funny personality.  

But that's not why we're talking about her.  There are lots of great singers with great stories on these sorts of shows. No, we're talking about her because her performance revealed our prejudice, namely that ordinary or unattractive people have nothing to offer. Ms. Boyle, as we all know by know, is not your normal talent/reality show contestant; she's not 20 with pre-whitened teeth, porcelain skin and perfect hair. She is 47 and very ordinary -- like most of us, really.  And when we first saw her we assumed she was a joke. 


Since then it seems the whole Western world has gotten swept up over her performance. Commentators everywhere are swooning over what Ms. Boyle's performance can teach us.  Generally, these musings wander through the innocuous life-affirming daisies of how we're all beautiful and loved by God, we all have gifts, we are all Susan Boyle, etc.  All nice, all good. 

But most of which avoids the dark and important underbelly of the whole thing: that we consciously or unconsciously conflate value with ability. People are worthy of my attention insofar as they are attractive; otherwise they aren't even on my radar, or they're a set-up for a joke.  And rather than challenge that notion, the way Ms. Boyle's performance is being presented actually reinforces it.  Why are we paying attention to her, after all? Because she, too, has a talent. She can sing.  

I admit, I'm the wet blanket at this post-resurrection sunshine picnic beach party. I just think it's important to see, the story here is not just about Susan Boyle or God or whomever else we might want to use to whitewash things; it's about us. And it's not a pretty picture.  

But seeing that is the only way to change. 



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9 years 9 months ago
I see it in a more 'glass half full' way. Yes I agree that a part of the story is about 'ugly/old people can't do great things' but surely the fact that Susan Boyle showed us how untrue that statement is is significant in itself. The big thrust of the unfolding story for me was more about how many people enjoyed and were moved by an individual realising a personal and longstanding dream. In all the comment I've read, the huge majority of respondents were openly, uncynically and selflessly delighted to be able to watch and share Susan's moment, and I think that shows that there are millions of people out there who can see someone elses good fortune and take real pleasure in it without feeling jealous or envious of it. It reinforced my personal belief that there's a lot of genuinely good people out there! :)
9 years 9 months ago
Howdy Jim, Pard, you kinda hit the nail square on the head with this here article. It's sure been interestin' readin' the many articles that have been written on Susan Boyle...a good many people are wired in such a way as to not be able to understand what you are saying here. No...they think this is entirely about Susan...and her abilities...or her "looks" rather than about us and the real lessons we need to learn. Cynics are coming out of the woodwork now trying their best to tear down the beauty and wonder of Susan's Talent...and of her stunning performance that has captured the heart of the world and lifted us all up. None of these critics understand that this is as much about our failures as it is about Susan's successes. Amanda hit the nail on the head too. "That was the biggest wake up call ever!" Sadly, some will never understand...never see...the lessons they themselves need to learn from this. Your article tries to shed a little light on that...and that's a good thing...yep, it sure is. I hope all Susan Boyle's dreams come true...I know she will one day sing for the Queen, I suspect the Queen is eagerly looking forward to the occasion...we all are. Susan is a profile in courage, and hope, and she has the voice of an Angel...with a wonderful future ahead of her... And, let us hope, that some of us see the lessons we need to learn...as you say, "it's about us. And it's not a pretty picture." Well done, pard. Well done. Adios for now. Talk to ya on down the trail. Wild Ol' Dan
9 years 9 months ago
Susan Boyle the singer did the best thing a singer can ever do, create a moment we'll remember for the rest of our lives. She knew what she wanted to accomplish for that time and place. She followed her training and experience, which are more than most people realize. She knew she was tapping into people's prejudices, she had a life time of experience with that. She bushwacked us, fair and square. The reason you cried is she mixed emotions, she took a sad song and sang it as a triumphant anthem. This is not magic or luck, it's skillful programing combined with excellent singing. What no one could anticipate is she didn't just make it to the next round, she created a global sensation that has almost no precedent. Any woman who does not look like a Victoria's Secret super model can relate to what Susan Boyle accomplished. That's about 99.99% of women and even the super models admire her because they know their looks won't last forever. May be Susan Boyle will turn out to be the Rosa Parks of singing.
9 years 9 months ago
Thank you so much for this reflection, Father. I don't think you are being a wet blanket; I for one couldn't agree more, especially with the last part of your criticism of the idea that "people are worthy of my attention insofar as they are attractive; otherwise they aren't even on my radar, or they're a set-up for a joke." And that "rather than challenge that notion, the way Ms. Boyle's performance is being presented actually reinforces it." The set-up for a joke: that seems to me the perfect way to describe this. I wish the very best to Ms. Boyle, but I have to admit that I was too nauseated by the stultifying set-up which that show employs (the ironic shots of judges rolling their eyes like cynical little one-liners, then without a moment's notice the manipulative soaring overhead shots of an audience on its feet applauding and the close-ups of teenage girls wiping tears from their eyes and the aforementioned judges mouthing "wow") to feel as though anything, including Ms. Boyle's performance, could possibly be *genuine* by the time she started to sing. The "moral lesson" of the whole episode is simply cloying because it reduces the poor woman to a massive cliche at the center of a whole parade of cliches. To make matters worse, the episode is nearly a shot-by-shot redux of the Paul Potts phenomenon a year or so back. Maybe I am the cynical one, but it seems to me that the producers would only feel comfortable pulling that one if they were implicitly justifying themselves by saying, "Look, we found someone even unlikelier (that is, homelier) than Paul Potts! Let's cue the orchestra and the soaring overhead shots again!" The whole affair kind of saddens me. America needs redemptive moral lessons, but they'll have a hard time coming from mainstream television, because as far as moral lessons go, the form is often just as important as the content. Peace, Nicholas
9 years 9 months ago
Father, I hate to be a wet blanket on YOUR wet blanket, by saying you are not being a wet blanket by stating this. (Clear, yes?) This entry reminds me of the passage in Scripture where Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus ''called her on it'' regarding her, er, irregular domestic situation. Because of the fact He did so, she was able to see herself steadily and clearly and was then able to see what Christ wanted her to see. A painful realization births a new understanding. AMDG,
9 years 9 months ago
Your comments,Fr. McDermott are very germane, I think. Similar views have been carried in the British broadsheet press by mostly female columnists who often would be on the opposite side to most of the the views of a Ctholic priest.
9 years 9 months ago
Kate Smith was no beauty. We used to have celeb's that looked like normal people. When did this all change. I love to watch foreign movies as the people look real!!
9 years 9 months ago
I'm a DRE and father of 3 very young children. I have been working on 1st Eucharist, Confirmation, budget, contracts and closing liturgy. In my free time I bathe the children, put them to bed, drive one to school, pick up babysitters, and ''discuss'' things with my loving wife.... I had not heard of Susan Boyle, or Britains got talent until this article. Thanks for the information...back to work!
9 years 9 months ago
One quick question: What if Ms. Boyle had a terrible singing voice? Would anyone have loved her this much then?
9 years 9 months ago
Jim McDermott, S.J. "Everywhere I look this week, all I hear about is Susan Boyle". You must lead a very cloistered life. You should get more often. Is this what happens when priests gave up the Breviary?
9 years 9 months ago
What you have said needed very much to be said (even if you did manage to clobber us with the message), so I thank you. Yet, I still can't help but feel uplifted that the underdog moved up front, pass the ones to whom we would normaly give more credit. There is a lesson to be learned here, However, I fear that the lesson will be "don't judge a book by its cover, as there may be a great gift there". I am more concern about the opportunity to learn the deeper, more transendence lesson; that we are willing not to give value to only those who "have something to offer". I would like to believe that we, particularly those of us who profess to be Christian, would be willing to reconize and give the Susan Boyles of the world, value even when they don't have such a gift. If we don't then the lesson we will learn will be limiting no matter how uplifting it is.
9 years 8 months ago
The corollary to her--and with oddly similar timing for those who were paying attention--is the Craigslist killer in Boston. Every news story seemed to say that he was ''attractive,'' ''handsome,'' ''good-looking,'' and that, somehow, seemed to add to the shock of his deeds.


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