From reading this week’s headlines, you might assume that Susan Boyle is at the center of a terrible scandal. U.K. and U.S. reporters alike seem to fear that the enormously popular Britain’s Got Talent performer and YouTube sensation will soon collapse and perhaps retreat from the stage before the final episode of the now-famous series. Has she been caught using drugs? Did she sabotage one of her competitors? Punch a fan?
It’s far worse than that, reports claim. After being approached by two members of the paparazzi in a hotel lobby, Boyle lashed out at the pair by swearing, “How f***ing dare you! You can’t f***ing talk to me like that.” She then contacted a nearby police officer and left the scene.
The headlines in gossip rags like The National Enquirer and more reputable newspapers such as The Washington Post make it clear – Susan has a “potty mouth.” That’s right: a grown woman dropped the f-bomb in public. And she didn’t even apologize for her rudeness!
Though Boyle is being called to task for daring to use four-letter words, the same standard is not often applied to men in the public spotlight. We have come to expect certain male celebrities to retaliate against paparazzi who invade their privacy by going beyond the limits of propriety in trying to get a photograph or a quote. Actor Gerard Butler faces charges of misdemeanor criminal battery for attacking a photographer during the L.A. premiere for his new film “RockNRolla,” but commenters on sites like CelebrityTruth.com aren’t chastising Butler for his antics. Commenter Luc writes, “I have even more respect for Gerard Butler for punching those pathetic people out. He should receive a medal, not a court case.” If anything, Butler’s plight has garnered great sympathy.
Boyle’s fans, however, seem less understanding. On the comment boards for E! Online.com, commenter David remarks, “Who does Susan Boyle think she is… She obviously has no class.” Another commenter, Josh, points to a supposed correlation between Boyle’s “ugly” appearance and “ugly words.” He writes:
“Look, if Susan looked like Paris Hilton, Chelsea Handler, or even Courtney Love she could get away with a few f-bombs. However, she’s a 0.5, and just a disgusting looking… woman who’s a charity case. She seems to have an attitude that matches her look.”
I guess that means only pretty girls can curse, right? Or maybe they’re just supposed to keep their pretty mouths shut.
Why aren’t Boyle’s fellow Scottish male celebrities receiving similar scrutiny for their public use of obscenities? Television chef Gordon Ramsay remains notorious for his less than kind verbiage when addressing other chefs; media blog Entertainment Daily reported that in a recent episode of Hell’s Kitchen, Ramsay used the f-word 115 times in less than one hour. However, Ramsay’s network, Channel 4, justified his antics by claiming that in his work, he had “no time for niceties or gentle persuasion.” At no point did the channel claim that Ramsay was “at the breaking point” or experiencing a “meltdown.” Ramsay’s harsh words are an essential part of his image as a gruff perfectionist whose temperament commands both fear and respect.
Ramsay’s audiences have responded favorably to this public image; his show continues to receive high ratings and his cookbooks are published best-sellers. By successfully marketing his signature tough-guy image, Ramsay’s celebrity status does not implicitly suggest that he ought to be a role model for polite language. We don’t mind it so much when Ramsay says “f***” on his show, but when a woman like Susan Boyle uses the exact same obscenity in public, she’s probably on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Boyle’s image has been shaped by both her gender and working-class background. Much has been made of her frumpy appearance and sheltered life in a small Scottish town: singing karaoke with locals, a charity volunteer worker who has never kissed, with only her cat Pebbles as a living companion. Her debut appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was initially met with derisive laughs and eye-rolling, but her incredible singing abilities have turned her into a public sensation, with over 250 million hits to her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on YouTube and a fan following that hopes to see her win the show and sing for Queen Elizabeth II at an upcoming Royal Variety Performance event. Perhaps we prefer that a woman in Boyle’s position – one without the powers of the beauty myth or riches – would only express gratitude for her overnight celebrity status. We don’t want to see signs of her stress or frustration, and we certainly wouldn’t want to expose the Queen to someone who uses “low-class” language or would dare to fight back against those who seek to terrorize or humiliate her.
Though no one is sure of what was said to Boyle that sparked her angry comments, we place responsibility on her for being un-ladylike in using coarse language rather than ignoring those who harass her. Her defenders claim that she is “cracking under pressure,” but this logic corresponds with the perception of Boyle as a mild-mannered old lady incapable of self-defense. By merely yelling back and obtaining nearby help, Boyle stood up to her harassers without the use of violence. Had she truly been experiencing a “meltdown,” it’s unlikely that she would have been to exert the necessary self-control required to seek outside help for a situation she could not control. Though it’s unlikely that any of the media stories will paint her in this light, Boyle’s non-violent actions – and yes, her four-letter words – are really a form of grace under fire.