Changing faces, changing minds
I have mixed feelings about the current Face Equality on Film campaign from Changing Faces, the facial disfigurement charity and advocacy organisation. Their recent survey found, unsurprisingly if depressingly, that bad teeth, scars, burns and other conditions affecting the face are viewed as the most common indicators of an evil film character. The campaign tries to counter this persistent association in various ways, including showing a short film featuring a man with burn scars in 750 Odeon cinemas nationwide. And then there’s the petition…
… ok, I admit I probably have personal petition fatigue after being constantly bombarded with pleas of varying urgency and importance from (extremely well-intentioned) organisations like Change.org, 38 Degrees and Avaaz. I have signed many of these petitions and one or two of them have even made a difference, but I do sometimes feel uneasy about the cookie-cutter ‘activists-for-hire’ flavour to the arrangement. Do you want to save the NHS? Aha so you must be against factory farming as well then! Get signing! It just doesn’t always follow. But that’s by the by.
The fact is that when I see the above entreaty, I come over all cynical. Firstly, there’s a difference between delivering a petition to a (theoretically accountable) government and delivering one to an entire industry whose overriding interests are commercial. Secondly, this link between appearance and character has deep cultural roots, going back to, ooh Shakespeare and Spenser to name just a couple, and further back to folk tales of all nations. It’s not something made up by a callous movie industry, although admittedly filmmakers have enthusiastically taken up and run with the idea of a visual shorthand for internal evil. Of course, films influence cultural attitudes just as much as they reflect them, so there is definitely a role for cinema in changing our minds – but perhaps this should (and will) be proactively, not in reaction to petitions?
My own facial defect, and my daughter’s, have their own persistent associations – a cleft lip and/or palate has (completely unfounded) connotations of speech problems, mental retardation and general inbred slowness. I cheer when clefties are on telly and in films, of course I do, and I’d love to see mainstream films featuring characters with facial disfigurements living normal lives rather than harbouring bitter and twisted revenge fantasies – I’m just not sure how a petition can achieve this without corresponding changes in our entire culture.