The ugly side of showbiz

April 17, 2009 at 12:45 pm (Jackie Mcdonough, music, TV, women)

A plain, chubby, middle aged woman with heavy eyebrows is selected to appear on a TV talent show. Before performing she tells interviewers Ant and Dec that she’s unemployed, “never been kissed” and lives alone with her cat.

The audience laughs and jeers when Susan steps forward. Judges Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan make no attempt to hide their revulsion and amusement. Then she opens her mouth to sing…

So now the producers, live audience and TV viewers of Britain’s Got Talent can feel really good about themselves. They’ve given an “ugly” woman a chance. Warms the cockles, eh?

Or maybe not. I can’t improve on Tanya Gold:

“Susan will probably win Britain’s Got Talent. She will be the little munter that could sing, served up for the British public every Saturday night. Look! It’s ‘ugly’! It sings! And I know that we think this makes us better people. But Susan Boyle will be the freakish exception that makes the rule. By raising Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poised redemption. Because Britain’s Got Malice.

“Sing, Susan, sing – to an ugly crowd that doesn’t deserve you.”


  1. Jim Denham said,

    Susan is far from being the only -or the first – female singer to suffer because of her looks; I wrote this about Ella Fitzgerald:

  2. Lobby Ludd said,

    Being cynical, I think that the producers, or whoever, deliberately ensured Susan Boyle looked as frumpy as possible. I suspect part of the thing was a ploy – they well knew she could sing, how couldn’t they?

    Despite sympathy with the post and Tanya Gold’s view, I’m not quite sure what the central point is, if there has to be one.

    I think with Tania Gold it is that praise for Susan Boyle is some kind of ‘tokenism’ that tries to excuse an otherwise general view that women in performing arts must also be decorative, whatever their talents.

    I have only heard snippets of Susan Boyle’s song on the telly. What else can she sing?

  3. Moreno Truth Kit said,

    Ever stop to think that maybe the audience that you attack is actually yearning for someone who doesn’t look like a studio-produced surgically-enhanced robot? That people are excited about this performer, not to make themselves feel moral, but because they genuinely want real people to be recognized for their talents?

    Ever think that marketing companies create insecurities and unattainable ideals on purpose to sell products and create new markets?

    Maybe it isn’t the audience (mostly working class) to blame for the objectification of women. Maybe it is the ruling class’s culture imposed on us. The condescending holier-than-thou approach above does the left no good.

  4. d.z. bodenberg said,

    I watched the video and – am I weird? – I had no thoughts along the lines of “frumpy”, “ugly”, “munter” etc. whatsoever. I did, however, wonder why one of the three obnoxious “jurors” – I believe he´s Simon Cowell – looks identical to the main obnoxious juror on the German version of this cheap tat, 80s pop singer and since then only famous for bedding various women half his age and then throwing them away like pieces of trash, Dieter Bohlen. Are they cloned in a research station somewhere, by Endemol perhaps?

  5. Caroline said,

    You’re bang on, well said.

  6. voltairespriest said,

    Maybe it isn’t the audience (mostly working class) to blame for the objectification of women. Maybe it is the ruling class’s culture imposed on us.

    You could make that argument about anything at all in mass culture: put down to brass tacks, it’s no more than “it’s all the gaffer’s fault”. The point though is that whilst that’s true up to a point, it only gets you thus far. Whilst it’s certainly the case that Barnum and Bailey shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” are products of big capitalist media which want to mass market products aimed at the lowest common denominators in working class culture in order to make a product (and also that this has a certain reifying effect in terms of reinforcing pre-existing reactionary ideas), it’s not quite right to see this as a matter of an evil body called “the ruling class media” drip-feeding poison to “the working class”.

    Taking aside the fact that “the media” is a dodgy term in itself (its staff are working class people in the main, all with their own concerns and lives, and even its projects are reactive as much as pro-active, ie they have to sell things that they think people will want to watch), the real question is how to deal with the reactionary ideas which products like this prey upon. That isn’t a matter which can be dealt with by simply bemoaning the evils of the ruling classes – it’s a matter for working class people to take in hand for themselves. And that does mean having serious discussions about sexism and the objectification of women, even if they sometimes sound “holier than thou”, as you put it.

  7. Rosie said,

    A L Kennedy did a clever and amusing piece about this on this morning’s Today programme.

    I haven’t watched this Britain’s Got Talent programme – is it like Pop Idol and X Factor with the only talent that they’re seeking is singing and looking good? Or do they look for other talents? The old Opportunity Knocks sought out other talents as well. Pam Ayres, who has a talent for writing quirky light verse, Lenny Henry and Victoria Wood got a career break via Opportunity Knocks. Neither Pam Ayres nor Victoria Wood are beauties, but their talents were recognised and now they are both loved and respected performers and writers.

    Pop Idol and X Factor with the emphasis being on the judges rather than the talents and with the reality TV freakshow aspect seem to me to be much narrower, nastier kinds of show than the old Opportunity Knocks. The contestants have to emote so much and show so much of their personal life instead of just displaying their talent.

  8. Sue R said,

    ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ is a freak show to be honest. I just glimpsed a part of it tonight and there were three girls who couldn’t sing being cheeky to the judges. Simon Cowell was lapping up the verbal repartee. One reviewer remarked that it was the latter-day equivalent of visiting the inmates in Bedlam, and I think that’s right. No doubt Simon Cowell owns the production company that makes it. On the broader question of talent. I feel sorry for talented entertainers these days, compared to when I was younger, and even before that, I don’t think there are that many venues left. There are no musichalls or dance halls anymore, student unions don’t organise concerts with famous bands any more, there are no variety shows on television, there aren’t even any shows where singers like Cliff Richard or Andy Williams could entertain an audience. Everything has to come out of a mould these days. The American pop videos which dominate youth televsion are soft porn, and no-one writes decent tunes any more. The tradition of comedy records which used to flourish in England and America has disappeared. Remember ‘Ernie the Milkman’, and that funny American one about the boy writing home from summer camp, can’t remember what it was called. The point I’m trying to make is that entertainment has been homogenised in order to make profits for the big companies. I think people like a laugh as much as they ever did, but the companies aren’t prepared to take a punt.

  9. Dom said,

    “Hello mother, Hello father, here I am at camp Grenada.” It was Spike Jones. Did you really think it was funny?

  10. voltairespriest said,

    I guess you had to be there.

  11. Sue R said,

    Humour is a generational thing, relying on what people share in common. I am b affled by a lot of the so-called humour that is on tv these days, it’s just puerile and sexist and sexual. My point is not that the songs or humour, or even the light entertainment in those days was better, but just that there was more of it and it was more singular. Not bland and pumped out for someone to make money out of. Prince Philip (not a man I am given to quoting very often, if at all) called Simon Cowell a sponger for living off Paul Potts’ earnings, (or maybe he didn’t, I think it was denied), but that’s the situation nowadays. I was also disappointed to read that teh woman who was pushed by a policeman at the G20 demo has engaged Max Clifford to sell her story. In the old days you expected to get roughed up by the cops and you didn’t engage PR consultants to earn you money for it.

  12. les said,

    spike jones? no it wasn’t! that was alan sherman,_Hello_Fadduh

    when i was 11 years old, i think i played that record until the needle wore out. but, sue, i think you’re right–humour is more generational and even culture specific. grief, however, may be more universal. but really, let’s be a bit more brechtian “don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.”

  13. Sue R said,

    But I am. Modern entertainment is crap. Anodyne, divorced from social context, apolitical. When do you hear comedians making jokes about debts, and yet the reality is that most people are indebted. Even comic characters are from a narrow range. Lenny Henry does a range, although I don’t think he’s terribly funny, but most youngish male comedians just rely on their own personality. Alan Sherman wrote lots of very funny other songs, and Bernard Bresslaw sung some funny ones too. My point is that entertainment has become very boring these days, there isn’t teh wealth that there once was. And as I said, there isn’t a single song and dance programme on Saturday or Sunday night tv. Breakfast tv, perversely in my opinion, sometimes has bands on that it’s owners want to plug. Even the BBC Breakfat news has started getting in on the act with bands on but pop music in the morning is a bit much!

  14. les said,

    it’s the military-industrial-entertainment complex, isn’t it?

  15. Jim Denham said,

    No: it’s Spike Jones:

  16. Waterloo Sunset said,

    Anodyne, divorced from social context, apolitical.

    Even Chris Morris? Thing is, I don’t disagree with you as such. Most comdey is like that But most comedy always has been. It’s the same as music. The prism of nostalgia allows us to see the exceptions while forgetting about the dross, despite the fact the latter is far more prevalent.

  17. Jim Denham said,

    Mike Leigh’s “Nuts In May” was on tonight:: it includes a brilliant portrayal of the sheer despair, demoralisation and embarrassment caused by folk music:

  18. Jenny said,

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