04.20.09

Boyle and the Invisible Women

Why Susan's joyous little jig spoke for millions of women we haven't heard from since Hillary Clinton's triumph in Ohio.

Will Susan Boyle’s epic moment last week on Britain’s Got Talent ( not a BBC show) turn out to be a choreographed piece of TV manipulation? Probably. But that’ll just mean that something false gave rise to something true.

Captain Richard Phillips of the good ship Maersk Alabama—and Sully Sullenberger splashing down his crippled airliner in the Hudson River—broke through the poisonous smog of economic depression and Wall Street skullduggery with a reminder that pure individual heroism is a daily occurrence if we know where to look for it. Susan Boyle is another avatar of global yearning.

It's only a matter of months before Susan Boyle's eyebrows get a pluck job—and a new wave of reality television co-opts "authenticity" as the fake new thing.

The YouTube clip of Susan's angel voice soaring from the unkissed mouth of that scrunchy-faced, eyebrow-enforested, unprepossessingly dumpy representative of anonymous humanity was the third irresistible message to us all to get over ourselves. Until things get better, we will all go on being unusually receptive to such epiphanies from the news. They remind us what uncomplicated strength of character looks like.

The surge for Boyle reinforces the point again: We’re all getting sick of being bullied by bad values. Sick of disappearing everyone who’s plain or strange or not one of the cool crowd. This hero was no Captain Courageous. She just had to fight against being plain and a bit odd from mild early brain damage.

There is a passionate desire from Ms. Boyle’s new fans all over the blogosphere not to see her subjected to the seemingly inevitable show business makeover. Keep that frumpy little dress! Don’t let some mincing beautician-to-the-stars rip out those exploding eyebrows!

Among the many underdog groups Boyle scored with was that universally dismissed demographic—Invisible Women: the unbeautiful 47 year-olds who don't rate a second look and never get a chance to make their point in the meeting. There are so many aging women who feel dissed by popular culture and employers alike. Much of Hillary Clinton's strength in the 2008 campaign was built on this overlooked demographic. Unwanted by TV shows, advertisers, movies, and corporate recruiters, Invisible Women feel that their experience—often holding families together while doing the work that puts bigger egos in the corner office—goes not just unrewarded but unrecognized.  Can’t they at least see me? goes the voice in their heads. Especially after all those wasted hours trying to look younger, slimmer, and better dressed just to get their rightful desserts.

That’s why it brought tears to our eyes when Susan Boyle presented herself to the Roman mob and proved that its low expectations of her were unfounded. That little jig she did at the end of her appearance was a victory dance. It reminded me of a very different moment, a political one: the feeling in the room when Hillary won her victory in the Ohio primary. The auditorium that night was crammed with jubilant middle-aged women pumping their fists to the raucous sound of Aretha Franklin belting out RESPECT. How Hillary—with her elite education, stellar career, and eight years in the White House—could come to represent the Forgotten Women is an index of how hungrily they sought one.

It will of course be only a matter of months before Susan Boyle's eyebrows get a pluck job—and a new wave of reality television co-opts "authenticity" as the fake new thing. Yesterday’s New York Times told how last fall MTV convened an urgent executive meeting to discuss how to scare up some positive social messaging from their glitz-peddling reality shows.

What a drag. We wanted to keep the Susan Boyle moment for ourselves. If it was an illusion, at least it was our illusion. It made us feel so much better than theirs will.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.