Why the furore?

So, yes, along with the rest of the entire planet, I’ve seen Susan Boyle’s performance in BGT 09 here. Go look already if you’ve been living under a rock.

I saw the video myself, and I have to be the only one human being who wasn’t shocked or totally shaken by the performance (there! I said it!). I liked her voice and loved how she sang that particular song, no doubt the performance was great. But nothing before she started singing had led me to believe that she would or would not be good. Unlike the audience there, and the judges (especially Piers), who seemed to expect her to fail – doing what, exactly? screeching? fubbing her lines? falling on her face? what??!!!?

Of all the various critiques and analyses I’ve read and seen, this one at Kate Harding’s by fillyjonk is what I recommend to crystallize half the world’s thoughts (the other half can’t articulate why they like the video). (S)he says in the above link:

In a culture that values youth, wealth, and carefully-maintained femininity, this woman is like a cheat sheet for “don’t take me seriously” signifiers. She’s over 40, she’s ungroomed, she’s on the fat side, and her accent denotes low class. As it turns out, she also has learning disabilities and has never been on a date. She flies in the face of what we expect out of a performer and what we, as a culture, esteem in a woman. The judges respond accordingly: they snigger and mock, and her confident posturing just makes her (in their eyes) more ridiculous, more dissonant. Dissonant because confidence and sass don’t compute from a woman who falls so short of the ideal.

So that was it – unlike everyone there in the video and outside who’d been writing about the performance, for me her doing well was no surprise, no big shock, no re-thinking of mental frames. I should give myself credit for this – not wonder what’s wrong – for not taking those external ‘signifiers’ so seriously. It should – and does – bring me pride in my judgment all over again (e.g. in not thinking Hillary was cold-hearted and conventional and even evil and would eat live puppies because she was old or short or ugly).

This incident reminds me of the time in our college physics lab when I had a surreal – and unintendedly honest – discussion with a friend about how I had no idea how to evaluate beauty: I didn’t understand what I was supposed to find pretty and what not. And she asked me, a bit disingeniously, “you don’t see any difference in me and Gauri ?”(Gauri was a not-conventionally good-looking classmate of ours, dark and scrawny and buck-toothed). I said – I know you’re pretty because you’re popular, because of the way the canteen guy looks at you when you walk by, by how strangers smile at you, and with Gauri, all of that is different. And that was true, I knew Gauri was smarter than her but badly lacking in self-confidence. I knew enough about beauty by then to know that the low self-confidence was probably a result of her not being pretty – and it also exacerbated the problem, because low confidence helps a beautiful girl be more accessible, but makes the ugly ones looks even less like they’re ‘worth it’. And I was beginning to personally discover how being full of gumption and charm and being well-spoken and bold and being groomed but also blasé about your looks can make up for not having any (and so’ve Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant, evidently in very different ways from me).

So, back to my friend – she was shocked, and repeated, “so you can’t tell the difference between Aishwarya Rai and KSG” (KSG was a professor of ours, who wasn’t supposed to be very pretty – and that’s putting it mildly). This time I said “I know KSG is a bad teacher and not smart or really competent, but that’s my quibble with her as a person, not because of the way she looks”. My frank admission then became a big discussion point for a long, long time and led to many, many sessions of ‘leg-pulling’ over warm winter chai discussions in the Hostel too. I believe it even found its way into my scrapbook at the end of college days. But no one really believed me then, and some parts of me didn’t believe myself either: I was smart enough to subconsciously pick up on who was conventionally good-looking and who wasn’t, because the non-beauty metrics (e.g. popularity, confidence, preening, clothes, etc.) are such good indicators of beauty and self-image of beauty in our world. I’d trained myself by then in life to quickly read everyone’s signals and analyses, and even if I didn’t have any bias I sure acted like I did. In other words – at the same time that I was learning what clothes to wear and how to behave so I could fake being pretty, I was also learning how to behave I could fake my knowledge of what “pretty” was.

Susan Boyle’s video brought me back these memories, and my pride in my own judgment. Even thirty-odd years on, evidently, my knowledge is still fake, I’m still pretending :-). I’ve not internalized expectations and stereotypes, and so, like everyone else is saying, I can say “Susan Boyle has given me pride in myself” – for entirely different reasons, and mean it.

Thanks, Susan!

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