We all love underdogs

Note: Great minds think alike!  Just by coincidence, both Toni and I blogged about the very same subject — the Susan Boyle phenomenon.  And we both posted our entries into the Murderati queue on Saturday.  So no, you’re not reading a repeat entry, just a different spin on a woman who’s captured everyone’s attention. 


by Tess Gerritsen

The whole world is agog about a new musical star, an unknown singer who stunned the audience at an audition for the UK equivalent of “American Idol”.  In case you’ve been sans TV and computer for the past week, the singer’s name is Susan Boyle and she’s a 47-year-old Scotswoman who’s “never been married, never even been kissed.”  Up till recently, she devoted her life to caring for her aged mum, who has since died.  Now Susan shares her home with a cat, goes to church every Sunday, and lives the quiet life of a spinster in her Scottish village.  By now, you’re getting a mental image of this woman, right?  A bit dowdy, perhaps overweight, and certainly no glamor puss.

 And you’d be right, because that’s exactly what Susan looks like.  

Yet Susan had dreams of singing before a large audience, so she plucked up the courage to perform for a packed auditorium and a panel of judges, one of them the oftentimes smirkingly cruel Simon Cowell.  As Susan walked onstage in her matronly dress, you could hear the audience giggling, could see the the male judges roll their eyes in disdain.  (The female judge, I have to say, looked genuinely respectful the whole time.  Good for her.)  But everyone else was expecting this chubby woman with the double chin and a head of frizzy gray hair to completely embarrass herself.  In fact, the audience seemed to lean forward in anticipation of the spectacle, some of them wincing at the cruelty of it all, others poised to start jeering. 

Then Susan opened her mouth and began to sing.  And suddenly, everything changed.  If you haven’t seen the video yet, here it is:


I have watched this video about five times, and every single time I get a lump in my throat.  My reaction isn’t unique; if you check the comments for the video, you’ll find many other people saying the same thing.  The video has already been viewed 25 million times and counting — and Susan’s been invited onto Larry King and Oprah, and everyone is clamoring for a CD.  

What makes this performance so powerful, to the point of inspiring tears in viewers?  Yes, Susan’s voice is impressive.  And her choice of music “I Dreamed a Dream” was especially poignant, given her own lonely circumstances of having grown up as a bullied and homely girl.  But I think the real reason this performance has touched so many of us was the simple fact that we did not expect that voice to come out of such an ordinary looking woman.  We’ve been conditioned to expect singers to be young and slim and sexy.  If they’re gray-haired and dowdy, well, how good can they possibly be?  We expect our idols to look like idols, to be flawless in every way. Which is why, when an idol’s photos turn up in National Enquirer revealing protruding guts and cellulite, they become such juicy targets for ridicule.  

But Susan  — ah, Susan!  When she walked onstage, it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that she could ever be a winner.  She was considered a hopeless underdog from the word go — and that’s why the world now adores her. Most of us know what it’s like to feel like the underdog, so Susan’s triumph became our triumph as well.

Our almost universal identification with underdogs can be turned to powerful use in a novelist’s hands.  As a reader, I find it hard to care much about characters who start off having everything going for them.  A hero who’s gorgeous, a crack shot, a martial arts expert, and a snazzy dresser may look good onscreen, but in the end, James Bond is just James Bond.  Iconic, yes, and someone we’d like to emulate.  But he’s not really human. He’s not us.  He has no journey to make to become a hero, because he’s already arrived.  

I think back to the stories I loved best, and most of them are about seemingly ordinary schmoes who are forced to discover their hidden strengths and talents.  Consider poor little Harry Potter, orphaned and despised by his relatives.  Or Luke Skywalker, a simple farm boy on Tatooine.  Or that hobbit homebody Frodo Baggins, who never wanted to go on any adventures to begin with.  These are three of the most compelling characters ever created, and they all started off seemingly ordinary.  But like Susan Boyle, they walked (or were forced) onstage, plucked up their courage to perform … and revealed that they were in truth extraordinary beings.  

I think back, as well, to a film that most of you probably don’t remember.  It was “Target,” starring Gene Hackman as just a regular guy with a wife and a rebellious teenage son.  The son thinks his dad’s a total loser, content to be stuck in a nowhere town.  Hackman looks the part, too –a little bald, a little chubby, a boringly law-abiding hardware salesman who always drives under the speed limit, much to his son’s disdain.  This guy is not any son’s idea of a hero.

Then Hackman’s wife gets kidnapped while in Paris, and father and son go searching for her.  Within moments of their arrival in France, the son is shocked when Hackman starts transforming into someone he doesn’t know.  Suddenly dad can speak fluent French!  Dad pistol whips an attacker!  Dad gets behind the wheel and turns into a race-car driver!  The great fun of this movie is watching the shocked son reevaluate what he knew — or thought he knew — about his own father.  Gene Hackman is, in fact, a former CIA agent who must now call on his past skills to save his family.  Before the son’s amazed eyes, this ordinary dad proves to be an extraordinary man.  

By the end of the film, I had a giant crush on Gene Hackman.  Because heroes are always sexy — no matter what they look like.

And if you doubt that, go check out the comments on the Youtube video.  Men around the world are now clamoring to meet Susan Boyle, and give her what she’s missed all her life:

Her very first kiss.



10 thoughts on “We all love underdogs

  1. James Scott Bell

    Exactly. That’s why we love Hitchcock. He puts an ordinary man (e.g., Cary Grant in North by Northwest) or woman (e.g. Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt) into terrible trouble. The rooting interest goes way up.

  2. Louise Ure

    I used to work for PEOPLE magazine in Australia, and their editorial direction was "write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or about extraordinary people (read celebs) doing ordinary things." A shockingly simple description, but it works.

  3. Pari

    I was going to write about Susan Boyle as well and the focus was going to be on HOPE. You’ve covered that in a roundabout way, but it’s the same message: If she can do it, then we all should hold onto our dreams because they’re possible.

    I also think that SB represents something more right now; she’s providing us brightness, glimmerings of a better world, simply by being. With all the economic and environmental woes we see everyday on the news, SB has an even more brilliant shine.

  4. JT Ellison

    Tess, lovely. It’s so good to have someone, anyone that we can look up to who’s earned our respect. And Susan Boyle did just that, she got out there and earned her fifteen minutes. I adore this video. It was so funny, I came downstairs last Saturday and heard I Dreamed A Dream, and asked Randy why he had my Sarah Brightman CD out. I hope SB gets the chance to live her dream.

    And I want to see that Hackman movie! I’ve always like him.

  5. caite

    Yes, that is a Hackman movie I missed and must search out.

    And of course, I love that Susan Boyle video, like everyone else. She has a lovely voice, and I certainly hope her 15 minutes turns out to be a longer success for her. I read she was signed by Mr. Cowell’s record company (are they still called ‘record’ companies? lol) and I hope that is true.
    But what I really loved about the video was watching people’s preconceptions and prejudices dashed, watching their smirks turn into genuine smiles.

    I certainly agree that is very appealing in a book character as well. The underdog, the person who is underestimated, who rises to the occasion, who rises above what anyone thought, who turns out to be something other than what we thought at first…the Columbo factor.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    I must – as Toni so succinctly put it on Sunday – have been living under a rock because I hadn’t heard all the furore about Susan Boyle, but now having watched the YouTube video, I can completely understand the fuss.

    Sadly, the way our tabloid newspapers are over here, she’ll have a brief period of being fêted, and then they’ll all be out to drag her down, so I would add to your ‘everybody loves an underdog… ‘ message with ‘…until they’re no longer the underdog, and then we love to see them fall’. Sad but true.

    And I also love the sound of that Gene Hackman movie. I didn’t realise Matt Dillon was playing the teenage son – but it was made in ’85. Nice to hear about Hackman not playing the villain. Definitely on my To Be Watched list!

  7. John Dishon

    From a Reddit commenter:

    "The worst part is how everyone thinks they’ve learned a lesson about not judging a book by its cover, when really the mere fact that they are surprised that someone who looks like Susan Boyle could actually be talented is proof enough that they haven’t. Like the columnist said, if she wasn’t talented, she would have just continued on with her lonely life being mocked by others. This whole thing is just bizarre and depressing and only makes me think about how shallow most people are."


  8. ec

    Years ago, my brother-in-law returned from a high school reunion raving about how great one of his former classmates looked, Always a pretty girl with marvelous bone structure, she’d lost weight and gained polish and confidence. He congratulated himself on having evolved and grown since his teen years, when he wouldn’t have given the girl a second look. He didn’t seem to notice the gap in his logic, or realize that while his classmate may have changed, his attitudes had not.

    I’m getting the same impression from much of the commentary about Susan Boyle. There’s a lot of "OMG we’re so enlightened now and geez, wasn’t this an inspiring wakeup call?" But the fact is, people are STILL talking about her age and appearance. Ad nauseum. Something might have changed to shift their perception–in this case, the realization that a plain, middle-aged woman can sing–but their value systems have not noticably shifted.

    There was an article in the Arts & Entertainment section of the NYTimes recently about a remarkable alto singing–owning–the role of Orpheus. But what the article focused on, primarily, was the fact that this woman was wowing audiences DESPITE the fact that she was not movie-star slim and gorgeous. Musicians, particularly female musicians and particularly singers, are no longer expected merely to master their craft, but to look like fashion models. People who transcend these expectations are still judged by them.

    On another note, I wonder if the members of the media who’ve interviewed Ms. Boyle listen to their tapes and recognize how obnoxious and condescending their comments and questions sound. How many times much this poor women stoically listen to someone point out that the audience was laughing at her? That everyone expected her to fail?

    Everyone loves a Cinderella story, but at some point, people need to stop pointing out that gee, aren’t we wonderful and enlightened for seeing the true beauty inside the kitchen drudge, now that she’s wearing silk instead of ashes?

  9. shalla

    When I first saw the video (I’ve no idea she would surprise her audience), I was hugely annoyed and somehow hurt by the audience’s reactions on her. I’ve always believed that great things come in small packages. I, too, got teary eyed after hearing her music. So… so… I don’t know what to say. I think it’s… enthralling.

    P.S. I’m now fifteen, but since I was like, 12, I’ve always adored your books. Oh, can’t wait to get a grip onb "The Sinner."


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