Dr. Poison: Disfigurement as a Proxy for Villainy

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Debbie says:

I saw Wonder Woman the week it came out, a month or two ago, and while I liked a lot about it, I also share a lot of the concerns that have been raised about the (almost non-)portrayal of people of color, centering the male protagonist, and more. I was also especially disappointed at how badly the film-makers trivialized Etta Candy.

I was, however, fascinated by the character of Dr. Poison, and I admit that her disfigurement was part of the fascination for me. As a long-time body image (and disability) activist, I am very aware that disfigurement is especially difficult for most people to learn to look at, and that facial disfigurement is especially unsettling. This may well be hard-wired into many or most of us, to varying degrees. And we can also learn to change/control that reaction.

I’ve done enough of my own work (always more to do!) that I preferred seeing Elena Anaya’s disfigurement (created in the make-up department; Anaya is not disfigured) to her prosthetic mask.  Perhaps predictably, given our fear of disfigurement, photos of Anaya in character after she takes off her mask don’t seem to be available.

At Bustle Ariel Henley writesAs A Woman With A Facial Disfigurement, This ‘Wonder Woman’ Villain Pisses Me Off.”

In the film, Maru/Dr. Poison is a chemist working to develop a deadly gas for the Germans to use during World War I. There’s some historical significance here: Facial injury and disfigurement were common casualties of the war, because of the advanced weaponry and trench warfare. In The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain, historian Suzannah Biernoff stated, “Unlike amputees, these men were never officially celebrated as wounded heroes. The wounded face … presents the trauma of mechanized warfare as a loss of identity and humanity.”

She went on to say that “the loss of one’s face — is perceived as a loss of humanity.” After the war, patients with disfigured faces were seen as monsters and treated as pariahs. Many committed suicide. As a result of the high suicide rates, damaging social stigma, and desire to give returning veterans a shot at living normal lives, the art of facial prosthetics — much like the one Dr. Poison wears — was developed. These prosthetics were an art form, and literally saved thousands of lives. Yet, these dark, painful, historic tragedies were never addressed in Wonder Woman, choosing instead, to perpetuate the damaging myth that disfigurement and evil go hand-in-hand. …

Instead of exploring the threads explaining who Dr. Poison is, and creating a villain with substance and depth, she is portrayed as nothing more than her evil, disfigured face  — a common character device that plays into a larger issue in the entertainment industry, including characters like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street and Darth Vader in Star Wars, as well as numerous villains in the James Bond series. In an interview with Brendon Connelly of the pop culture website Bleeding Cool on why so many Bond villains have disfigurements, James Bond producer Michael G. Wilson stated, “it’s very much a Fleming device that he uses throughout the films, the idea that physical deformity and personality deformity go hand in hand in some of these villains.”

No wonder Henley is pissed off. In fact, she’s probably steamingly furious and being too polite. Not only is she facing a very successful film that perpetuates a stereotype that harms her, she’s also facing a very powerful film producer justifying the stereotype as a “device.” She lives with frequent and recurring social support for vilifying people like her; anger is both appropriate and sadly inevitable.

 

Photo used for illustrative purpose

Disfigured soldiers aren’t the only suicides in this story; Lucy Grealy, pictured above, the brilliant author of Autobiography of a Face, is a nonmiitary example. I followed Grealy’s work from Autobiography until she killed herself. I recommend Ann Patchett’s superb memoir of their friendship, Truth and Beauty (although I just learned by writing this that Grealy’s sister objected to Patchett’s book).

Let’s leave the closing words to Henley:

As someone with a facial difference, I know many people with facial disfigurements and scarring, and not one of them is, or has become evil, because of the appearance of their face. The only evil most of us have experienced has been at the hands of a society that refuses to accept us.

I found Henley through Alaina Leary’s related essay in Teen Vogue.

Growing Up in the Witch Hunt

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John Garfield, left, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Credit Associated Press

Laurie says:

I was a child living in the cloud of fear generated by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the political community where I lived in New York City, most people were what we would now call progressives. Many of them were communists in the 30’s and now were fearful and sometimes terrified that they would be blacklisted, their lives damaged and possibly destroyed by a government witch hunt that dominated for too many years. And we, their children, lived deeply under that cloud. So this letter to the New York Times from Susan Avery really rang true. My mother had been a communist in the 30’s but situationally had relatively little to fear. But so many people I knew, and some I was related to, had much to be afraid of. For a child, it was pervasive.

Susan Avery’s letter is a response to a moving Op-Ed in the Times by Julie Garfield, daughter of the actor John Garfield, who was very probably hounded to his death in that witch hunt.  Although this era is remembered for the blacklisted movie stars, most of the people including the ones I knew were celebrities.  As Julie Garfield says … “And remember this, Mr. President: You still have your job, your family, your money. And your life.”

Susan Avery says:

Julie Garfield, the daughter of the movie star John Garfield, who was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, eloquently expressed what many of us whose parents were investigated during the McCarthy era experienced and still bear to this day.

I am about the same age as Ms. Garfield and was followed home from school by F.B.I. agents. It was a terrifying and confusing time for us, the children of suspected “Reds.” Donald Trump has no idea what it feels like to be the target of a witch hunt.

I think of today’s children who have to live with similar fears about their parents. Now, the children of undocumented immigrants must be as terrified as we were. They have to live with the fear that something frightening and horrifying may happen to their parents. Do they look behind them when they walk home from school? Do they dread a knock at the door? If there is a witch hunt, then we should ask, Who is the hunter, and who is being hunted today?