The more and more I study media the more and more convinced I am that very little we are exposed to has not been spin doctored. One fascinating study of this phenomenon is the whole Susan Boyle drama. What I find interesting is the way that media sells us back our discontent with media. The world went nuts for Susan Boyle because she was sold as someone authentic in contrast to what was seen as the superficiality of pop culture. Commentator after commentator gushed how great it was to have someone who was talented and did not fit the superficial female beauty stereotypes so prevalent in the media. Yet few managed to note that the media is not interested in pushing certain stereotypes, the media at the end of the day is interested in pushing the bottom line. Journalist Nicci Gerard writes
I watched Susan Boyle on YouTube and afterwards I dearly wished I hadn’t — not just because of the sheer humiliating ugliness of a spectacle where celebrity judges patronised a dumpy, unmarried, middle-aged woman, where the audience tittered and gave derisive wolf-whistles and where she compliantly wiggled her hips while everyone seemed shocked and delighted and a bit embarrassed that even the unbeautiful can have talent, but because from the very start it was so obviously a fake, a set-up. The “surprise” — that someone looking like her could win — was just another clever construct. This is not real life, this is a drama — a nasty, demeaning drama, with a vulnerable, unprepared, star-struck woman at its centre and media-savvy judges licking their lips on the sidelines.
The media machine will not only objectify the Paris Hiltons of the world, it will manipulate, chew up, commodify and objectify the Susan Bolyes of the world as well. It is not about pushing a political or social platform it is about ratings and media attention.
Take for example the whole Real Beauty campaign by Dove.
The problem is that this seemingly social aware campaign was that it was made by the same advertising department which produced campaigns that were highly criticized for being sexist and for their objectified stylized images of women, one of which featured men secretly filming the kind of sexualized images of women that the dove ad was criticizing. Yes, it is horribly pragmatic, but it is a case of making bucks by giving the people what they want, be it campaigns that objectify women, or campaigns that criticise campaigns that objectify people. When I was studying advertising one of my lecturers told me that the good ad man leaves their morals at the door of the agency.
So what is being sold to us today is not just stylized, airbrushed images of objectified women, or men. But what our meaning starved post-Christian culture is being sold is manufactured stories of triumph and redemption, the pity is that in this process redemption itself is objectified and turned into a commodity.Sadly in this process people like Susan Boyle get commodified and then like a product that has past its used by date thrown out. I will leave the last words to Nicci Gerard who says it so much better than I could,
People call reality television and the cult of celebrity just good harmless fun. This wasn’t harmless. I never saw anything else of Susan Boyle, though I did manage by some mysterious osmosis to pick up several facts about her. She was deprived of oxygen at birth and so suffered from learning difficulties, she was bullied at school, she was a virgin who had never been kissed, she had looked after her mother for most of her life, she had a cat. All of these facts served the narrative that we were being spoon-fed and were gobbling up: that she was Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty; that the poor may inherit the earth, and that dreams may come true.
And because we live in an age of extreme volatility, sentimentality and instant gratification, it was no surprise that the hapless woman who was one day an inspiration to all of us ordinary people had to be taken down a peg or hundreds. In the weeks between her initial triumph and coming second place in Saturday’s final, she was praised, pilloried, mocked, adored, demeaned, dismissed and never left alone. She had what so many crave: fame. Beware what you wish for.
It probably wasn’t in the script that she should come second — although even that made a kind of sense, because she had already had the world-wide celebrity after her first victory. And it wasn’t in the script either that, after she had left the show, graciously praising the winners, she returned to her hotel where she was found suffering from what is being called “exhaustion” and was admitted to hospital, where you can be fairly sure that she will not be left in peace.
However, even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas). And after that, we will all forget about her. She will be yesterday’s story — a barely remembered casualty devoured and spat out by our celebrity-addicted age.
You can read Nicci Gerard’s full article here