Dr. Poison: Disfigurement as a Proxy for Villainy


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.

4 thoughts on “Dr. Poison: Disfigurement as a Proxy for Villainy

  1. Thank you for this post. The comment about the Bond villains reminded me of the Javier Bardon character Raoul Silva in Skyfall, whose need for revenge is motivated by surviving mutilation by cyanide capsule while attempting to die for his country. It was an evocative character, but I hadn’t “got” how often Fleming uses this cliche and how awfully it reinforces that those who are physically damaged are reflecting an inner evil. That idea is lazy storytelling, but telling an alternative story requires a tour de force because the archetypes run so deep (think of all the monsters Ulysses confronts–right up through the Alien clawing its way out of a victim’s chest like the worst case of failed anger management in existence). The misfortune of another human’s damage or radical anatomical difference brings out the worst in human nature. Fear, taboo and superstition all intersect when confronting it. Inevitably, I also thought of David Roche, who has moved to Canada (in part I believe because the ongoing medical needs relating to his facial deformity could not be met in the US). I often think of Dave when people talk about having trouble looking in the mirror and saying, “I love you.” He suggested saying, “I like you, you’re a nice guy. Can we be friends?” http://www.davidroche.com/david/

    1. Thanks, Lynne!

      I take your point about tour-de-force writing, but honestly, one of the best things writers can do is just include disfigured (or whatever marginalized group) characters without that being the important thing about them, just as it’s not the most important thing about Ariel Henley. That doesn’t require any more writing skill than writing any other interesting character, and it broadens our imagery so much.

      I remember you writing about David Roche here back in the day (turns out you did it twice).

  2. Far from pinning the correlation between twisted face and twisted persona on Ian Flemming in particular, I see this commonly in fiction and ubiquitously in film. At least in fiction we can examine characters’ interiors directly and in depth so we know who the characters are without the broad tell, whereas too many filmmakers seem to feel limited to what they can show. It’s either their own lack of insight and imagination or their failure to trust their audience to have same that they need to put a scary mask on the villain so no one loses track of who the villain is – and then of course their need to have a villain in the first place, thinking that’s what’s needed to make drama.

    1. Oh, completely agreed that Ian Fleming neither created it nor is the only offender.

      And thanks for the point about limited imagination; so often that’s how fictional and film stereotypes proliferate.

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