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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The fairest of them all? Hollywood’s problem with visually represented villainy

Hannah Williams explores Hollywood's problems with representing physical difference

The latest instalment of Hollywood’s never-ending quest to retell and resell every classic film has been a contentious one. Yet another reimagining of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is in production, with breakout star Rachel Zegler in the leading role. In a desperate attempt to diversify its cinematic output, Disney has – instead of green-lighting more exciting material written by POC writers – decided to invest in a live-action adaptation of the 1937 animation, starring a Latina actress. Actor Peter Dinklage has pointed out the insensitivity of retelling a story that caricatures and ridicules people with dwarfism. Dinklage, who himself has achondroplasia, said of the film, ‘You’re progressive in one way but you’re still making that fucking backward story of seven dwarves living in the cave. What the fuck are you doing, man?’, explaining that had a ‘cool, progressive spin’ been put on the original tale he would have been ‘all in’.

Disney’s vague response (saying that they are ‘taking a different approach with these seven characters’ and are ‘consulting with members of the dwarfism community’) does not distance themselves, and the rest of the film industry, from its dark history of representation of people with physical differences. People who look different to the majority have almost always been portrayed in a negative light throughout the history of literature – think Richard III, Dracula, and Captain Hook – but in no medium does this become as glaringly insulting as film. Physical difference is too often exploited either to present characters as outsiders, like with the seven dwarves, or villains. James Bond films have recently come under fire for their consistent depictions of antagonists with burns or scars, but the sheer amount of films that use this visual trope is shocking. From Scar in The Lion King to Darth Vader in Star Wars, filmmakers have constantly been exploiting conditions that manifest themselves physically as a visual indicator of a character’s inherent wickedness.

This narrative infiltrates daily life. Cast your mind back to the 2020 American presidential election, when, during a press conference, Donald Trump’s legal aid and former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani suffered a severe hair malfunction. A single streak of brown hair dye rolled down the side of his face, and – with his villainy seemingly branded onto him in a perfect twist of fate – Twitter went up in flames. Emma Beddington wrote an article for the Guardian at the time, illustrating how this phenomenon, as satisfying as it may have been for those politically-opposed to Giuliani, was a result of ‘years of cultural conditioning’ that have conflated ‘ugliness and moral failing’. Beddington, who has alopecia, continued to talk about the effect of this cultural perception of villainy on her own life, as she explained her children’s confusion when she read them Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’. ‘They adored the story and Quentin Blake’s enchanting illustrations,’ she said, ‘but the diagram and explanation of an unmasked witch confused them – because it looked like me’.

The physical demonisation of Giuliani struck an equally conflicting chord in me. As much as I detested him as a person, the image of a dark droplet trickling down his face reminded me of my own experience, like Beddington, with alopecia. I would have to use tar-like spray-on hair dye intended for old men like Giuliani in order to cover up my own large, patchy bald spots every day before school. In fact, on a hot summer’s day it is likely that I would have recreated this ridiculed image of Giuliani. Reading Beddington’s article, I remembered the disgust I’d feel towards myself when, as my hair loss worsened, I’d unclip my hairpieces at night and transform, like Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch, into my exposed, visibly antagonistic self.

We need to reject this lazy idea that physical conditions, or, more broadly, visible difference, equate to villainy or societal rejection. Hollywood, at very least, is trying to deliver this message and produce films that depict people with conditions affecting their physical image in a positive light – but, my god, is it failing. Steven Chbosky’s 2017 adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder, which follows the life of a young boy named Augustus with Treacher Collins syndrome, was met with significant criticism due to the director’s decision to cast a child actor without this syndrome in the starring role, and make extensive use of prosthetics to ‘transform’ him into Augustus. Despite its good intentions and sensitive storytelling, Wonder achieved something not too far from what Disney was trying to achieve in its 1937 depiction of the ‘seven dwarves’: singling out those who do not fit in to Hollywood’s complex cookie cutter of what is physically ‘desirable’ and ‘normal’ and thus furthering society’s uninformed perception of physical difference.

Filmmakers should, at very least, have the sensitivity to see that using prosthetics to depict a condition is degrading, and exposes a shallow attempt to explore the life of someone susceptible to cinema’s visually antagonising and outcasting agenda. But more broadly, they must push themselves to construct characters that are psychologically complex enough to not be dependent upon a physical indicator of their identity. Film is, of course, an inherently visual form – aesthetics and style are naturally a key aspect of a character’s construction. But the characters that we see in film deserve a complexity of character that goes beyond skin-deep appearance.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) succeeds in this task, as its charismatic protagonist is depicted with acne. This doesn’t form any kind of basis for her identity, but it provides a refreshing change from the unrealistically acne-free teenagers that dominate coming-of-age films and brings a visibility that validates the experience of young people suffering from acne. Pixar’s recent animated film Luca (2021) also succeeds in sensitively presenting a character born with one arm – Guilia’s father, Massimo – without using this to construct his identity. The film illustrates on many levels the importance of a character’s internal identity over their external appearance. Disney’s depiction of Massimo’s visible difference subverts stereotypes: he is big, strong and as a result is initially intimidating to Luca and Alberto, thus avoiding the trope that limb difference equates to weakness. As the film progresses, however, Massimo’s soft and caring persona is revealed and combats the assumptions made from his macho physical appearance. He encapsulates the film’s message, a message that Hollywood needs to hear loud and clear: personality prevails over physicality.

These positive depictions of three-dimensional characters with physical difference are far too rare. It goes without saying that our society has progressed to the point where we, on the whole, do not single out those who look different from the rest with the sole purpose of excluding them. We know that we ought to validate and cherish visible difference. Why is cinema struggling so much to catch on? Is it because Hollywood is constantly retreating to and capitalising on old stories without considering the outdated ideas they depict? Perhaps. This endless cycle of cinematic deja-vu certainly makes it clear that cinema is being restricted by the retelling of stories, such as Snow White, that are incompatible with our modern society’s values. But film as a genre is also haunted by this archaic idea that a character’s internal identity must be visually, often stereotypically, represented. Hollywood is the world’s magic mirror, and it should begin reflecting the real range of human experiences, instead of obsessing over who is the fairest of them all.

Artwork: Wang Sum Luk

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