The story of overnight singing sensation Susan Boyle captured the hearts of people around the world. When Boyle, a forty-seven-year-old unemployed single woman from Scotland, walked onstage at Britain’s Got Talent, the judges and audience mocked her strange clothes and demeanor, yet when she began singing, she silenced her critics with her unexpectedly wonderful voice. Now, Boyle has been interviewed by London’s Daily Mirror and NBC’s Today Show, videos of her performance are flooding the Internet, and she even has a Facebook fan group.
I’m among the millions who watched Boyle’s performance and found myself getting both teary-eyed and incredibly inspired. (If you haven’t yet seen it yet, you should definitely check it out .) It’s hard to see someone with such a pure, guileless talent and not root for her to succeed. Boyle, with her dowdy clothes and spinster style, is definitely an underdog in the competition, facing competitors who are younger, thinner, flashier, and more polished. But she’s the one the world will be rooting for, hoping that talent and spirit can trump a pretty package. Everyone loves an underdog story, but what is it that makes them so enchanting?
Underdogs Are Like Us
Underdogs are people we can relate to; they’re unpolished and authentic. In the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. Hockey team’s victory over the U.S.S.R. was called the “Miracle on Ice.” Why? Because the U.S. team was comprised of amateurs and college kids who fought a team of hardened, well-trained professionals and came out on top. When we see a rag-tag band of misfits like the Mighty Ducks pull out a win against overwhelming odds, we’re reminded of regular people like ourselves. There’s no pleasure in watching people who have had every advantage do what they’ve been trained to do—win. It’s hard to feel a kinship with a girl whose parents spent millions teaching her to be a tennis champion. We’d rather root for the average kid who picks up a racquet and discovers a preternatural gift for the game. We can’t relate to flashy packaging, expensive image-consultants, or artifice. We like the real thing.
Underdogs Prove That Hard Work Pays Off
We like to believe that contests can really be decided on the basis of pure unadulterated talent and sheer force of will. One thing that all underdogs have in common is that they never give up, even in the face of imminent defeat. They persevere and work hard. They may not be the most experienced or the best-trained person in the field, but they have the ambition, the drive, and an indomitable spirit. Americans love a good work ethic, and we like to believe that perseverance and effort will be rewarded. Underdogs make winning seem like a real, bona fide accomplishment, and not just a foregone conclusion.
Underdogs Encourage Us to Go for It
We live vicariously through underdogs, thinking “If the Karate Kid, a guy with barely any training, can beat all those Cobra Kai fighters, then why can’t I?” Underdogs allow us to live out our own dreams of greatness, and imagine ourselves conquering our own personal challenges. Whether we dream of singing on television, playing a professional sport, or climbing a mountain, we like to see normal people succeed, because it helps convince us that maybe we could, too. Rocky Balboa was just a kid from Philly, and his victory over Apollo Creed is satisfying because he had to overcome more to get there. If Creed had won, he wouldn’t have worked as hard for it. If an average kid from Philly can make it, maybe we can, and underdogs always encourage us to try.
Underdogs Don’t Care What Society Thinks
When Susan Boyle stepped onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent, she didn’t care that people might poke fun at her strange clothes and funny accent. When Rudy Ruettiger dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame, he didn’t care what people would say about him being smaller than all the other players. Underdogs have an internal drive that allows them to transcend petty criticisms, and that drive is part of what attracts us to them. They challenge society’s notions of what people can do and what people can achieve. Often, underdogs are people who have been told repeatedly that they can’t succeed, or that they can’t live their dreams. To an underdog, being poor or less talented is just another obstacle to overcome, and we love them for their fierce tenacity. If Susan Boyle had kept living her quiet life in Scotland, no one would have cared, because no one expected her to do anything different. No one expected Rudy to fulfill his dream, and his amazing story of courage inspired one of the greatest sports movies ever made. Underdogs love nothing more than proving the naysayers wrong.
Underdogs, real and fictional, have always captured our imaginations. In 1919, boxer Jack Dempsey defeated Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship, and this David-and-Goliath story made Dempsey a sports legend. The movie Flashdance showed that a hard-working welder with a dream of dancing could get into ballet school, and it’s become one of the best-loved movies of the 80s. Abraham Lincoln, Galileo, and William Wallace were all underdogs, and look at what they accomplished. As long as there are people with dreams who try to overcome obstacles, there will always be people in the audience waiting to cheer them to victory.
Updated March 30, 2011