What’s wrong with the Susan Boyle fairytale

Picture of Susan Boyle

COMMENT: Susan Boyle has Asperger’s Syndrome, and she has nothing to be ashamed of. What is shameful is the hypocritical way ITV treats anyone else who’s a bit different – I should know, I have first-hand experience.

This is a theatre blog. Occasionally, it digresses into other arts, but one thing I have zero interest in is the produce of programmes such as The X Factor. So when the news breaks that Britain’s Got Talent superstar Susan Boyle has Asperger’s Syndrome, that would normally not even register on my theatre blog radar. But on this occasion, I have to break this habit and say what I think, as I am in a unique position to comment on a discrepancy.

The Susan Boyle story, so we’re meant to believe, is about a woman who once lived in an impoverished area of Glasgow. She was bullied at school for being stupid and ugly and odd, and had nothing going for her. But she had a hidden talent, this amazing singing voice, and one day, she got her big break on ITV show Britain’s Got Talent, melting the heart of Mr. Nasty himself, Simon Cowell. And from then on, it’s an uplifting rags to riches fairytale. And now that we know she has Asperger’s syndrome, it’s now also an heart-warming story of how she overcame this disability. It’s an inspiration to millions, and, as ITV are only too keen to imply, she couldn’t have done it without them.

At face value, all of this is true. Everything said in tonight’s documentary I agree with. Except that this is only half the story. And this is where my personal interest comes in. And in order to explain why I have an interest in this, I am going to have to say a couple of things about myself that I’ve kept quiet about so far. Not because I want to hush up my past, but simply because I didn’t consider either thing relevant as either a play writer or a theatre blogger. Until now. Now it’s time to get two skeletons out of the closet.

So, skeleton number one: for anyone who doesn’t know, I am a Cowell reject, back in 2003 when it was Pop Idol. There’s no point denying it, owing to a combination of YouTube and the fact that Chris Neville-Smith is a distinct Google search term. Just in case anyone didn’t realise the obvious: no, I wasn’t taking it seriously. I admit a capella “Great Balls of Fire” wasn’t one of my better decisions, but if I was taking this seriously, do you think I would have said “I’ve been instructed by Ant and Dec to argue with you”? Anyway, as you may have noticed, I am consistently disparaging about this sort of entertainment on this blog and elsewhere, and here, you might think “Oh, that’s why you’re so grumpy about it.” But it’s actually not that simple. I confess that, for a while after the event, I quite enjoyed my new minor celebrity status. Having always had zero ambition to be the next Gareth Gates, I was quite content to make the odd TV appearance and get mobbed when out drinking, without the downside of Jordan trying to shag me. I picked someone else to support through the remainder of Pop Idol, and watched the subsequent series of The X Factor for a while.

I’m not sure exactly when it was I decided it was bollocks. I think it was just little things that added up. I smelt a rat with the way that the media glossed over the pre-auditioning process – I can understand why ITV might have skipped over the fact that Fox, Chapman, Waterman and Cowell don’t audition all 10,000 hopefuls, but anyone in the entertainment media could have exposed that. They didn’t, suggesting they’d rather collectively maintain the illusion ITV created. I’d never really paid any attention to celebrity magazines like Heat before 2003. Once I’d had a good look at the unhealthy obsession with other reality TV stars I decided it was a game I didn’t want to play. I worked out that the media aren’t interested in the real you – once you’ve had your 15 minutes of fame, they are only interested in that image no matter what else you tell them about yourself. I learnt about the easily abusable power of selective editing on reality TV. Slowly, I grew more jaded.

I decided to have nothing more to do with Pop Idol round about late 2004, when I started making a proper effort to be taken seriously as a play writer – something that would be impossible if I carried on playing the Z-list celebrity game. But the moment that got me really cynical was my realisation, whilst watching X Factor auditions, that it didn’t actually have that much to do with singing skills. It was far more to do with appearance. I noticed it was quite easy to use judicious editing, hilarious put-downs, and emphasis on dress sense to make anyone look like a comedy loser – but half the time, the singing wasn’t actually that bad. (And, on the side of the coin, I sometimes saw contestants looking acceptably fashionable go through – when the singing wasn’t that good.) Suffice to say that by 2009, when the piss-taking “live auditions” came in, I was one of the half-million who bought Rage Against the Machine.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it’s time to move on to skeleton number two: like Susan Boyle, I am on the autistic spectrum. As it turns out, my parents knew this since I was 19, but they chose to not tell me as I’d been managing fine all this time without knowing. The only reason I found out about this was owing to a particularly nasty experience I had working for the Identity and Passport Service. This is a theatre and arts blog, and not a platform for me to settle scores against former employers, so I will have to save the gory details for another forum, save to state that it was far worse than anything ITV ever threw at me, and the Identity and Passport Service’s attitude to Asperger’s is absolutely shocking – but that’s another story.

The point is that apart from those hellish few months, it’s never really been an issue. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent a lot of my life in either university or theatre circles, where differences and eccentricities are accepted and encouraged, but that’s the way it’s been for me. I hardly need say that many people with autism aren’t as lucky as me, but assuming that anyone on the autistic spectrum is disadvantaged is about as stupid as the idea that anyone with autism is a whizz in the casino. For me – and I think I speak for a lot of other people in similar circumstances – all it means is that I’m good at some things and crap at some other things. Same as everybody else. I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and I find it tedious when people talking about autism as if it’s automatically an obstacle to life.

So, two skeletons out of the cupboard, neither of which are any relevance to me as a writer, director, or theatre blogger. It’s probably true to say that my few chances to see how trash TV works on the inside has provided me with a fair amount of (mainly cynical) material, but then most writers write about what they know one way or the other. People with Asperger’s are said to put a lot of effort into one interest to the exclusion of everything else, but I’m not the only person who puts writing and directing ahead of silly trivialities such as socialising. Anyway, what I can say for certain is that I have no intention of using my old TV appearance as a way of promoting my plays. And I do not, under any circumstances, want any special favours with my writing or directing just because I have Asperger’s syndrome. For me, and thousands of other people, all this means is that’s I have a different personality from other people. Just the same as people not on the autistic spectrum have different personalities from each other. I really don’t see why having a different personality should be a big deal.

But according to ITV, I’m wrong. (I may be harsh clumping in an STV documentary on Susan Boyle with ITV’s Saturday night entertainment, but it’s my opinion that the whole of ITV is in the pocket of Cowell’s empire, so I see them as the same thing.) ITV clearly thinks different personalities is a big deal. Anyone deemed odd is fair game if the last 11 years of Pop Idol, Popstars, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent are anything to go by. Likewise if they’re deemed ugly or unfashionable. Just pick out the bits that make them look odd, stick in a few catty put-downs from the judges, and – hey presto! – a comedy loser. Until 2009, apparently. Step forward Susan Boyle. Ticks every box you’d expect of a BGT reject, and then – to the astonishment of the nation – she can sing! Well done ITV, says the nation. You’ve scotched the myth that ugly people who act strange are talentless. How progressive of you! … And if you haven’t already spotted the problem with this, I despair.

The problem is that the myth that anyone who looks ugly or strange is can’t be talented is one ITV had been peddling for years. You only have to look at the first two minutes of her first appearance to see how blatantly she had been edited to make her look like another freak in the making. “You weren’t expecting that?” says Ant from Ant and Dec. Of course we weren’t – we’ve been conditioned to expect the comedy losers from the comedy music you play whilst they’re talking, the comedy loser soundbites your cherry-pick for broadcast.

And whilst Susan Boyle is doubtless a good classical singer, there are plenty of other people who sing just as well – why aren’t they BGT superstars too? Because it wouldn’t have made such good television. The heartwarming story ITV needed was that, against all expectations, someone with her looks turned out to have an amazing talent. Or to put it another way, the norm is that people who look ugly or odd are talentless. That was not ITV challenging stereotypes, that was ITV condoning and exploiting it. (And just in case case you’re thinking ITV was turning over a new leaf and ceasing to encourage stupid assumptions based on looks, here’s a clip from later in the same year. Apparently, the joke is that two girls call themselves “The Stunners”, but one of them is ugly and the other one is fat and ugly! No wonder they can’t sing! Tee hee fucking hee.)

But, up to now, I’ve been happy to sit this argument out and let other people make these points. Until this week when the Asperger’s news broke and I suddenly had a personal interest again. I’ve been quite happy to ignore Cowell’s put downs – frankly, I have more important things to concern myself with – but when I found out about my condition there was one particular memory that crossed my mind. It was a quote Simon Cowell gave to The Sun (16 Aug 2003 if you want to look it up). I don’t have that paper any more, but I believe he said roughly word-for-word was: “He talks like he’s 60 and his performance  is awful. But he is good entertainment.” Guffaw bloody guffaw. So, by “talking like he’s 60”, I presume he’s referring to my habit of using long formal sentences in conversation: one of the common symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. And this means, techically speaking, Simon Cowell took the piss out of someone for having a disability. Not so funny when you look at it that way, is it? And he quoted that with the blessing of ITV, the same ITV tonight trying to sound oh so sympathetic about the challenges faced by people like us.

I suppose it’s fair to point out that neither Cowell nor ITV were aware I had Asperger’s syndrome at the time. And if I ever contacted ITV about it, my guess is that they would apologise and claim that of course Cowell wouldn’t have said that had they known. I’ve also heard (unconfirmed) that they screen auditionees now, so they might say that what happened in 2003 couldn’t happen today. But that wouldn’t be good enough. For a start, I fail to see why poking fun at someone’s manner of speech or anything else suddenly becomes funny if the person on the receiving end doesn’t have any known disability. But the big point is that one of the biggest problems is undiagnosed autism. All too often stupid assumptions are made about silly things like lack of eye contact or not asking someone how they are, and this problem is made far far far far worse by people who think it’s funny to poke fun at people for being in some way different from an accepted norm. This is the behaviour that ITV openly condones and promotes every time they start a new series of The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. And whilst the ITV people might be careful to look out for anyone with a hidden mental disability, you can bet sure as hell that the thousands of viewers who find it funny to do the same thing won’t have any such reservations.

My view is that high-functioning autism is normally only a problem when other people choose to make a problem out of it. Susan Boyle should not be ashamed of her diagnosis. She deserves applause for overcoming the nerves that held her back performing. But everything ITV has built around the Susan Boyle story is shameful and hypocritical.

I accept that this story may do some good by raising the issue of hidden disabilities, but ITV has done far more harm with the attitudes it promotes the rest of the time. Trash TV routinely uses sympathetic human interest stories as their excuse to behave badly or tastelessly elsewhere in their programmes. The X Factor people will use the Boyle/Asperger story as vindication to carry on doing what they’re doing. More people will be humiliated on television for no crime other than looking strange. More people will use what they see on TV as inspiration to inflict their own humiliation on people a bit different to them, some with undiagnosed Asperger’s, some with other issues. More people will be made to suffer the way Susan Boyle was made to suffer – perhaps not people who can be made into inspirational stories on TV, but people all the same. Very few of them will have life-changing experiences on a prime-time TV show – the more likely outcome is depression, or even suicide.

It seems that ITV’s real message is that being a bit different from everyone else can be anything from a uplifting inspiring story to freak show laughing stock, depending on which box they’re trying to tick. ITV has a choice: it can either set an example as a champion of people like me and Susan Boyle, or it can keep the auditions for BGT and X Factor the way they are. It cannot credibly do both. And sadly, I have a pretty good idea of which one they’ll pick.

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