Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Susan Boyle, Physical Appearance, and Disability Prejudice

The world is much agog over the success of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent, the old country version of American Idol.

Much of the extended discussion has been about Boyle's appearance. Robin Givhans writes in today's Washington Post.
Should Boyle have a makeover?

The politically correct answer: Only if she wants one.

The honest answer: Yes.

Givhans goes on to say "The point of a proper makeover, however, is not to look like someone else but the best version of yourself ...Transformation is always part of a good story. Cinderella didn't go to the ball in hand-me-downs. She went looking her best in a glorious gown and won the heart of the prince. The ugly duckling becomes a swan."

I hear local commentary to the opposite effect. "She should stay as she is. It is what makes her unique."

I suppose Boyle should have a make-over if Boyle wants a make-over. I suspect that the root of the decision will be how she has internalized reactions to her appearance over her lifetime. And of course, I think she realizes a "make-over" in this context means to re-style one's appearance in order to conform to society's idea of comeliness, or normalcy.

In the context of disability, that's something that people with visibilities disabilities cannot do. I know as a wheelchair user I turn heads when I enter a room because I am different. I know too that my otherness is one reason I might be judged as lesser than, as less capable, as less competent, as less desirable.

Obviously, every human being moves through life being "judged by appearances." Boyle, no doubt, could have the experience of being passed over for employment if a more attractive woman were applying simultaneously, the unfairness being amplified if Boyle had been better qualified.

People with visible disabilities move about in the world realizing we are likely to be greeted with internalized versions of the judgmental ambivalence that arose from both audience and judges when Boyle appeared on stage.

It's best not to let it bother us, taking a page from Susan Boyle's book and simply be who we are.

Or, better, to use it as a tactical device to get what we want.


janice.suddath said...

Gary, I completely respect and agree with your perspective regarding the difficulty of physical disabilities.

From a different perspective, I have struggled a great deal with the school system and how they deal with "invisible" disabilities. They did not provide things that my son needed, just as much as someone with a physical disability would need. The schools easily provide those things for children with physical disabilities.

With my son (and myself) having OCD (an anxiety disorder), I have been told that he just needed more discipline, needed less discipline, that he was "this way" because I am a single mother, or that he was "very weird". Yes I had a teacher actually say to me that my child was "very weird". On the flip side of that however, is the fact that now that he has learned to deal with his disability better, he doesn't deal with stares, or comments, like he did when he was younger.

Sometimes, in my quest to help kids with those invisible disabilities, I assume that our society has progressed to the point that physical disabilities are no longer looked on as making a person anything "less". I guess that is wishful thinking.

We must continue to educate our society that disabilities do not take away from who we are - they are just part of who we are, like having brown eyes, or curly hair.

Ross Eldridge said...

Hi there, Gary,

"Britain's Got Talent" isn't the original of "American Idol" ... First there was "Pop Idol" here, then Simon Cowell's show "X Factor" which is our equivalent of "American Idol".

BGT features not only singing acts, but dancers, jugglers, magicians, dog acts, parrot acts and anything else that might be stretched into "entertainment". Last year's winner was a dancer, just a young lad in his early teens.

BGT is our equivalent of "America's Got Talent" which airs on your NBC-TV, I believe.

Back to Susan Boyle, dubbed "The Badger Woman" by Graham Norton ... The polls here are running even on whether she should get a "makeover" (whatever that might be in her case).

Ms Boyle and one of my sister's are cut from the same cloth. My sister has never worn makeup, cuts her own hair (badly), and dresses in clothes she buys at thrift shops. Nothing against thrift shop couture, but she doesn't try and find anything attractive, colour-coordinated or suitable for her body type.

I don't know about Susan Boyle, but my sister could do with a female friend taking her under her wing and helping a bit. How to look less like a grey sack of tatties. What hair product to buy to get clean, shiny hair. Some advice on eyebrows.

Of course, in Susan Boyle's case, if she turns up for the finals dressed up to the nines, looking a million dollars, she may well not pull the votes. She'll have a handler advising her, no doubt. If she goes on to a singing career, she'll have to dress for parts (in theatre, musicals, etc) ...

On the general subject of makeovers ... One notices (here in the UK more than in the USA) actors and musicians get dental makeovers once they make a bit of money. Is that vanity or necessity?

There's a couple of other acts on BGT that might give Susan Boyle a run for her money (though I imagine she will have a shot at a career in some sort of singing all the same) ... a fairly large modern dance troupe and a young lad with a powerful voice who sang a song originally done by Michael Jackson.

I'm not placing my bets till the finals ...