28 October 2013

Appearance diversity: Scary face at Halloween

(source - Picture by Quentin Blake, from Roald Dahl's Witches)

 

When I was a small child, about three years old, I had a Snow White doll and a wicked stepmother doll. Snow White, of course, was beautiful - pale skin, ebony hair and a yellow and blue silk (probably highly flammable nylon) dress with puffed sleeves, and the wicked stepmother had a disfigured face. She was yellow, wrinkled and contorted, with a pronounced nose - complete with a wart on the tip - and long sharpened fingernails. I remember being scared of her - hiding my face when my parents brought her to me, playing with her less than what I did with Snow White, and even speaking badly to and of her. I stored her with her face down, not wanting to scare my other dolls with her face. She was a plastic doll, for goodness sake, but because she looked different, she scared me. She was, after all, the wicked stepmother, and her wickedness was depicted by her appearance. And, ironically, I didn't know any better.

Sometimes when a small child sees me, they are scared, and vocalise or gesticulate their fears. They tell their parents they're scared or hide behind their parents' legs. honestly, this saddens me - I don't want to scare anyone. I think that it's because they've not seen people with visible differences before, but I also believe it's because they have seen masks and screen characters who are depicted as evil. Think Freddy Kruger, Scarface and Two Face. Does this evil come about because the characters are lashing out over the misfortune of looking different and the associated social reactions?

(IMDB lists 31 films featuring people with disfigurements. The film synopses show that some of the characters who are disfigured are perceived as evil (some actually do commit evil acts) - but when others get to know them, they're regarded as normal - intelligent and beautiful even. A few of the story lines see characters' appearance become 'normal' upon finding love. Vomit.

A friend of mine who has a cleft palate said:

"I dislike it when horror movie characters are depicted as having facial abnormalities because of "inbreeding". I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen clefts & other facial anomalies depicted as being something that only happens to inbred weirdos, and that really bothers me because it's not at all true.")

At Halloween - a largely celebrated, primarily American holiday (but is creeping into Australian culture) held annually on 31 October, some people costume up as black face or similar cultural (mis)appropriation and (mis)representation.

There's a campaign started by Ohio University (and run at other American universities) called 'I'm a culture, not a costume' - educating students of the racial stereotyping through dressing up as a person from another culture.

We're a culture not a costume poster
We're a culture not a costume poster
We're a culture not a costume poster
We're a culture not a costume poster

(source)

Ryan Lombardi from the Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) program at Ohio University told CNN:

"I think it's a clean way of raising awareness of how the costumes you choose might be offensive. In many cases, students aren't doing it maliciously, but they might not realize the consequences of their actions on others."

Furthermore, Jelani Cobb, a professor of Africana studies at Rutgers University, told CNN:

"The more we look at people as caricatures, the harder it is to operate as democracy," "What underlies this kind of costuming is the belief that these people aren't quite equal to what we are or aren't as American as we are, or that you as a person who's not a member of that group should be able to dictate how painful the stereotype should be."

Similarly at Halloween, an event steeped in supernatural and superstitious traditions, people don the scary face - they wear scary face masks and characterise themselves as well known evil characters with facial disfigurements. Most of the scary face masks represent depict evil, and are designed to shock. This store sells a huge range of Halloween masks - to change Halloween goers' faces into scarred, burned, contorted, eyeless, skinless characters.

Scary face masks

(Skinned face picture source; Hugo the mutant picture source)

But what about the people who have to live with visible differences for their whole life. Our faces are not costumes, and nor should our faces be appropriated in them.

While I might be raining on the candy wrapper littered parade, I am wondering why scary face is still tolerated. Sure Halloween is a bit of fun, with trick or treating and a chance to dress up in a supernatural theme (or a character), but what message is dressing up as scary face giving about people living with facial difference? That people with disfigurements are to be feared, and mocked on this holiday? And why should people with disfigurements be mocked? (As an aside, Asda and Tesco - two English supermarkets - sold costumes mocking mental health. The costumes have since been removed from sale after Mind, an English mental health charity, spoke out about the costumes.) It's sad that some people's perceptions of visible difference may come from scary face at Halloween and on screen.

My friend Roni, whose six year old son Corbin has a prominent visible difference (a lymphatic malformation of the face) told me:

"I haven't seen much like that at Halloween, it's more been ghosts and zombies and the like, but I have always hated that villains from fairy tales were ugly or deformed, or that being ugly was a curse for ugly behaviour that was lifted when the character learned how to be "beautiful" on the inside, whereupon their outsides suddenly match. I do understand that fairy tales are medieval in origin, but still. Slight deviation from question, but I have been approached at comic cons and asked where Corbin got his mask from. I always wondered what they thought he was dressing up as."

Corbin and his family celebrated Halloween early, and I've seen some gorgeous pictures of him getting into the spirit of things - with face paint and zombie poses. Another friend with a visible difference told me seeing people dress up as scary face doesn't bother her too much. And Jack's grandmother said that while little Jack, who has Ichthyosis, loves trick or treating, a few people have asked him whether he's painted his face (a question I sometimes get - "I see you've painted your face tonight, a fancy dress party?", people ask me).

James Partridge, CEO of Changing Faces, who has previously spoken about the impact of disfigured screen characters, writes about Halloween masks on his blog. He's decided that while there is a problem with facial disfigurement depicted as evil, some children with facial disfigurements enjoy celebrating Halloween:

"The ghoulish and scary face masks that are sold in the annual mini retail boom around Hallowe’en – none of them are branded as ‘let’s pick on people with scars, eye patches and asymmetry’. They don’t need to. Everyone accepts – unwittingly perhaps? – that this is the time of year when children dress up to scare the wits out of others… and if the face masks are extreme, they simply reflect the idea that skulls and skeletons are ghostly and scary.

Is this OK?

Every year, Changing Faces has a problem with Hallowe’en. We debate it but always end up concluding that whilst it is tiresome to have facial disfigurement associated with evil (again), we don’t want to be kill-joys – and actually some children with disfigurements find the whole event rather fun too, able to indulge themselves behind a mask without worrying."

Perhaps for some with visible differences, Halloween is a chance to hide behind a mask, to temporarily change our appearances. As a child, I hated wearing a mask because of how it scratched my skin and left me feeling dry. But at times, I did want to have a different face. I wonder if children with visible differences who celebrate Halloween wear masks depicting beauty, rather than scary face? Princesses and princes, and characters they admire and appearances they aspire to have?

Maybe scary face isn't harming anyone - though I see it so similar to black face and cultural misrepresentation, and stereotyping of people with visible differences. STARS believe those who costume up as black face and other cultures aren't intending to cause offence, but aren't aware of the impacts on those affected. I'd like to see scary face ruled out as a Halloween costume, like STARS is aiming to do with it's racial awareness campaign. Maybe we can complain to costume manufacturers and distributors, requesting them to remove such masks from sale, explaining the offensive portrayal. Halloween revellers need to choose their costumes more cautiously. I know - the fun police strikes again - but there are so many ways to dress up at Halloween without being offensive. Personally, if I celebrated Halloween, I'd go a unicorn onesie.

Most of all, I'd like to see facial disfigurements portrayed more positively - as heroes, not villains.

 

20 comments:

  1. Lotney "Sloth" Fratelli is one of my favourite chararters of all time!! I love him.

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  2. Yet another reason why Halloween is just annoying.
    I don't like it.

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  3. This reminds me of a study I read on beards at uni - until hippies became the 'blight' on society, beards were associated with wisdom. Then the social norm was changed to suit making 'undesirables' identifiable to anyone.
    I'd like to know more about modern theories on why looking different is so bad. I used to get personal comments for not having straight teeth - including from my mother. I presumed it was her own insecurities from having the same 'eye teeth' - but it never bothered me.

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  4. I went to see the film Gangster Squad in the theater. Just like clockwork, the head hitman, who is of course the most sinister and the hardest to kill, had a disfigured eye. COME ON. IT'S 2013, NOT 1985. The moment he came onscreen - before it was made obvious who he was - I said to myself "Yawn, he's the #1 henchman who will be the last to die (except for the big boss) and will die in some grandiose fashion, ho hum." and of course I was right because I've been spoon fed this formulaic bullshit all my life.

    But sadly, it doesn't stop in fiction...the Boston Bomber was so "good-looking" they plunked him on the cover of Rolling Stone, framed in the most flattering "rockstar-ish" of ways. Sure, he murdered three and injured over 260 others, but he's just do damn dreamy. *shudder*

    Will they show someone he disfigured? Don't hold your breath.

    Perhaps the more we point out this stupidity, the less we'll see of it in the future. I have hope.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I went to see the film Gangster Squad in the theater. Just like clockwork, the head hitman, who is of course the most sinister and the hardest to kill, had a disfigured eye. COME ON. IT'S 2013, NOT 1985. The moment he came onscreen - before it was made obvious who he was - I said to myself "Yawn, he's the #1 henchman who will be the last to die (except for the big boss) and will die in some grandiose fashion, ho hum." and of course I was right because I've been spoon fed this formulaic bullshit all my life.

    But sadly, it doesn't stop in fiction...the Boston Bomber was so "good-looking" they plunked him on the cover of Rolling Stone, framed in the most flattering "rockstar-ish" of ways. Sure, he murdered three and injured over 260 others, but he's just do damn dreamy. *shudder*

    Will they show someone he disfigured? Don't hold your breath.

    Perhaps the more we point out this stupidity, the less we'll see of it in the future. I have hope.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Awesome blog Carly. We tend to take for granted what we have. My facial difderendexwas acquired later. I think for children it definitely is something to consider, it does hage conotations in that area for me. So, awesome write up ill be sharing once again!!! ; ) xx

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  7. The stereotypes these costumes create for people with facial differences can be heartbreaking.

    My friend C, who also has Ichthyosis, said:
    "this is a topic that I deal with every year. "Great costume!" "How'd you do your eyes like that?" "Ooo, that's gross, fantastic for Halloween!" Now you know why I wear sunglasses everywhere I go from mid October to the end of the first week of November. And after that I may get a "Don't you know Halloween is over?""

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  8. This was very interesting and eye opening. I very much appreciate the way you presented many different points of view.

    Also - unicorn onsie?! I. love. it!

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    Replies
    1. Children's literature stereotypes many sadly. If we are to read these stories to children my opinion is ,we as adults, can use them to help break down the stereotypes. We must explain to children just why these stereotypes are just that ...'stereotypes' created to cause fear. In these such stories its not just the disfigured that are taunted but the family set up itself. Stepmothers are wicked too. As a child educator I have just finished a theme unit on fairy tales. I used it as an opportunity to address these such issues and I hope I have at least impacted enough on some that their Halloween costumes may reflect this ( even though as an Australian I don't go for the tradition that is now getting big here) . Carly barriers need to be broken down and even if an article such as yours sinks in to just a few it is the thin end of a wedge and we know that's how things get rolling. Thought provoking post :) Travelling Macs www.travellingmacs.wordpress.com

      Delete
  9. Children's literature stereotypes many sadly. If we are to read these stories to children my opinion is ,we as adults, can use them to help break down the stereotypes. We must explain to children just why these stereotypes are just that ...'stereotypes' created to cause fear. In these such stories its not just the disfigured that are taunted but the family set up itself. Stepmothers are wicked too. As a child educator I have just finished a theme unit on fairy tales. I used it as an opportunity to address these such issues and I hope I have at least impacted enough on some that their Halloween costumes may reflect this ( even though as an Australian I don't go for the tradition that is now getting big here) . Carly barriers need to be broken down and even if an article such as yours sinks in to just a few it is the thin end of a wedge and we know that's how things get rolling. Thought provoking post :)

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  10. A very well written and thought out blog Carly, Ignorance is not an excuse and nor is harmless fun. Having said that I think there is a certain element of dressing up in a costume to be 'different' not to be evil. My son dressed as a perfectly innocent pumpkin (which is associated with Halloween but is hardly scary). I wonder (and I'm sorry if I'm ignorant) whether dressing differently is a way of 'identifying with difference'? The whole 'close your eyes and walk a mile in my shoes' is never going to make you truly understand what it is to be blind, but it may give some insight?

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  11. Great post Carly. I couldn't agree more with your views. You presented some interesting points here. Very real and thought provoking. x

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  12. This is a great perspective Carly and one that I had not thought of before. Thank you for again opening my eyes.

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  13. Interesting post, you've given me some food for thought. I've just written my own post about how much I love the community building aspect of Halloween (I used to be anti-Halloween) but I have to admit it hadn't occurred to me that scary kids masks might be perpetuating the idea that people with visual facial differences are evil or bad or scary themselves. I'm sure my two kids know the difference between a Halloween mask and a real person but I get that that isn't the point. Something to think about for next year, definitely.

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  14. A really thought provoking post, I hadn't ever thought about the depiction of evil characters as deformed or 'ugly' in some way before but you have hit the nail on the head.
    A really interesting read - thank you.

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  15. Excellent post, Carly. Can I send it to the party shop I went to yesterday? They didn't have one unicorn costume.

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  16. How thought provoking, I know I'll be thinking about all you said for weeks!! Excellent! Thank you for sharing your insight.

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  17. Great Post, really putting a different spin on dressing up. Oh how we are so conditioned by the norm whatever that may be. Thank you for this x

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