I watched the first episode of Britain’s Got Talent and like many others was moved by the powerful performance of Susan Boyle and her rendition of “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables. Much discussion has gone on since in the news media regarding Susan or rather the public reaction to Susan, and what she has come to represent in a society obsessed with an idea of conventional beauty which the majority of us fall short of.
Tanya Gold writing last week in the Guardian newspaper, asks the question “Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?”. She points out that “men are allowed to be ugly and talented” but that we expect the women who appear on our screens to have the requisite beauty to match their talent. “This lust for homogeneity in female beauty means that when someone who doesn’t resemble a diagram in a plastic surgeon’s office steps up to the microphone, people fall about and treat us to despicable sub-John Gielgud gestures of amazement” writes Gold.
Writing in the Sun newspaper, Fergus Shanahan opines that “Susan Boyle has a talent but doesn’t have conventional glam. Everyone loves her not so much because of her voice but because we don’t expect that voice to be possessed by such a Plain Jane. Fixed in our consciousness is the delusion that talent equals beauty.” Shanahan suspects that ” if she’d had been drop-dead gorgeous she wouldn’t be so popular” and believes that, while she has become an “emblem of the downtrodden and the forgotten who are, of course, the true Les Miserables of our times”, she is actually being patronised, not praised by the public. Certainly as I listened to the judges comments directly after her performance on TV, I found them to be quite patronising, but I also saw something heroic in Susan capturing the public’s attention in the way that she has. I like how Minette Marin writing in the Times calls it the ” story of the undefeated spirit…a story of transformation” and sees in Susan the “symbolic power of a fairy story”.
“She, in fairy-story terms, is the ugly old lady, despised by all, who turns out to be a beloved and powerful princess; the spell that sets her free and makes her great is her magic talent. And the special magic of this talent is that it is makes no distinctions of age or beauty or disability; anyone might have this magic power, whether or not anyone else knows. Aspirations and dreams need not always grow old, though we must. It is a fairy story to make grown men and women weep, and it did “.
Continuing with the fairy tale theme of transformation, Kate Holmquist writing in the Irish Times observes that Susan “sang from her well-earned soul, from humility, from a technique honed with a teacher now revealed as great, and despite heavy-browed eyes and jowls made for radio, Susan Boyle became beautiful in performance in an unearthly way that only true artists achieve.”