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Filmmakers’ visual cues for ‘evil-doers’ may contribute to prejudice, study’s authors say

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Sebastian Shaw as Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in a scene from in "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi."

Since the silent film era, Hollywood has used certain skin features — things like severe facial scars, warts, deep wrinkles, hair loss and albinism — as a quick visual cue to audiences of a character’s underlying villainous depravity.

Off-screen, of course, such dermatologic conditions have nothing to do with moral corruption, but rather with genetic and environmental factors that are usually out of an individual’s control.

In recent years, such gratuitous stereotypes in films have become highly controversial and have sparked protests. The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH), for example, has repeatedly protested the negative portrayal of people with albinism, an inherited genetic condition, as villains — and with good cause. From 1960 to 2006, a total of 68 films featured the “evil albino” stereotype, including “Cold Mountain,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “The Da Vinci Code.” 

For a new study, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Dermatology, a trio of dermatologists decided to examine more closely at the skin characteristics of classic movie villains and heroes to better understand how films reflect — and perhaps shape — our off-screen perceptions of people with those features. 

They looked most closely at the top-10 film heroes and villains from the American Film Institute (AFI) 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains List (compiled in 2003) to assess whether the characters had any skin issues, although the new study also discusses dermatologic findings about other notable film villains as well.

The villains

The researchers found that six of the 10 villains on the AFI list had prominent skin imperfections on their face and scalp: Dr. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, 1993), Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960), Darth Vader (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980), the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz, 1939), Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1947), Regan MacNeil (The Exorcist, 1973) and the Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938).

Dr. Hannibal Lecter, for example, has “stage 3 androgenic alopecia” (baldness) that “is accentuated by the strap of a mask that pulls back his hair and distorts the appearance of his face,” the researchers write. The Wicked Witch of the West has a huge “facial verruca” (wart) on her right chin and “green skin.” And Darth Vader, when unmasked, revealed a “bald scalp, unnatural fair gray skin, periorbital hyperpigmentation [dark circles around the eyes], facial scars, and deep rhytides [facial wrinkles].”

The two villains on the top-10 list that didn’t have such features were Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) and Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction, 1987).

Although albinism is not represented in the AFI’s top-10 villain list, gray-hued complexions and other abnormal skin colors are. In addition to Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West, The Exorcist’s horror villain Regan MacNeil has skin that changes color to “create an unearthly quality typical of supernatural or nonhuman villains” and to “mirror her paranormal actions,” the researchers point out.

They also note that many stock villains with obvious albinism have been featured in other films, including in some box-office hits, such as the Albino in The Princess Bride (1987), Bosie in Cold Mountain (2003) and Silas in The Da Vinci Code (2006).

The heroes

As for the 10 film heroes on the AFI’s list, six were blessed with great skin: Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1963), James Bond (Dr. No, 1963) Clarice Startling (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), Ellen Ripley (Aliens, 1986), George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1947) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962).

The other four had only slight imperfections — a chin scar on Indiana Jones  (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1961), a lip scar on Rick Blaine (Casablanca, 1941) and transient lacerations on Will Kane (High Noon, 1952) and Rocky Balboa (Rocky, 1976).

Severe facial scars, however, are often part of the defining characteristics of film villains, as exemplified by Darth Vader and Regan MacNeil.

“Facial scars have become a stock trait of classic villains and represent the most prevalent skin condition observed in film,” write the researchers. Some filmmakers even use the names of characters to reflect this stereotype, such as Scar in The Lion King (1994), Craterface in Grease (1983) and Al Pacino’s Scarface (1983).

Fostering prejudice

Does it matter that filmmakers frequently use skin imperfections and diseases as shorthand for “evil-doer”?

The three authors of the study — Dr. Julie Croley and Dr. Richard Wagner Jr., dermatologists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and Dr. Vail Reese, a dermatologist in San Francisco a — think so. As another recent paper— also published in JAMA Dermatology — points out in troubling detail, prejudice against people with various skin disorders or other “flawed” facial features has led to “significant persecution, exile, and even death.”  

The results of the current study “demonstrate Hollywood’s tendency to depict skin disease in an evil context, the implications of which extend beyond the theater,” write Croly, Reese and Wagner. “Specifically, unfairly targeting dermatologic minorities may contribute to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public.”

“Filmmakers are tasked with addressing biased portrayals of dermatologic disease,” they add.

FMI: You can read the study in full on the JAMA Dermatology website.

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