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From Scar to James Bond enemy Safin, movie villains have long shared a harmful trope

Rami Malek as Safin in <em>No Time To Die. </em>
Nicola Dove
Rami Malek as Safin in No Time To Die.

American moviegoers spent about $56 million dollars during opening weekend on tickets for the new James Bond film No Time To Die. Sitting in theaters across the country, they stared up at the villain Safin, who shares more in common with past villains than his disdain for the handsome and suave titular character. Safin's face is covered with scars, continuing a long-time trend of Bond's greatest on-screen adversaries having facial differences.

"It is a straight-up shorthand for villainy: this character has a scar and they are evil," said Adam Pearson, an actor with neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors on the nerve-endings in his face and other body parts.

The storytelling trend isn't limited to Bond movies — think of Scar in The Lion King or Darth Vader in Star Wars. But the new Bond film is providing the opportunity for facial difference advocates to push back on what they see as a harmful and overused trope.

"Growing up, I got called things like 'Two-Face' and 'Elephant Man'...It isn't until you step back that you realize how imbalanced the representation is. There's no good guy names to throw back as a retort," Pearson said.

Pearson is an ambassador for the U.K. charity Changing Faces, which has been running a campaign called "I Am Not Your Villain" for several years. In 2018, the British Film Institute backed the campaign and vowed not to fund films where scars or other facial differences connoted villainy. But the filmmakers behind the Bond franchise and other movies, like Wonder Woman and the new Marvel movie Black Widow, have stuck with the trope. Bond villain Emilio Largo in the 1965 adaptation of Thunderball started a franchise trend that continued with numerous other villains, including Silva, Jaws, Alec Trevelyan and Le Chiffre.

A 2017 scientific study compared the faces of the top 10 American film villains and the top 10 American film heroes, as ranked by the American Film Institute (AFI). It found that 6 of the ten villains had facial differences, while none of the heroes did. While there are some film heroes with scars, like Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, they are rare and the markings tend to be small.

The trend is as old as filmmaking itself, according to sociologist Fiona Whittington-Walsh, who teaches at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. She said that the popularization of the camera aligned with a political and societal criminalization of so-called ugliness.

"You've got all these wonderful social qualities that are associated with a beautiful face," Whittington-Walsh said. "It's a symbol of one's morality and one's ethics. It's also intrinsically white." On the other hand, she said, "the unattractive face is stigmatized with undesirable social qualities."

In the 1800s, Cesare Lombroso, known as the "father of criminology," posited a theory that criminals could be identified by their unique facial features alone. Lombroso wrote that "thieves are notable for their...distorted or squashed noses, thin beards and hair, and sloping foreheads."

As recently as the 1970s, some U.S. cities had so-called "ugly laws" on the books. A former San Francisco law made it illegal for "any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself or herself to public view." Other cities had similar, if not identical, ordinances.

Today, people with facial differences commonly report feeling anxious or depressed. A survey by Changing Faces found that more than a third feel anxious going outside and more than a quarter say their facial differences have negatively affected their mental health. People with facial differences are not necessarily protected under the law from discrimination because (while some do) many do not consider themselves disabled.

"How often do you see someone with a facial difference working in retail or restaurants?" said Ani Spooner, who works with the Canadian advocacy group AboutFace. "We're a big part of society. This continuous portrayal of us as evil and monsters — it makes people justify abusing us, harassing us, not hiring us, bullying us."

Advocates like Spooner say they'd like to see more from the movie business than an end to villains having scars or disfigurements. "All I'm asking is, where are the good guys? And when it comes to that, where are the actual actors with disfigurements or scars?" Pearson asked.

When movies do feature characters with facial differences who are not villains, they are often played by actors using makeup or prosthetics, like in the 2017 film Wonder. And, while some films do feature actors who genuinely have facial differences, these differences are often central to the plot. Pearson and Spooner would like to see roles where the main characters have facial differences, but that isn't their defining characteristic. "Every now and then you'll get an email with an awful script with every stereotype...but it also means you can help finesse the script," Pearson said.

Facial difference advocates see this fight as similar to movements pushing for greater diversity in the representation of women, people of color, and people with disabilities in film.

"I think [the villainy trope is] lazy and outdated, particularly when you look at the portrayal of women and how that's evolved in Bond movies," Pearson said. "I think it's important we commend the strides we made there, but point to this other need for change."

There are some examples of films that feature real people with facial differences (though that characteristic is a central part of the film's plot) such as the 2018 movie Happy Face, about a teenager who covers his face with bandages and joins a support group for disfigured people. The 2019 film Dirty God auditioned burn survivors to play the lead role of a woman who is attacked with acid by an angry ex. Actress Vicky Knight told The Guardian, "I thought I'd only be good for horror movies and things like that."

Horror movies make Halloween a "scary time for people with facial differences," said Spooner. "A lot of people think we have costumes on. If they see you in the neighborhood, they're like, 'Haha, what are you dressed as?' Seeing yourself reflected in people's costumes is hard."

"The camera phones come out," Pearson agreed. "I don't want to be a buzzkill here, just be a little sensitive."

As for what to do or say when you see someone with a facial difference? Don't ask "what happened to your face?" Not all people with facial differences have a tragic backstory like movie villains tend to.

"Open with hello," Pearson said. "Everything after that is plain sailing."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Avery J.C. Kleinman