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The Problem with "Women Talking"

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is a beautiful ensemble piece, in which women gather to discuss how to handle a violent crisis. The conversation flows around themes of forgiveness, revenge, love, religion, sisterhood, parenting, responsibility, and the power of the collective. The film is deservedly nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Women Talking inspired and uplifted me, but also made me sad. An angry woman is played by the incredible Frances McDormand, her perfect face featuring a prominent prosthetic scar. McDormand’s character cannot tolerate the discussion and becomes alienated. Quickly, she leaves the group of sisterhood and retreats into dark solitude, friendless. Her name is “Scarface Janz.”

“Scarface Janz” is only the latest film character whose facial scars signal that she is troubled, dangerous, or pathetic. As a childhood burn survivor and disfigured woman, I have seen movie after movie in which the villain is disfigured: Return of the Jedi (Darth Vader), Nightmare on Elm Street (Freddie Krueger), The Lion King (Scar), Harry Potter (Valdemort) to name only a few. Just as with Frances McDormand, it is virtually impossible to find disfigured characters authentically played by disfigured actors. But much worse, disfigured characters are almost always portrayed as mean, villainous, or unloved.

These negative representations of disfigured people have a real-world impact - inflicting pain and stigma on an already oppressed group. Unconscious bias tests have shown that people have a strong bias against the disfigured. Disfigurement (or “facial difference” or “visible difference”) is relatively unusual, so most people have never known or loved a person with a conspicuous facial scar. Frequently, the only time people encounter a person with a facial difference is on a screen. If most of these characters are unlikable antagonists (which they are), it is no wonder there is prejudice against the disfigured. Little known fact: one third of disfigured people report they have been victimized by a hate crime. Stigma is dangerous.

The entertainment industry has made impressive strides in improving representation of other marginalized groups. Moonlight and Black Panther are far cries from Gone with the Wind. Gay people, Asian people, Native Americans, and people with a mental illness may not see enough positive films about their experiences, but the industry no longer releases film after film reducing them to pathetic stereotypes. They are also unlikely to see characters named for their disability. For example, there is a blind girl in Women Talking. But unlike “Scar” in The Lion King, or “Scarface Janz,” the girl isn’t called “Blind Janz.” Everyone rightfully recognizes this name would be offensive.

Unlike other marginalized groups, the disfigured community has not seen improvement in representation. In the past two years alone, Hollywood released The Batman, featuring the Penguin, played by Colin Farrell, with a prominent facial scar, and No Time to Die, in which Rami Malek played yet another James Bond villain with a heavily scarred face. Now we have “Scarface Janz.”

Part of the problem is simple ignorance. Film makers seem unaware that they continually use the scar trope to represent villainy, and that it is a form of prejudice. The general public is equally unaware. When I speak about this problem, pointing out how routinely villains are disfigured in movies, people are genuinely shocked. This negative representation is so ingrained and so common that you probably never noticed it.

Photo by Annie Spratt (NOT in the film Women Talking)

Women Talking is a beautiful film, making important points about overlooked female perspectives, the power of non-violence, and community action. I loved almost all of it. I just wish that Scarface Janz got to be a part of her community, instead of being left in the dark all alone. I wish she weren’t so pathetic. I really wish that she had a better name.

My biggest wish of all is that you will start to notice these sad/lonely/evil/sinister/pathetic scarred screen characters. Help raise people’s awareness to these representations. We can do so much better.

by Dr. Lise Deguire (not “Scarface Deguire”)

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.

1 Comment

Mar 07, 2023

A good article. The Face Equality International group fights for much the same thing as you are talking about. They have done some great work in that area. There is a week set aside in May to celebrate Facial Differences and we have a day in that week declared as a day to celebrate facial differences. Before Covid we had a session here where burn survivors could come and have their photograph taken professionally. It was wonderful. We also had a group from Emily Carr who did an exhibition of portraits of burn survivors (called About Face and it was an undergraduate thesis). That took a lot of courage for the survivors to be that vulnerable but they demonstrated remarkable…

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