Sunday, January 10, 2010

2009 - On The Face Of It

Indulge me as I revisit three banner spectacles of 2009 — each has or will have a high profile update early in 2010. Coming hard upon one other last spring — at first glance, worlds apart — one compelling common element became apparent: Appearances. Especially facial appearance. And how profoundly we are impacted by what we see when we look at other human beings.

Susan Boyle1. Singing sensation Susan Boyle went viral, to the tune of 85 million hits (and counting) on the top YouTube clip of her performance on Britain’s Got Talent, sister series to American Idol, both properties of TV producer Simon Cowell’s “Got Talent” franchise.

2. The Audition, from award-winning director Susan Froemke, opened at 400 movie theaters nationally, in a one time only HD event. The full-length documentary film is an intimate look at the dramatic final week of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

3. The nation’s second-ever face transplant operation (seventh in the world) was accomplished at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, by Dr. Bohdan Pomahac and his team.

Susan Boyle was simultaneously hooted and ballyhooed in backhanded headlines (Unlikely Singer is YouTube Sensation) and described all over cyberspace as a “middle-aged church volunteer”, a “living troll-doll”, a “warbling gremlin”, spinster (when was the last time you heard that hoary reproach?). She was compared most relevantly, perhaps, to former cell phone salesman Paul Potts, not just a passionately dedicated tenor who won the 2008 contest, but “tubby, dentally challenged, and cripplingly shy”. 

The Met Auditions have been called the “American Idol” of the opera world—like “Idol”, they are open to all, offer enormous exposure, prize money, and the “shot” of a lifetime. The winners have glorious voices, every one—and look at them. In the requisite gown and bling, Susan Boyle wouldn’t be out of place among them.

Jonathan Friend, a National Council judge, says “the judges listen to see what a singer sounds like in  [the Met] auditorium, but the judges are looking for [singers who] … are connected to the music, the words. They use their body, their face, everything, to convey what the composer wanted to say.” But, “Hollywood has come to the opera,” says Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center (SFO's training wing), “and we now want our young singers to look like starlets.” Gina Lapinski, a drama coach at the Met, says judges are looking for a package.  “If they sing well but are boring as batshit, we don’t care about them. It’s about communication, not just singing.”

In her blog The Classical Beat, music critic Anne Midgette endorsed Boyle “to demonstrate that lovers of classical music… want to hear good voices and musical expression, and [Boyle ] appears…to have both." Still, Angela Meade, who ultimately triumphed in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, worried aloud about her own lifelong struggle with her appearance.

And later that month, The Associated Press reported  “seven face transplants…worldwide, three of those occurring in just the past two weeks.” It’s not likely that any of these singers has ever considered a wholesale trade-in. But others are lining up. Less than five years ago, desperate survivors of disfiguring accidents, disease or combat head wounds were doomed to confront the rest of their lives with no face at all. Instead, today, they wait for organ donors, and prepare themselves for a miracle.

Said Dr. Maria Siemionow, head of plastic surgery research at the Cleveland Clinic and leader of the first American transplant team (December 2008), "I believe this procedure is justified because you need a face to face the world". At Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital (February 2009), Dr. Bohdan Pomahac led a 35-member medical team that transplanted a man’s nose, the roof of his mouth, his upper lip, facial skin, muscles and the nerves that power them. “It was almost scary,” Pomahac said later, how eager the patient was to submit to a 17-hour, radically new operation which would sew him into another man's face. “I said, the face might not match exactly… He said any face is better than none."

Now consider this. A worldwide flurry of commentary followed the Susan Boyle phenom, lamenting how quickly we stereotype each other, how biased we are toward youth and beauty, and that books ought not be judged by their covers. But social scientists, reported the New York Times, agree these snap judgments are unremarkable, consistent with nature, and crucial to the way we function in community — even when our assessments are completely wrong.

“Stereotypes are seen as a necessary mechanism for making sense of information,” said David Amodio, assistant professor of psychology at New York University. According to John F. Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale, encountering discrepancies to stereotypes probably “creates a sort of autonomic arousal” in our peripheral nervous system, triggering spikes of cortisol and other indicators of stress. Helen Fisher, an anthropology professor at Rutgers, further theorizes that in Ms. Boyle’s case, the audience also experienced a pleasurable “rush of dopamine” from the surprise of a positive auditory experience so inconsistent with negative expectations. David Berreby, author of “Us and Them,” says, “It’s not something we came up with because of TV… It’s not connected to modern life at all. It is inherent in the mind.”

As Ms. Boyle herself said after her performance, while society is too quick to judge people by appearance, “There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are.” For in real life, whether or not we understand its scientific underpinnings, most human beings are keenly attuned to the appearance experience.

And any who are not so attuned struggle mightily.