The latest viral video comes from the TV show Britain’s Got Talent and it features Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables. Part of what makes it sociologically interesting is the response by the judges and audience. When she first appears, clearly they don’t expect much, but when she starts to belt it out, the shock on their faces is obvious and the applause is immediate. Why should they be so surprised? She doesn’t look the part:
(I see that YouTube is not allowing this video to be embedded. Just click on the the video above twice and it will take you to YouTube where you can still view it.)
An article from the Vancouver Sun, “Susan Boyle: Unemployed 47-year-old virgin becomes overnight music superstar,” describes her this way:
When 47-year-old small town spinster Susan Boyle stepped on to the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and announced she was unemployed, had never been married and “never been kissed, actually,” few in the audience would have wondered why. With unkempt hair and Leonid Breshnev eyebrows, and mention of her ten-year-old cat “Pebbles,” the Blackburn, Scotland lass resembled basically every other reality TV talent show timewaster who talks big and delivers nothing but personal humiliation on a national stage.
Another article about the performance from The Herald, titled “The beauty that matters is always on the inside,” describes the initial response this way:
The moment the reality show’s audience and judging panel saw the small, shy, middle-aged woman, they started to smirk. When she said she wanted a professional singing career to equal that of Elaine Paige, the camera showed audience members rolling their eyes in disbelief. They scoffed when she told Simon Cowell, one of the judges, how she’d reached her forties without managing to develop a singing career because she hadn’t had the opportunity. Another judge, Piers Morgan, later wrote on his blog that, just before she launched into I Dreamed a Dream, the 3000-strong audience in Glasgow was laughing and the three judges were suppressing chuckles.
The article goes on to ask why people responded this way, and her defiance of age and looks expectations are clear culprits:
The answer is that only the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person.
I think this video would make for interesting discussion regarding how our expectations regarding beauty and youth shape our judgments of others. Do we give people who are “young and beautiful” the benefit of the doubt? We say that beauty is only skin deep, but do we sometimes take it as an indicator for other talents? Might that result in lost opportunity for those who do not or cannot comply with such normative expectations? How might this be different for women versus men? And would the response to her performance be different had she been young and beautiful? Are people in essence giving her more credit because of her age and appearance as if to say, “Wow, look at what that old and average looking woman can do, who would have thought it possible”?