Face Equality In Film: Changing The Way We Perceive People With Facial Disfigurements

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It’s a cold and rainy night. A man with a badly burnt face sits alone in his parked car. Outside a woman is returning home; the man sits and watches her. As she reaches her house the man goes to approach her. He knocks on the door. What happens next?

This is what we are made to question in the latest video campaign from Changing Faces, the UK’s leading disfigurement charity. Charlie Derry talks to one of the charity’s members, Alison Rich, about how they aim to change our perceptions of people with facial disfigurements, with a focus on how they are portrayed in the media.

The ‘Leo’ video is currently being shown in 750 Odeon cinemas nationwide. The presumption is that most of us will predict that the man is a villainous figure, as many of the on-screen baddies that we see in film often have some form of facial disfigurement. But did you ever question the connection? Well Changing Faces have.

The man in the video is 59-year-old Leo Gormley, who is actually just meeting the woman for a dinner date. Leo was left with third-degree burns to his hands, face, and legs after he was caught in a fire when he was only 14; he is not the bad guy in the film, and it is this public reaction that Changing Faces want to tackle.

“It’s about raising awareness amongst movie goers to highlight just how strongly and unconsciously audiences link scars and unusual faces with evil intent,” says Alison. “We wanted to make a film which would get people to wake up to what they were accepting on screen without question.”

Leo Gormley

Established in 1992 by James Partridge, Changing Faces is a British charity that offers professional and emotional support to people of all ages with appearance-altering disfigurements, which aims to enable people with disfigurements to successfully handle the daily social challenges and questions they are forced to face.

From a recent YouGov survey that was commissioned by the charity and carried out in March 2012, the results from 1741 responses found that people with bad teeth, scars, burns and other conditions affecting the face are the most common indicators of an evil or villainous character in a film.

The charity’s main objectives are to change both public attitudes towards people with disfigurements and to help individuals’ lead full and satisfying lives, as well as to develop campaigns to raise people’s awareness of the impact of the media on the way we think about and behave around disfigurement.

Their most recently launched campaign, Face Equality, aims to change the way that society thinks about, behaves around, teaches, recruits and includes people with disfigurements, and wants to ensure that they are treated without prejudice or discrimination.

With current programmes such as The Undateables letting us into the lives of those who face daily struggles because of their appearance, a recent example of the charity’s work is their concerns and efforts with Channel 4 over the series’ title.

Aired on Channel 4 throughout April, The Undateables was a three-part documentary series that explored the attempts of people living with challenging conditions to find love. Whilst it was an impartial look at the way people living with disabilities and disfigurements find romance, Changing Faces issued a statement commenting that, “We believe the title has the potential to cause unnecessary offence, to perpetuate stigma and encourage abuse or harassment of people with facial disfigurements and disabilities.”

Changing Faces may now be working with Channel 4 to work on such stigmatised and sensational titles, but there is still a much wider problem in the way in which people with disfigurements are portrayed on the big screen.

Alison Rich

To give an example, “Films like The Lion King, which are aimed at young children, associate villainy with scarring, for example Uncle Scar,” says Alison. Other films include the Batman franchise, most recently with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy where more often than not the villain has some kind of facial disfigurement, for example the Joker and Two-Face, as well as infamous characters such as Freddy Kruger.

It’s not until you think about it that you see the link, and it’s this type of recognition that the charity want to provoke the public with. “We need to get the general public comfortable with even discussing these issues,” says Alison. “As with all our campaigns, it’s often the first time that anyone has actually stopped to question the truth of what they see on the big screen.”

“We are all so used to seeing a character with a disfigurement on the big screen and unconsciously making the association with villainy,” says Alison. But as James continues, the problem is that, “The way that people react in the cinema can spill over into the way they are treated in everyday life. It can encourage people to make moral judgements based on what they see on the screen.”

In an attempt to help change this public reaction, the first stage of the charity’s Face Equality campaign is the release of the ‘Leo’ video previously mentioned. Funded by the charity itself and directed by Bare Film’s Jim Weedon from an idea by Changing Faces’ ad agency, DDB, the video now has over 60,000 views on YouTube.

Staring Downtown Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery in the female role, Leo has also starred in another of Channel 4’s series, Beauty and The Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice, which, first aired in February 2011, investigated the extremes of dissatisfaction and discrimination by bringing together two people defined by the way they look, one with a facial disfigurement and another a self-confessed beauty addict.

Historically and culturally people with disfiguring conditions have always encountered discrimination in public, at school and in the workplace. Changing Faces lobbied for ‘severe disfigurement’ to be included in the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 which afforded people some legal protection against discrimination but this remains very hard to prove.

Whilst Leo has undergone over 120 different operations, he still has significant scarring all over his body. “The media’s current obsession with beauty and perfection makes it even more difficult for people with disfigurement to feel good about themselves in a world which says you have to look a certain way to be successful and fit in or that being beautiful equates with being morally ‘good’,” says Alison.

For the next stage of their campaign, Changing Faces will be working directly with the film industry to encourage them to commit to diverse, balanced and fair portrayals of characters with disfigurements in films. “When more people with unusual faces are portrayed in familiar, every day roles, everyone will be able to feel more confident and relaxed around disfigurement,” says Alison.

“One of our areas of work during the Face Equality campaign will be to work with secondary schools so that considering the film industry or acting is encouraged by teachers in ALL pupils who have a talent for this field,” she continues.

The charity is now also in the process of setting up a film industry advisory group to look at how they get this issue on the industry’s agenda in different ways, as well as developing links with drama and film schools to consider and encourage applications from students with disfigurements.

“We know it will take a long time because it is only now that we are starting to question and challenge how characters with disfigurements are almost always portrayed as the villains,” says Alison. “But prejudice and racism on the big screen does need to become a thing of the past because current representations don’t reflect the truth about today’s society.”

If you think that it’s time for change and want to help with Changing Face’s campaign, then you can sign their petition to end harmful portrayals on the big screen here.

View my article on ISSUU here:

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