It’s interesting to listen to the vocabulary in media reports about the cruelty directed at Scottish villager Susan Boyle by the judges and audience on a British television show. Piers Morgan, one of the judges on the program, acknowledged after Boyle’s unexpected performance, that while “everyone was laughing at you” before the song, “nobody’s laughing now.” Morgan hadn’t laughed, but the camera caught his wince when Boyle first  appeared on stage. Amanda Holden, another judge, was not shown overtly reacting to Boyle, but when Boyle had finished singing and the pandemonium in the studio had died down, Holden offered what seemed like a sincere communal apology for the “cynicism” that had greeted Boyle.

In the Los Angeles Times today, writers Josh Collins and Janice Stobart report on the Boyle phenomenon, which has set records for YouTube hits. It was a balanced story over all, but I wonder about their lead: “Less than a week ago, she was just another 47-year-old Scottish virgin.” The disingenuous Boyle had revealed that detail to producers, and the media has gleefully latched onto that term – “Scottish virgin” – as though to demonstrate that, despite her talent, it’s still okay to ridicule this woman, to constantly call attention with an oh-so-wry wit to what may be a painful part of her most private life. In the second paragraph of the story – the one-two punch being an effective offense – the writers describe Boyle as “a stocky, beetle-browed woman who would not ordinarily rate a second glance on the street.” (Emphasis mine.) Boyle is stocky and beetle-browed, but I would describe her appearance as unexceptional; I don’t know who licensed the Times writers to judge who does or does not “rate a second glance,” but I’m sure they enjoyed exercising the privilege. Presumably, they don’t understand the implication that if Boyle couldn’t sing, she wouldn’t “rate” anyone’s notice. If that’s the standard, I, for one, am in trouble.

The writers quoted Tanya Brown’s commentary in the Guardian: “Why are we so shocked when ‘ugly’ women can do things, rather than sitting at home weeping and wishing they were somebody else? Men are allowed to be ugly and talented.” The quotation marks, I suppose, were Brown’s way of softening the expression, but I wouldn’t have used the term, with or without the quotes, to describe Susan Boyle. Most people’s faces are interesting – nice, in some unique way. This is something I notice when I’m holding the Communion cup at Mass. I’ve been doing that for many years; I haven’t seen an ugly face yet.

The writers also referred to Marie Dressler, a film and vaudeville actress who, very late in life, became such a major movie star that she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Time.  “I’m too homely for a prima donna,” she once said, “and too ugly for a soubrette” – “soubrette” being a coquettish sort of stock character in the theater and the opera. That was Dressler’s self-assessment, but be sure that once she re-emerged from obscurity and poverty in the 1930s, she was the only one calling Marie Dressler ugly. As for Susan Boyle, what’s wrong with that smile?