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.
There's even news of a record contract, and the odds-makers who track these things believe she's the current favorite to win the competition. More tellingly, everyone is talking and blogging about her "inner beauty," and how Susan reminds us that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, etc.
I'm happy for her. She appears to be a solid, decent person for whom, God knows, some good luck is long overdue.
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?
Personally, I'm gratified that her voice inspires so many, and reminds us of our tendency to judge and criticize based on shallow externals of beauty. What I mean is, I'm glad for her.
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.