Thursday, April 30, 2009

Susan Boyle's mirror for society, French Elle and Western Body Image

How has this happened? It's Thursday, exactly a week since I blogged last. Bad blogger, bad, bad blogger. Oh well, I refuse to have blogging guilt.

Besides, I know exactly how it happened. I started thinking about something that has been bugging me and I fixated on it because that's what I do. Then there was work, writing, homeschooling, a long birth, a conference/workshops and feeling under-the-weather (oh dear, maybe it's the swine flu! I'm kidding, I'm kidding!). Excuses I know but I am here now, finally deciding to put down into words the issue that was troubling me.

Unless you have been on a deserted island, a self-imposed media fast, or suffering through a power outage of hurricane proportions, I'm sure you have seen the video of Susan Boyle singing for her audition for Britain's Got Talent. She has a beautiful voice. Such a comment coming from me is no small thing, being a classically trained singer myself as well as a vocal instructor I am nothing short of a snob when it comes to voices, well, voices that garner recording contracts and international attention anyway. I do like regular, everyday people kind of voices, the kind that are unaltered by recording software and over zealous production. Well trained voices and raw, happy voices (like the kind heard at birthday celebrations, churches and ball games) are my favorites. In case you are wondering, I don't care for most of the voices considered worth listening to these days. Ms. Susan Boyle's though is really quite lovely, I could listen to her repeatedly. So it was with surprise that I found myself cringing through the video featuring this woman's amazing voice. It wasn't her singing that caused me to squirm but something else and I couldn't put my finger on it. I heard people talk about her, read Facebook reactions to the video, saw and read a few interviews with the new singing sensation. Still, it took me a few days to pinpoint where the problem was.

I have heard many great voices of all different varieties and I look forward to hearing many more in my lifetime. The odd thing to me is that many of them were just as beautiful if not more beautiful that Ms. Boyle's yet they never have received such attention so quickly. Perhaps they haven't been in the right place at the right time or they choose to not pursue their chance at fame on reality TV. Or perhaps there was something else at play. Gradually, after watching interviews that increased my discomfort with Ms. Boyle's situation I began to understand. People were genuinely enjoying her voice, that was not the problem, the problem was that they were shocked when it came from her. There was laughter when Ms. Boyle walked onto that stage and the judges' faces expressed knowing looks of annoyance at what they were certain was to come. Based on Ms. Boyle's appearance and age, she was judged in a matter of seconds as something to be laughed at, dismissed, her entertainment value solely for mocking, or poking fun of if you will. It was determined instantly that her talent was intrinsically tied to what was deemed her unfashionable image. The video of her performance became an overnight internet sensation, garnering more viewings of any video before now not because her voice was that remarkable but because her voice came out of a middle aged, fluffy, frumpy, awkward woman. Susan Boyle quite innocently held up a mirror for all of us to examine ourselves, if we dare to look and can see deeper than our quest to look like the super stars we idolize.

I want to be wrong, I want to believe that the laughter that greeted her when she walked on stage was a coincidence, that her rocketing fame has nothing to do with her appearance, nothing to do with people gawking at her as though she was some kind of freak show. But I don't think I am. Why else would Larry King and others point out that she doesn't look the part? Ask her if she's planning a make-over? Reporters write that she must have recently gone shopping when she was spotted sporting an article of clothing more trendy than she had previously been seen wearing? In fact, one of the judges of the show was reported as saying Ms. Boyle shouldn't get a make-over or change her look because she would then lose some of her "charm." I agree, Ms. Boyle shouldn't change her look but not because she would lose some of her "charm" but because in doing so she would be joining the ranks of so many and end up losing herself. Her voice is not contingent on her body shape or appearance, she's already proven that. Ms. Boyle already refused to buy the lie to "look the part," perhaps now we could follow her lead and refuse to buy the lie that says a person's value, skill, and talent are tied to their hair, make-up, figure and some arbitrary fashion police. I believe that Susan Boyle has a wonderful voice but what truly makes her exceptional is her courage to step out on that stage unapologetic for who she is and I hope that even though she has had a bit of a make-over recently, she will continue to let her voice speak for itself. Maybe it is because I have spent time in the world of opera where waif thin body shapes and airbrushed looks rank far behind the actual voice and talent that this rubs me the wrong way. Or maybe, just maybe, it's the hunch that we have it wrong. Not only should we avoid judging a book by it's cover (I'm not particularly fond of that saying) but perhaps we should stop judging covers as being all a person is truly comprised of. That it is acceptable at all to laugh at and dismiss a person when they walk out on a stage or into a room before you know anything about them, their talent or if they are even there to make you laugh simply because they don't look what we have allowed ourselves to believe is required to be talented, smart, original, or beautiful is by far what is truly ugly in our society. This is an ignorant prejudice that runs deep and we are far too consumed with our own reflections to even see. And I won't even touch the commentary this is on our world's view of women, not here, not now. I'll save that for another day. (Ok, but real quick, ask yourself "what if she had been a man?" Running, running away from this now.)

I appreciated the contrast highlighted in a blog post by Julie Neumann last week on the Women's Rights blog hosted by comparing the media senastion of Susan Boyle and the French publication of Elle magazine. There are plenty of words here but if you would like to see some of the images from French Elle's edition Stars Sans Fards (Stars without make-up) check it out and read Julie's thoughts on how these two examples challenge our view of body image and hope for not just women, but all of society. Step up to the mirror that Susan has held out to us and inspect your heart, your character and how you determine the value of others.

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