Susan Boyle: The New Face – and Voice! – of the "Spinster Cat Lady"

The lessons we have not yet learned from Susan Boyle

Posted Apr 17, 2009

Count me among the multitudes of the charmed. I, too, loved the story of the woman who walked on stage to the sound of snickering, only to shock and wow them all with the sound of her music. I heart Susan Boyle.

I've also been intrigued by the rising tide of voices proclaiming that, thanks to Susan Boyle, we have learned our lesson: We prejudged her before we heard her sing. We should have known better, and now we do.

Or do we?

I think there are several lessons that have gone unlearned. Here are three of them.

Unlearned Lesson #1: What we still don't see in Susan Boyle's appearance

I'm flipping through my collection of clippings, looking for the descriptions of Susan Boyle's appearance. She's called dowdy, homely, matronly, frumpy, chubby, frizzy, and more. She didn't seem to mind all that much (which, for me, added to her appeal), and even offered her own assessment that she looked "like a garage." What I want to know is, where are the other kinds of descriptors - for example, "interesting"?

Another woman was highlighted intermittently during Susan's performance - judge Amanda Holden. No one would (or should) call Amanda dowdy, pudgy, or matronly. But I saw her as something else: Predictable. She looked like a star - blond, slim, and beautifully dressed. Just what you would expect from someone in her position. Kind of boring, in a way. Even apart from any matters of talent, I just liked watching Susan more.

Unlearned Lesson #2: The ism that slipped under the radar, still again

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. Magazine, said that when Susan got the three thumbs up, "I typed ‘Ageism Be Damned' into the subject line of an email and sent the YouTube link to everyone on my Women's Issues list." Pogrebin also noted that we were all "initially blinded by the entrenched stereotypes of age, class, gender, and Western beauty standards until her book was opened and everyone saw what was inside."

All true enough. But what about singlism?

Unlearned Lesson #3: We're still judging Susan Boyle's life by our values, not hers

Consider this opening paragraph in a story by an Associated Press writer:

"Susan Boyle lives alone in a row house with her cat Pebbles, a drab existence in one of Scotland's poorest regions. She cared for her widowed mother for years, never married and sang in church and at karaoke nights at the pub."

I don't doubt that the AP writer would find that existence drab. But I don't think he's asked Susan Boyle how she views her own life. Maybe she does agree that it is drab. Or maybe she loves her life, with its space both for solitude at home and sociability at the pub. Maybe she sees her own region not as impoverished but as rich in spirit, culture, and community. Maybe her religion is important to her, and singing in church is, in her experience, not the least bit drab. Maybe she feels fortunate to have been able to be there for her mother at a time of such need. Maybe she does not feel at all sorry for herself because she is single.

Let's let Susan Boyle tell her own story. Maybe she will tell it in a song.

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