The Susan Boyle freakshow | Joan Smith

The media were never interested in Susan Boyle's talent, they just wanted to mock her appearance and lifestyle

The case for the defence goes like this: singer Susan Boyle has become a household name even though she doesn't meet the demands of a culture obsessed with youth and good looks. Her appearance on the TV show Britain's Got Talent is a stand for other women who don't look like models or Wags, challenging a whole range of stereotypes; she's given hope to women in their 40s and 50s who believed they couldn't make the most of their talents because the country has been brainwashed into scorning older women. Even the fact that Boyle came second – to a teenage dance group, as it happens – in last weekend's final hasn't taken the shine off her success.

If all of that is true, I wonder why Boyle was feeling so bad that she had to be taken to a private clinic on Sunday evening. Obviously the simple answer is that she wanted to win, but she may also feel bewildered and uncomfortable with the way she's been treated by the media. When she first appeared on the show, she was immediately greeted as a frumpy "spinster" with the voice of an angel – a "hairy angel". I don't know what the normal hair quotient of an angel is, but it should have been clear from the beginning that Boyle's selling point was an unworldliness that could be (and was) exploited to the full by the media.

It's fallen out of use these days but "spinster" has always been more than a synonym for an unmarried woman, implying plainness and an inability to get a man. Boyle could have been described in a less pejorative way as a single woman who'd spent much of her life looking after her sick mother – like a lot of other women in Britain, in other words – but it is her difference that has been played up during the weeks of intense media coverage. If Boyle had been happy with her appearance, if she'd dressed as she did because she genuinely didn't care what people thought of her, that wouldn't have mattered so much. But a big part of her appeal was her yearning to fit in, to be pretty and popular and a TV star rather than the "dowdy" Scot the media loved so much.

The idea that there is a disjunction between Boyle's appearance and her voice is patronising at best but when you realise that she is a woman with learning difficulties, the whole thing becomes much nastier. Boyle's decision to take part in a TV talent contest wasn't a bold rejection of the shallow values of celebrity culture but evidence of her longing to belong to it. That isn't a criticism of her, but I don't imagine that being hailed as a "hairy angel" was what she had in mind when she turned up for the auditions.

On the contrary, it must have been excruciating for Boyle to have her appearance picked over in public as she sought out slightly more stylish dresses and had her eyebrows plucked. Fairy stories are full of woodcutter's daughters who get transformed into princesses, but what's happened to poor Susan Boyle has much more in common with a freakshow.


Joan Smith

The GuardianTramp

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