Britain’s Got Physiognomics

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One of the most surprising things about [the discovery of Susan Boyle->http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/16/susan-boyle-britains-got-talent] is, well, the surprise. The background noise to all this is the sheer shock in the media that someone who looked like her could sing like an angel. This is pure 21st century physiognomics – the idea that the exterior appearance reflects the interior character. It’s not a new idea, Shakespeare used it with crook-backed Richard III, a man with a soul as warped as his body. And we find it in the Bible as well. Luke’s description of Zacchaeus – the only physical description in Luke – is intended to undermine the idea. Here we have a small man in every way: petty, mean, small-minded. A tax-collector whose character was summed up in his appearance. Yet Jesus, in Luke’s account, nukes the argument. This man whose appearance was thought to sum up his character, actually has a heart that is much greater than those around him. It is the man whose body ‘matches’ his deformed character, who really gets the whole kingdom of God thing.

And so to Susan. For me, the shock is not that she has a wonderful voice. It’s that the three plasti-coated, shiny-toothed, surgically enhanced judges assumed she could not sing. ‘After all, just look at her.’ Their reaction – not to mention the two gurning pixies who stand in the wings – tells us all we need to know. Susan has hidden depths. They have barely disguised shallows.

And, of course, physiognomics works the other way. Just because the three people sitting behind the desk judging this contest look shiny, beautiful and polished, doesn’t mean that they are like that. Just because they have stylists and makeovers and more than a nodding acquaintance with botox, doesn’t necessarily qualify them to pass judgement on anyone. For all I know they may be a failed newspaper editor, an actress who specialises in playing hairdressers and a man whose claim to musical expertise lies in bringing the world Westlife.

But then, maybe I’m judging by appearances.