Like many, I found Ms. Boyle's performance inspiring. But in the week since she took YouTube by storm, I've seen some responses like this one that seem a bit too eager to squash that feeling of inspiration with comments like:
The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?
Columnist Dennis Palumbo does have a fair point--the way the audience treated her at the beginning was wrong, regardless of what happened after she started singing, and I don't think it would have been right for them to have jeered and humiliated her further had she performed poorly. But I am also a little concerned with where this line of thinking might take us if we're not careful.
First, let me point out that the whole purpose of a show like "Britain's Got Talent" is to showcase musical talent. [EDIT: fellytone_k8 pointed out in the comments that the show actually isn't primarily for musical talent. I was confused because some people on YouTube were calling it a British version of American Idol. Either way, its purpose is still for people to show off their outstanding talents.] If Ms. Boyle had gone on the show and performed terribly, it certainly wouldn't have shown that she wasn't worthwhile as a human being, but I think it would have shown that she didn't belong on the show. Personally, I was impressed with her self-confidence and gracious response to the flustered rudeness of the judges and audience as much as her fantastic singing voice. I think the reason she was able to act that way was partly because she knew she really had a talent that was worth sharing with others, and was willing to pursue her dream, even at the expense of enduring the unfair expectations of the audience. The audience was certainly wrong to misjudge her based on her looks. But they were wrong not only because looks don't determine a human being's value, but also because looks don't necessarily predict musical talent—or any other kind of talent, for that matter.
And so when Ms. Boyle shattered their expectations, I think we were right to find it inspiring. Is it sad that the audience didn't want to give her a chance because of the way she looked? Yes. Would they have been proved right if she'd bombed? No! But if she had attempted to go on the show without the talent that we now know she possesses, it would have been a foolish move on her part. (It also would have been just as foolish for an untalented but good-looking person to do so.) But because she knew and was confident of her own abilities, she was able to prove the audience wrong, and perhaps she even made some of them think deeply enough to change their future behavior toward people who "don't look the part"—whether that part is musical talent or something else.
I fear that if we follow the line of thinking Palumbo and other naysayers are suggesting, we are in danger of walking the way of Kurt Vonnegut's brilliant satire story, "Harrison Bergeron", about a society which had stopped valuing outstanding talent and ability altogether. While every human being is valuable, and ought to be equal under the law and in terms of basic fairness and human rights, that doesn't mean there is no place for people to use and showcase their own talents and abilities—and to appreciate the talents and abilities of others.
I don't disagree that our society has become a bit out of whack in how we value certain kinds of beauty and talent to a point that goes beyond fairness and reason. But as someone who possesses (if I dare say so myself) a talent for singing that I enjoy showing off from time to time, I want us to be careful not to lose sight of the importance of being able to share and appreciate each others' talents.