The Metaphor of Facial Difference
by David Roche
The use of facial difference to symbolize evil is the most hackneyed metaphor in Hollywood.
I am facially unique. The left side of my face and neck is empurpled and engorged by “veins gone wild” in the form of a congenital venous malformation. My appearance was further distorted by multiple surgeries and heavy radiation in my infancy.
I am tired of seeing people like me portrayed as evil in the movies.
The list of disfigured villains in cinema is long: Freddy Kreuger. The Phantom of the Opera. The Dick Tracy villains: Pruneface, Haf-and-Haf, Gruesome. Darth Vader. Scarface. Quasimodo. Igor. Charlize Thieron in Monster. And on. And on.
I recall seeing Mad Max: Fury Road on an airplane trip—every single one of the “bad guys” had a face that was in some way distorted.
Check out Disney’s take on their Lone Ranger villain: “Cavendish is a ruthless outlaw whose terribly scarred face is a perfect reflection of the bottomless pit that passes for his soul.”
Not that the point needed forcing. When facially different characters appear on screen, the viewer knows without question what they represent. They are evil and bent on revenge or murder. They loathe, and threaten to destroy, anything that is good, decent or cute. The exceptions are few and often as ludicrous as Disney's quaint Quasimodo (by Igor, out of Bambi). And ok, even with his pronounced propensity toward violence, I admit to liking Deadpool’s sense of humor.
I understand that movies are a visual medium, but what message is delivered to the veteran with the side of his face blown off or burnt in combat? Or am I just being sentimental here?
What does a child with a cleft palate think about herself when the Joker points to his scarred mouth to justify monstrous behavior?
The Lion King’s adversary is named Scar. We conclude immediately that he is wicked. An iconic family movie thereby teaches young children that any facial difference, however small, portends evil.
The Phantom of the Opera is defined by disfigurement and forced to live, hidden and fearful, in the dark. The exact moment you see the Phantom’s mask, you know that his love of music and the incredible gifts he has brought to the world of opera are meaningless. In the limited artistic vision of Hollywood, scars always trump talent.
Yes, there are exceptions, like the amazingly saintly Elephant Man and the more fully realized Rocky Dennis in Mask. J.K.Rowling deal t creatively with Harry Potter’s facial scar in her books, seeing it as a source of self-learning, but the movies totally missed the point.
Face it. There is no cinematic metaphor that is more trite and shallow. Time after time, the facially different are barely human, driven insane by deformity, ready to retaliate with mutilations or murder. Their highest motivation is revenge—or maybe, on a good day, lust.
T here is more at stake here than Hollywood’s artistic laziness and lack of imagination. This is not just a PC issue. The face is commonly viewed as the locus of the human persona and "face-ism" is a primary control mechanism in our society. We learn to judge ourselves and others by appearance. As we do, inevitably and inexorably, we find ourselves deficient. Forget measuring up to an ideal. The ideal does not even exist; it is a Photo-shopped construct of a marketing concept.
In my work as a performer and keynote speaker, I have met thousands of facially different folks who bring many gifts into the world, and who, in fact, radiate beauty. You know what? I’ve never met a single one of them who carried a chain saw!
My favorite work is at middle schools, where my wife Marlena and I do a program (now a video) titled Love at Second Sight, about appearance and acceptability. What else is more important to a 12 year old seeking to find a sense of self and a place in the world among his or her peers? The children often confide in us about their self-perceived flaws and it is clear that in many cases, their perceptions have contributed to diminished self-image.
This is not only about children. The very first time I ever gave a talk about facial difference, a lovely woman came up to me, clasped my hand and said, “David, you are so courageous. It was terrible for me in school too, and I am still very embarrassed and ashamed of my freckles.” I looked away, thinking to myself, “Really!? The heartbreak of freckles!?” And yet I could see that her upset was real.
People continue to confide in me about what they see as their deficiencies, and not only the external ones. Early in my career, I was surprised to be invited to speak to an organization of adults with learning disabilities. I had thought we would be at opposite ends of the disability spectrum. I got a standing ovation and a good portion of the audience wept. These were people born before dyslexia and other similar disabilities were understood. Many had to spend their childhoods finding whatever accommodation they could on their own, secretly, with the constant threat of being labeled lazy or stupid. Their disfigurement was internal.
Here is the crux of the matter: my face is unique but my experiences are universal. Everyone has the fear of being in some way defective, unlovable and unacceptable to society. That is the true disfigurement.
Countless times every day, we are driven to moments when we turn away from our own images in dismay and despair. In this accumulation of vulnerability, our sense of self-worth is constantly assailed and eroded.
These moments are deliberately fostered by those who seek profit and power. It is out of the fear engendered in these moments that we purchase everything from eyeliner to SUVs. Predators of all sorts—financial, political, sexual—come to feed on our lack of self-worth.
The facially disfigured are presented as monsters. Inside ourselves we think we may be like them—unacceptable and unlovable to family, village, species and perhaps even to God.
Whole systems of belief have been built up that feed on our self-doubt: the doctrines of original sin, of caste, of karma. All serve to perpetuate the power and privilege of those who propagate them. Our negative self-judgments are encouraged by those in power, because it is in their accretion that our souls shrink, we feel worthless and undeserving and we turn over our power.
I do know what it is like to be out in the world feeling monstrous. Every time I walk out my front door, I deal with stares, comments and the occasional cruelty, even to the extent of having had someone spit in my face in public. It is not the fact of my disfigurement that wears at my psyche. It is the fear and self-doubt of others. In fact, it is their worry about being rejected and abandoned, which they project onto me. That’s one of the jobs of the visibly disabled, to carry the weight of the fears of others so they can pretend that they are normal.
For most of my life, I was very ashamed of my appearance. Paradoxically, I have found wholeness through, and with, what at first seemed to be a grotesque flaw. Working through my fear and shame, I have come to discover that I am whole. My shadow side is on the outside, where I have been forced to deal with it.
I have learned that my face is a gift. (Not one that I was real excited about, at least not at first.) It is a gift because I have been forced to look inside to find my self worth. And that is exactly what everyone- - not just the facially disfigured person-- has to do in order to reach spiritual and emotional maturity. Inside each of us is the place where fear and doubt reside.
It is human nature to judge ourselves. We are social animals. It is part of our genetic heritage to be concerned about our social acceptability. This is a valid concern. But to put appearance at the core of that judgment is corrupting. Obsessed by our flaws, we can easily forget the true standards of assessment of self and others.
Let me suggest another way of looking at facial difference—one based on the truth of human experience. The artistic metaphor of a scarred face can be one of personal integration. Every person, no matter what their appearance, must reach the point of self acceptance. That magical moment is the key to living an integrated and full life. A character with facial difference can represent someone who has lived through that moment.
So please, Hollywood, could we try for a little more imagination and creativity? An about face, perhaps? Don’t make me take out the chainsaw!
Roche as Otis in Happy Face.
Photo credit: Jennifer Pitoscia.
David Roche is the author of The Church of 80% Sincerity based on his signature solo show with the same title. He has performed and presented from New Zealand to Moscow and across the US (including at the White House) and Canada. He and his wife Marlena Blavin produced Love at Second Sight, a film based on their hundreds of appearances in schools. David has a principal role in the recently released Happy Face (director Alexandre Franchi) soon to have its US premiere at the upcoming SlamDance Festival in Park City, Utah.