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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Turning dreams to shame: Susan Boyle’s Les Miz

But the tigers come at night With their voices soft as thunder As they tear your hope apart And they turn your dream to shame.
– I Dreamed a Dream, Les Miserables

The media have described Susan Boyle as frumpy, dumpy, hirsute, homely, plain, a virgin, a spinster, and a church volunteer who lives alone with her cat and has never been kissed. Her intelligence and her mental health have been the subject of intense speculation. Some of the descriptions come from Boyle herself, who made the joke about never being kissed. Many have been coined and repeated by media commentators of all stripes, from mainstream daily news to tabloids, cable TV, and blogs.

In a media culture obsessed with glamour and fame, the Scottish woman who bowled over judges and audience alike with her remarkable voice and rendition of I Dreamed a Dream on the television series Britain’s Got Talent was an anomaly. Why? Because she looks ordinary. She is someone we might see at the supermarket or the football game; she is middle aged and unglamorous. She is not considered beautiful or stylish or sexy by the standards of a celebrity culture that maintains a strict model of physical beauty and decorum. And Boyle did not act with the practised poise typical of fame-seeking contestants on reality TV shows. She spontaneously gave a saucy shimmy of her hips during her first performance on the show, a move that became something of a trademark. She seemed guileless and without affectation, a blank slate. Of course the story turned out to be more complicated.

It is a daily challenge for the news media to negotiate the ethics of representation. How should journalists paint the picture of Boyle given the reality of the media’s power to generate, reinforce and break down stereotypes? What responsibility do the media have to the audience, to the public sphere generally, and to people like Boyle who enter the spotlight or find themselves caught in its glare? Where do human dignity and personal feelings enter the picture? No easy answers, but the point is to at least raise the questions about how journalism – and all forms of mass-mediated communication – helps shape our social world.

One of the tropes of mainstream news is that journalists simply report what they see, or tell us “what people are talking about.” This is part of the lore of journalistic objectivity that sees reporters and editors as having a bead on issues, ideas and information that are inherently “newsworthy.” News, in this view, is pre-ordained and journalists are trained to recognize it and channel it to the audience. If we accept this notion then people who covered Boyle were simply telescoping a newsworthy event to a curious public. But most journalists know it is not that simple, that they in fact construct news. Like the rest of us they are marinating in cultural norms. They try to discern what the public will find interesting, entertaining, and important to our conversation.

Today’s members of the mainstream media also practise their craft amid new realities of corporate ownership and the rapidly shifting political economy of news. That means cuts to newsrooms and editorial content, accelerating deadline pressures, newspaper closures, a decline in radio, an explosion of celebrity and entertainment media, and the conundrum of the internet. In fact it was via YouTube that Boyle went “viral.” Such external pressures can make it difficult for journalists to give thoughtful consideration to the impact of their work. Speed is of the essence with alerts being beamed to mobile devices, tweeting on Twitter, and information available 24/7 on multiple platforms. But with the intense competition and deadline pressures, representation may be one of the few areas where journalists have power. Their coverage influences societal norms. Just as investigative journalism can be a positive influence on laws and public policy, the news media’s portrayal of people and issues can be an equally powerful, if more subtle, force for status quo or change in the ways we relate to each other.

How, in this perfect storm of media technologies and economics washing over the news business, might journalists realistically cover a story like Boyle’s? News today can be more like improvisational theatre than a three-act Shakespearean stage play. It must be written on the fly, and writers and editors need a well-developed ethical compass to assess how words and images represent people. This is an individual matter for journalists to be sure. But it also has to do with the culture of news. Journalists are influenced by many factors beyond the economic and political. They are shaped – some media watchers would say constrained – by well-established institutional norms. These are reinforced in journalism schools and newsrooms, and professional culture strongly influences choices about what to cover and how to cover it. There are generally agreed definitions of news, the complex idea of objectivity, given writing styles, and acceptable standards for research and sourcing of information. It is by placing a greater focus on the constructed nature of these practices that journalists can cultivate a more proactive ethical stance for covering people in the news.

We’re not talking about leaning more left or more right. It is about recognizing that we live in a diverse, wired world where the media’s ethics of representation are open for discussion and critique. The mainstream media are under intense scrutiny, which makes it even more important that they attend to representations of race, gender, sexuality and the like. This is not something that journalists can turn on and off as needed; there’s no quick fix. We’re talking about an evolutionary shift in the institutional culture of news – in schools and newsrooms – where representation becomes a prominent aspect of professional news norms.

Would Susan Boyle’s story even matter if it weren’t for her unpolished appearance? If she’d been done up to the nines or if she’d been closer to present-day ideas of beauty, would millions of people know her name and her story? It’s likely that her rags-to-riches, ugly-duckling tale is the reason her talent is seen as remarkable. That’s a reality of our media-celebrity environment. There is no prescription for how the media should portray people. But the strongest journalists are mindful of challenging, rather than reinforcing, stereotypes and hurtful epithets. Journalists can and will disagree on whether the constant references to Boyle’s appearance are fair, and will no doubt argue that some representations are valid in a world where entertainers are so often seen as glamorous. In that view, Boyle’s appearance is part of her story. What about repeated references to Boyle as a virgin or spinster? Many women today are certainly single, but gratuitous comments about virgins and spinsters are no longer common. In Boyle’s case she made that throwaway remark about never having been kissed. We don’t know if it’s true but it spawned routine descriptions that paint her as asexual. Piers Morgan, a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, called her a “little old lady.” She is 48.

In this case, those descriptions added to a media portrait of Boyle as unglamorous, dowdy and decidedly not cool. It became an important part of the narrative: her talent is all the more shocking because of her average appearance and her life as a single woman in a small town. Then there are the constant references to her mental capabilities. She was apparently deprived of oxygen at birth and has learning disabilities, though those details were seldom sourced in stories. Boyle, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the show’s final, checked in to a clinic reportedly with stress and exhaustion after she came in second to a dance troupe. We learned only at this point, after the final contest, that she’d reportedly lashed out at photographers and bystanders. It is curious that the incident was undocumented in photo or video at a time when her every move was being watched and recorded. Judge Morgan shared that she was being seen by “armies of psychiatrists” and that she was in tears and threatening to pack her bags.

While the tabloids came up with descriptions such as “SuBo” and “the Hairy Angel,” the broader media parroted these terms while routinely blaming them on the tabs. Larry King introduced his segment featuring Boyle and Morgan by saying she “looked like she might be a producer’s idea of comic relief”. Morgan himself apologized to her on King’s show for the derision she endured from judges and audience before her first audition performance. “I have never heard a more surprising, unexpected voice coming out of somebody so unexpected,” he told her. In other words she didn’t LOOK like she could sing, whatever that means.

We can see from these examples that the emphasis on Boyle’s appearance and personal travails do not come just from the news; they’re everywhere. Some journalists writing about the Boyle story have perpetuated this absurd stereotype that equates appearance with talent, while others have drawn attention to it, mocked it and challenged the assumptions fed by the media and the public. In Britain, The Guardian’s Tanya Gold wrote a scathing piece about the media culture and how Boyle became “the wrong kind of victim”. She turned out not to be a pitiable blank slate upon whom a myth of redemption could be etched. She fouled up her assigned role as grateful simpleton and turned out to be a real person with real emotions. “It was like realising that Cinderella didn’t have an orgasm on her wedding night – or that Snow White actually hated the dwarves,” Gold wrote. “Once we learned that she was ambivalent about the gift we wanted to give her, it was over.”

The Boyle story has proven a minefield for journalists. Rosie Dimanno of the Toronto Star attempted a similar, possibly ironic, rant, but with unfortunate results. Many of her readers online took her seriously when she repeated all the painful physical descriptions of Boyle and threw in that she “resembles a female impersonator.”  The critique backfired. Gold herself wrote a fascinating piece that at once admonished us all for our collective reaction to Boyle and the sexism of the coverage, a piece that also upheld stereotypes about female physical beauty.

Some reporters covered the story straight-faced and without hyperbole. Gregory Katz of The Associated Press covered news of Boyle’s treatment for exhaustion as a regular news development, mentioning her meteoric rise and “snide remarks about her looks.” In one report about her recovery he called her the “Scottish songbird”). His journalism seemed a notable effort to turn down the volume.

So is there even a news story without the references to Boyle as plain, simple, unstable, and strange? Journalism draws on myths, as those who study the media have chronicled. And that is not a bad thing; we need narratives. Jack Lule, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, has argued that the media basically adhere to seven recurring myths, which are part of the storytelling tradition that is important to news, and to a human need to understand our social world. They include the victim, scapegoat, hero, good mother, trickster, an “other world” theme, and the calamity. The hero story hinges on several common themes: humble beginnings, a quest or journey, difficult trials and then victory. But in contemporary society, and in the 24-hour news cycle, Lule points out that there is a constant churn of heroes. They rise and fall, and this is where Boyle’s case comes in. As some writers have pointed out, including The AP’s Katz, the show and the judges helped write her narrative within the scathing atmosphere that characterizes this genre of television. She was an unexpected hero, unpretentious, with a humble life and with enormous untapped talent. But she did not fit neatly into the hero slot or into the victim cubbyhole, as Gold pointed out. It would seem that such cases present the most difficult challenges for the media in terms of representation.

Boyle’s case is a media play without a script. This is where it becomes essential that journalists, both individually and as an institution, become more self-reflexive about the ethics of representation. Based on this case, it would seem that many of the players in today’s media cast are not ready for improv.

KATHERINE BELL is a former journalist and currently a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. She had a career with The Canadian Press news agency as a reporter, editor and news manager, most recently as bureau chief for British Columbia. Her research interests include celebrity “activism” and philanthropy, and the ways in which celebrity is a site for producing contemporary notions of social/political engagement. She is concerned with how celebrities use their capital to engage in social issues and how celebrity power can reinscribe or challenge hegemonic discourses in the mass media.

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