Shallow Hals of TV Land

Studies have shown that we humans take only 100 milliseconds to make up our minds about a stranger. Personality, talent, intelligence and all the other traits that make us unique individuals are lost. We judge people on nothing more than the arrangement of their features. No matter how many times we are told not to “judge a book by its cover,” beginning with the saccharine children’s programs we have grown up with, we remain stubbornly shallow.

This is why last week when Susan Boyle, a 48 year-old Scotswoman, stood on the set of “Britain’s Got Talent” and told the judges that it was her dream to be a singer, she was greeted with titters and smirks of disbelief. One audience member, a young teenage girl, rolled her eyes so hard that her irises all but disappeared. How could, the consensus seemed to ask, someone, who in her own words, has never been kissed and lives alone with a cat named Pebbles dream? How could anyone who is frumpy and a little bit plain dare to think that she could join the bronzed ranks of pop stars?

Maybe she dares because, unlike many of those pop stars, Susan Boyle can actually sing. Her voice, which has been described as emotive and moving, stunned those watching into silence. By the time Boyle finished singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserable, the entire audience had risen to its feet.

Since then, Boyle has become an international sensation. As of Friday, she has given 60 interviews. A plague of media outlets from all over the world are camped in her village of Blackburn.

A YouTube video of her performance has received 36 million hits, an astounding amount. Boyle is expected to win the contest, but most expect that a recording contract will be offered even if she does not win.

There is no doubt that Boyle’s success makes a feel-good story. Small town spinster makes the big time. An everywoman gets a record contract. Many commentators have noted that Boyle gives them hope in mankind, hope in the idea that genuine talent can triumph over the lack of looks.

And yet, I cannot escape the feeling that Boyle has not shown us our better side, but rather revealed just how shallow and petty we all can be. Dear God, the cat lady can sing! Why were we surprised in the first place? The last time I checked, the vocal chords are in no way related to the amount of hair extensions and fake tanner used.

What makes this adulation even worse, is that had Boyle not possessed a good voice, she would quickly have fallen in the archetype of the delusional frump. You know, the William Huangs who are brought onto reality shows to provide the viewers with a good laugh, the misfits whose public humiliation makes reality television simultaneously repulsive and addictive. The audience and the judges would have continued to feel justified in their abominable behavior, unrepentant and merciless.

Even now, the media furor around Boyle stinks of shallowness. Many headlines focus on Boyle’s looks and personal life. “Virgin Atlantic” screamed the title of one British newspaper. New York Magazine speculates on the likeliness that Boyle will receive an American-styled makeover. On the other end of the spectrum are those who hope that Boyle will retain her frumpiness. They say that her looks, or lack thereof, are what make her so extraordinary and real. Ironically, both sides have succeeded in reducing a talented woman to the sum of her looks. Boyle should do whatever she wants. If she wants to dye her hair purple, she ought to go for it. If she is comfortable the way she is, then that ought to be fine as well. After all, her looks have no bearing at all on her voice.

That being said, many people have been genuinely affected by Boyle’s story. If nothing else, she has made us aware of our shallowness. Hopefully, we will remember that it is wrong and more than a little disturbing to reduce a person’s life, the dreams they have and the dreams we allow them to have, to nothing more than the curve of a pair of lips.

Mengfei Chen is third-year international studies major. She can be reached at mengfeic@uci.edu.