When people lie awake at night thinking of the monsters under their beds, when they scream in movie theaters and when they wake up in a cold sweat at 3 a.m., they are afraid. Everyone’s been there.
Everyone’s been afraid, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But the reason for our fear and our associations with it should be questioned and examined.
We aren’t afraid of beauty.
While we might be worried about people breaking into our homes, our hypothetical robber doesn’t look like Rihanna or Chris Hemsworth. These hypotheticals look “ugly,” or in other words, different from the norm. We’re afraid of difference, and it’s the fault of television and cinema that we are.
Ugliness has been consistently associated with difference, which has been consistently associated with evil since the film industry became a money-making enterprise.
In 1939, the Wicked Witch of the West from “The Wizard of Oz” shocked audiences with her green skin, hooked nose and warts. Leatherface from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has proven his hideousness since the first film in the franchise. Perhaps most recently, Thanos’ right hand gifted viewers with his papery skin, flat nose and elongated face.
This flux of ugly nemeses and villains in television and movies is problematic for a few reasons. Ugliness and attractiveness are subjective, but the fact that fictional evil people are recognizably ugly (and exaggeratedly so) contributes to the othering of people that don’t conform to the norm.
The statuses of these villains as astoundingly hideous and unrealistically ugly (take Red Skull from “Captain America”) is also dangerous. It perpetuates a false belief that, in the real world, attractive people cannot be evil.
The frightening truth is that evil people don’t look that different from us.
While it’s rare that horrible things will happen to most people, it’s important not to let down one’s guard. Ugly fictional villains have conditioned us not to be afraid, wary or cautious of people who are beautiful. Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy weren’t noticeably ugly in the same way that Voldemort and Freddy Krueger are.
Perhaps the most problematic characteristic of media villains is how their villainy correlates to ability. The twins from “The Matrix” series are henchmen of evil, and their defining characteristic is their albinism — the same is true of the Christian extremist Silas from “The Da Vinci Code.”
The defining appearance traits of villains like Captain Hook from “Peter Pan,” Darth Vader from “Star Wars” and Ulysses Klaue from “Black Panther” are their disabilities, which their prostheses, scars and burns are used to signify.
Without us realizing it, movies are teaching us to fear people who are disabled, diseased or scarred. It’s disturbing how normalized this is.
People are so quick to leave theaters to mock the appearances of the bad guys, and they’re unaware of the perpetuation of negative stereotypes they contribute to.
It’s interesting, too, that people of color are often cast as villains. Not only does this reinforce racist tropes and dehumanize people of color, but it also reinforces the European standards of beauty dominant in the media.
Some might argue that film producers should have the freedom to do whatever they can to provoke visceral reactions in theaters by exploiting natural responses to facial asymmetry and disfigurement. However, this is an invalid reason to exploit disability and Eurocentric standards of beauty. There are better ways to scare people or reduce the level of empathy they have for the villain.
In the real world, evil people don’t have defining physical characteristics connected to their cruelty, and to avoid the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and unrealistic standards of beauty, the media needs to follow.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange. California. One of his editors, Anikka Villegas PO ’19, is graduating this year, and he’s very grateful for her.
Eamon Morris PZ ’22 is from Orange, California. He previously served as one of TSL’s opinions editors.