Saturday, April 25, 2009

Susan Boyle, Talent, and the Audience

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks (one of those cheap rocks that comes without internet or TV), you've heard of Susan Boyle. (If you really haven't, you can watch her video here.) It seems like such a simple story: Ugly old lady (relatively speaking) gets laughed at by the 'Britain's Got Talent' judges and audience because they assume she can't sing. She sings very well, and they all look like idiots. Score one for the ordinary people, right? All of those judges are jerks. Ha, ha, she really showed them!

But it's not that simple.

Personally, I was very confused when I saw the video for the first time. They were all laughing at the beginning, so I thought she was some sort of stand-up comedian. Then they started talking about singing, and I couldn't figure it out - what was so funny? She sang, and I thought, she sings really well, but she's not the greatest singer ever. What's the big deal? Eventually I figured it out, of course. They thought that since she didn't look like the typical 'good' singer on the show, she couldn't sing. Unattractive people are apparently very humorous.

I suppose this all seems obvious (that they would pre-judge and laugh). I'm not sure that it is so obvious. Usually, when we see someone on stage, we assume they can perform until proven otherwise. And it's not as if most singers are at all good-looking! Ever been to the opera? I attended a community concert the other day. I'd estimate that around half of the performers were as plain-looking as Susan Boyle. Yet somehow, nobody laughed. The applauded politely and enjoyed the music. People really can appreciate talent. So why is 'Britain's Got' Talent different?

From what I can tell (correct me if I'm wrong, as I've never watched an episode of any of them), the *'s Got Talent and *ian Idol shows derive around half of their entertainment value from the judges' and audience poking fun at poor singers. The producers intentionally mix some terrible performers in with the legit ones, purely so they can be insulted. I'm guessing that most of those performers look rather like Susan Boyle (to increase the fun, I suppose). So it's not that the audience and judges are horrible people who are biased against unattractive older people; instead, they've developed a Pavlovian response to those sorts of people due to the past history of the show. See an ugly person, get ready to laugh.

That there is an occasional surprise is irrelevant. The producers are simply exploiting that response to increase ratings, as the viewers enjoy watching people insulted and made fun of.

That's the tragedy of this entire situation. If Boyle had sung poorly, there wouldn't have been any story. No triumph over the 'pretty people'. No art snobs complaining that these 'modern singers' only exist for 'the look', that they don't have any real talent. No outrage that society considers it unacceptable to not be beautiful. Just a short laugh at the poor deluded fool.

While I'm glad that Susan Boyle is doing so well, and I hope she has a successful career, it's sad that people don't seem to be learning the real lesson here. The lesson is not that it is wrong for people to judge only on appearance. Everyone knows that, or at least pays lip service to it. The lesson is that you shouldn't enjoy judging people on any arbitrary criteria, and more importantly shouldn't laugh at people to boost your own ego.

I'm afraid that we'll be just as surprised and shocked when the next Susan Boyle comes along.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Good Lord, WHY?

Can someone please explain this shit to me?

My eyes! It burns.

Basically: stand-up black man is lured away/stalked by an evil blond seductress ensuing in a black-on-white-woman catfight. Awesome.

This is the most horrific idea for a film I've seen a while. And, no, watching more clips from the film doesn't make it look any better.

Please...make it stop...

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More good news!

Remember the trial of Allen Ray Andrade, who beat an 18-year-old transgender woman to death when he discovered that she had male genitalia? Well, the jury came back with the verdict today, after only 2 hours of deliberation.

Andrade gets life for murder of transgendered woman

Makes me proud to live in this little Colorado town!

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Happy 100th Birthday, Rita Levi Montalcini!

Just a little inspiring news item on the 'women in science' front (H/T my awesome father):
Rita Levi Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, said Saturday that even though she is about to turn 100, her mind is sharper than it was she when she was 20.

Levi Montalcini, who also serves as a senator for life in Italy, celebrates her 100th birthday on Wednesday, and she spoke at a ceremony held in her honor by the European Brain Research Institute.
"At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20," she told the party, complete with a large cake for her.

The Turin-born Levi Montalcini recounted how the anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s under Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime forced her to quit university and do research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home.

"Above all, don't fear difficult moments," she said. "The best comes from them."
I can only hope I still have half of her spirit at 100!

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The Gaythering Storm

Everyone's posting this and, since it's hilarious, I might as well jump on the bandwagon:

"People of every creed, race and color are coming together to build a giant umbrella of faith, morality and righteousness that will protect us from this gay rain-army."

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Advocacy & the Western Woman

Funny how entering an international studies program precipitated my growing aversion to theorizing about people on the other side of the world. Life could be easier if my timing was better and my ethics just a little quicker on the uptake. Not so long ago I was two weeks into law school and having epiphanies about the pointlessness of competition and confrontational debate – both like kryptonite to me yet at the time were(and sometimes still are) perversely my go-to mannerisms. Now a year in an international studies program has left me reluctant to even gossip about my neighbor.

Should I really be so upset though, about not wanting to make snappy cultural judgements? Well, no. But it is crucial that a radical feminist be able to competently assess cultures and institutions for their gendered aspects. And don't we have a concomitant obligation to name and fight injustice wherever it operates? Feminists ought to be adept at identifying commonalities and therefore possibilities for empowerment whenever women are in need. And despite all the First-World meddling and agenda setting, I still believe in an international feminist movement that can transform women's and men's lives.

My role and agenda as an international feminist partly hinges on the resolution of this issue. No one has to come down on one "side" of the debate "between" multiculturalism and universal human rights. Toleration is not 'against' principled judgment - but if you're one of the hegemons, I believe more and more that it would be wise to back away slowly from judging anything more than 4-H competitions. And if an unawareness of privilege blinds you to the fact that the breathtaking view is made possible by the folks you're standing on, then for christ's sake watch your step. I do bitch a lot about injustice and inequity – but as a white, upper middle-class American do I truly have that much to gripe about? Sure I do – but I try to remind myself that bellyaching over "the Canon" does not compare with the way real hunger gnaws at the stomach (Haitians describe this as "Clorox" hunger, because the sensation of starvation feels as if bleach were eating their stomachs – a sharp, acidy feeling ). It is perfectly fine for me to be resentful about having to time a baby and a dissertation, but this means squat beside women who've had radically different reproductive "options" as victims of genocidal wartime rapes.

We must be able to rank and prioritize injustices if we are serious about stopping them. Wrongs and discriminations are concrete events that happen every day, and some of them are lethal. I may be resentful of many inequities I see in my reference group, but I am not hungry, carrying an unwanted child, prevented from driving, legally excluded from politics or suffering from poorly executed rituals involving my vagina. I would love to blame my family for picking out my really bad first husband (though the honor is indeed all mine) and my education hasn't been hindered by much except my hand getting too tired to sign another IOU. No one, for one of the first times in recorded history, has really prevented me from attaining general fulfillment (or at least as much fulfillment as most men) When I take myself seriously, it must be in a global context and I'm doing o.k.

God knows I'm an unfairness hawk, so these days I find myself in a perplexing situation when I can't find the right words to point out glaring injustices. Hey, I might be an American but I read – and the bottom line is that I have had the leisure time and emotional space not only to notice the suffering of others, but to amass the material resources that can relieve it. Much of the time I'm furious about how we're taught – through our cultural and political discourse – to think about other cultures. When we talk about how any minority group "treats its women," we tacitly reinforce the idea that men comprise the core of any identity, and that women are the passive agents of culture. How did we end up in a situation where human rights are dismissed as unique Western constructs? When I'm not mad about linguistically reinforcing patriarchy, I'm pissed at the absurd idea that "those women over there" must not share with us some basic desires or precepts of humanity – to live free from emotional and physical violence, to protect their children, to have a say in the laws that regulate their lives and families. Only women in the West want these things? This is a deeply awful idea – and one we should get away from right now.

I'm concentrating these days on tempering outrage with humility – and mostly failing – but I'm trying to strike a balance between being empathetic and so goddamn overpowering. Knowing my culture's colonial legacy cannot preclude me from honestly trying to do better. If we – relatively privileged Western women – aren't willing to be honest about our own roles in American cultural and economic imperialism, then what legitimacy do we have? Sleeping with the enemy, though we do it still, is never the way to resist. But as long as we benefit from economic policies that impoverish other women, as long as we hire them cheaply to raise our children and clean our homes, as long as we don't exercise what autonomy we've wrested from the patriarchy, we really can't claim to have an ethic to our names. I so want to believe like Virginia Woolf that as a woman I have no country - but the truth is that I represent many things I never wanted to be or do. I'm still not sure what to say about that.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Feminist Flashback #33

Since my partner just finished teaching this film in one of her courses, today's feminist flashback is the 1991 Ridley Scott film Thelma and Louise.

And, since some asshole on a bike groped her while she was running today--grabbing first her ass and then her breast before shoving her down (she chased after him swearing and swinging her fists, but, of course, he was a complete coward and biked away)--here's the most appropriate clip imaginable. The ultimate revenge for a lifetime of unsolicited physical and emotional trespasses by men:

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