Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Susan Boyle Media Manipulation

When my dad sent me the You Tube video of Susan Boyle, my first reaction was a tugging of the heart strings and trying to hold back tears. Yet, even while my primary emotions were being played with, not far behind that I was realizing that the editing of the show was quite manipulative. Perhaps this is a result of 4 years of film school, but it was plainly obvious Britain's Got Talent was editing this moment for all it could get. A large part of me felt manipulated. Here watch this and tell me what you think:

The more I thought about her, the more disturbed I became. Why is the audience so mean? Because she's not thin, young and pretty? Why are the judges so stunned? Because a plain person isn't supposed to be talented? It's such a surprise to hear her voice come out of her "frumpy" face? Is this what we've come to that we are so surprised when beauty comes in a plain package? UGH. She would never have caused such hype if she came in a young and pretty package. Instead, the media has decided to latch on to her looks, her virginity, her inept social skills (hip wiggle and inability to remember the word "village") and sell it to us as some hugely incongruous and odd package and we are eating it up! We should be ashamed of ourselves!

The message of the show seems to be that older, frumpy women with bushy eyebrows deserve to be ridiculed unless by some amazing chance they happen to be able to sing.

2 thought provoking articles from the Huffington Post:
Dennis Palumbo

Like millions of viewers, I was thrilled and moved when 47-year-old Susan Boyle wowed the judges and audience on Britain's Got Talent with her superb singing. As everyone knows by now, the unmarried, "never been kissed" woman from a small village was greeted by both the audience and the talent show's judges with derision when she first took the stage. Looking matronly in her somewhat frumpy dress and unkempt hair, her appearance initially elicited smug, condescending and even cruel smirks, smiles and chuckles. What could this "un-cool," plain-spoken woman have to offer? What right did she have to share the stage with all those young, pretty, talented people?

Then Susan opened her mouth and sang. And her voice was so powerful, so achingly beautiful, so full of yearning, that even the usually heartless Simon Cowell was blown away. As were the other judges, and the audience, all of whom gave Susan a standing ovation. And now, online and elsewhere, Susan's voice, and the story of her triumph on that stage, are known throughout the world.
But I can't help wondering, what would have been the reaction if Susan Boyle couldn't sing?

What would the judges and the audience have thought, and said, had her voice been a creaky rasp, or an out-of-tune shriek? Would she still possess that "inner beauty?" Would we still acknowledge that the derisive treatment she received before performing was callous, insensitive and cruel?

The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?

But I have no doubt that, had she performed poorly, Simon Cowell would be rolling his eyes still. And the audience would have hooted and booed with the relish of Roman spectators at the Colosseum. And that Susan Boyle's appearance on the show would still be on YouTube, but as an object of derision and ridicule.

So let's not be too quick to congratulate ourselves for taking her so fully to our hearts. We should've done that anyway, as we should all those we encounter who fall outside the standards of youth and beauty as promulgated by fashion magazines, gossip sites, and hit TV shows.

We should've done that anyway, before Susan Boyle sang a single note.

And from Mark Blakenship's article "2 Reasons Susan Boyle Means So Much To Us":
(1) Susan Boyle rebukes the bitchy cynicism that often defines reality talent shows.

By now, it's an unavoidable trope: The unusual-looking, weirdly-mannered outcast shambles on stage for an audition on a show like American Idol or America's Got Talent and promptly makes a fool of herself. Her embarrassment is played for tawdry laughs, and viewers are encouraged to feel superior to her and so feel better about themselves.

And obviously, the producers of Britain's Got Talent know that. They introduce Boyle with the goofy music reserved for the usual freak, and they show her talking about how she's never been kissed and how she lives with a cat. The audience audibly mocks her as soon as she takes the stage, which encourages all of us at home to sharpen our claws.

After that, her singing---which is very good, if not quite excellent--- naturally causes an uproar. We've been primed for dog food, but we get a burger, so it tastes like steak.

This narrative is just as manipulative as anything else on reality television, of course. Boyle could have been presented as a winner from the very start, but that would've ruined the drama.
But as fabricated as it is, her on-camera arc is undeniably moving.

That's because when we laugh at someone for being a freak, we're laughing out of fear. We're laughing because we want to prove that we are not like that loser over there. If we can shame the people who don't belong, then we can prove that we do.

By participating in the narrative that television has constructed for her, by cheering her on and watching her video over and over, we can not only feel good about graciously welcoming an outsider, but also feel relief for helping create a world that will someday welcome us.

(2) Susan Boyle isn't young.

The Susan Boyle Story is even more powerful because Boyle isn't a geeky teenager. You can look at the most maladjusted adolescent and think, "Well, she'll grow out of it. There's still hope." But when a woman is an outsider at forty-seven, it's easy to think it's too late---that she's doomed to a permanent life on the fringes. That's certainly the pervasive pop cultural story: That "older and single and cat-friendly" is the same as "failure."

Watching an older person---especially an older person who doesn't seem very hip---prove she still has time to emerge from her cocoon is exciting because it reminds us that we can still sort through our own problems.No matter how old we are, we're dealing with something, and it's refreshing to be told that that's okay.

Susan Boyle has a lovely, amateur's voice. It's hard to tell though, with all the emotional, heart string tugging edits on the show. For comparison's sake, here is Ruthie Henshall singing the same song. I think she blows Susan Boyle out of the water, but since we are not "set up" by the editing and TV-land reality show manipulations, it's hard to differentiate.

Can you tell the difference?

Oh, and I'm not "against" Susan Boyle. I think she is delightful, funny, sweet, and AWESOME for refusing a make over! I hope she gets a good lawyer becasue they are going to make millions off of her, and her naivete might pave the way to be used more so than she already has been.


Angela said...

I agree with you totally. She was underestimated due to the industry's definition of beauty and talent. In my life, it's common to see talent in all forms and packages.
It's no big deal in my church to see the big boned girl, one the lady with the bad hairstyle or teeth bellting away in amazement.

I'm friends with several people who don't fit the Hollywood image but have amazing talent. The world is all crazy and backwards up when it comes talent.

Jem said...

This is exactly how I feel too, it's been bugging me for days. I'm glad she has the fame, but I almost wish she didn't - it's not for the right reasons. Her voice is good, incredible for someone with no training (actually I don't know if she's had no training, but still it is extremely good) but there are lots of people with equally good voices, and she's only famous because everyone thought she'd be crap. That bugs me, although if it doesn't bug her, good for her.

boomeranne said...

What is astounding is not that she can sing despite her prejudice-bending looks, but that she has "earned" the degree of instantaneous fame that she has based on our catching ourselves off-guard. It's like our entire culture has admitted via 10 million YouTube hits and features by every newsmaker in the Western world how shallow we are. It's embarrassing.

All I could think of was, that poor woman must be thinking to herself, 'gee I thought I was just a fairly normal person in my wee town in Scotland, but apparently I must be pretty darn repulsive judging by the world's reaction to me as if they had just seen a hyena sing.'"

It's not just embarrassing (for us, not Susan) but it's shameful and very telling about who we are as a society.


Anonymous said...

I do not agree with every comment you make about Susan Doyle.
When i listen to talent shows like this i do not watch, i am not in the same room as the tv and i just listen. Susan has a great woice, i think she sings the song better than Ruthie Henshall (Ruthie has a bit immature wice) and Judy Kuhn.
She can be compared with Lea Salonga, but without the nasal part.
I agree on the parts about how people judge by appearance,
It is ridiculous to think that only the young and beatiful has talent.
The human race has disproved this as long as we has existed.

Regards from Norway

Michelle J said...

A friend of mine texted me with the link to Susan Boyle's video at 10:30 one evening shortly before she became such a media sensation. He had been wowed and wanted to share his "wow" moment with me. The next day (I was in no hurry to see a clip from a reality show) I clicked the link and watched the video. I sent him a text which said: She has a lovely voice. That's it. That's all I thought. I never considered any other response or noticed anyone elses response to her. I just didn't care and I didn't understand my friend's enthusiasm. When, in the days following, Ms. Boyle went on to become a total sensation, I was surprised. I still am. I couldn't figure out why anyone cared. I suppose it's as you say-- she's ugly and so it's somehow amazing to the leeming masses that she can sing. It's stupid and ridiculous. I notcied she was unattractive, but it never occured to me that because of that she wouldn't have talent. Did anyone really think she couldn't sing simply based on her appearance or was it the judges reaction that led the unthinking (aka leeming) public?

Single PAP said...

her voice is lovely.

emaye said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts after the 12-year-old boy's performance "blew her out of the water."

J-momma said...

i didn't really think she was that great. i mean, way better than i could ever do, but i've heard way better. i just don't get it. is her voice better because it doesn't look like it came from her? if it was a young pretty girl, would she have been as popular? it's starting to turn into a gimmick to me.

Sandra Knight said...

i guess you heard of mandisa on american idol, she was rejected b/c of her weight. but she is a great singer. point being why are they even discussing her weight? sk

Etherglide said...

Im a little disturbed to hear you talk about Susan Boyle's "inept social skills". Hav'nt we all struggled to find a word now and again. And hav'nt we all embarrassed ourselves at least once in our lifeline?

Adopting1Soon said...

Etherglide, you totally missed my point.