For Hol­ly­wood, in­ner beauty is still skin deep

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ZACHARY PINCUS-ROTH zachary.pincus­roth@wash­post.com

Vail Reese is the world expert on movie char­ac­ters’ skin con­di­tions. The San Francisco der­ma­tol­o­gist can tell you any­thing you want to know about scars, birth­marks, tat­toos, Jon Hamm’s vi­tiligo and the Austin Pow­ers ad­ver­sary Fat Bas­tard’s ex­tra nip­ples, a spoof of the same con­di­tion on Christo­pher Lee’s as­sas­sin in “The Man With the Golden Gun.” ¶ For two decades, Reese’s web­site, Skinema, has chron­i­cled these ab­nor­mal­i­ties, which, he ar­gues, too of­ten ap­pear on vil­lains. For in­stance, in the movie “Grease,” he writes, “Pretty boy Tra­volta . . . mu­si­cally drag races . . . the ex­ten­sively acne­scarred ‘Crater­face.’ ” ¶ Reese sees how such con­ven­tions af­fect his own pa­tients. “It’s not just, ‘Am I go­ing to look pretty?’ ” he says. “It’s, ‘Are peo­ple go­ing to judge me?’ ”

His work is a peek into how Hol­ly­wood equates clas­si­cal beauty with virtue, from Dis­ney ro­mances to James Bond bad guys to co­me­di­ans mak­ing fun of Stephen Ban­non’s face. De­spite some progress, movies and TV still lazily per­pet­u­ate a no­tion we no longer be­lieve: that looks cor­re­late with char­ac­ter. When many in Hol­ly­wood are fight­ing for greater di­ver­sity and against stereo­types of all kinds, should that fight in­clude types of bod­ies and faces?

“It’s over­due,” says Nancy Et­coff, an as­sis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Med­i­cal School who wrote the 1999 book “Sur­vival of the Pret­ti­est.”

“Hol­ly­wood could do a lot to move us in a di­rec­tion to widen our em­pa­thy and widen our no­tion of what is beau­ti­ful.”

A re­cent study in JAMA Der­ma­tol­ogy found that six of the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute’s top-10 vil­lains of all time have der­ma­to­logic is­sues, from Han­ni­bal Lecter’s an­dro­genic alope­cia (hair loss) to the Wicked Witch of the West’s ver­ruca vul­garis (wart). “Un­fairly tar­get­ing der­ma­to­logic mi­nori­ties may con­trib­ute to a ten­dency to­ward prej­u­dice,” the study says.

Reese points out that good char­ac­ters turn evil af­ter they get blem­ishes, like Two-Face, the district at­tor­ney who be­comes a “Bat­man For­ever” neme­sis af­ter an acid at­tack. Sure, scars can cause peo­ple to feel alien­ated, the doc­tor says, but “I’ve never met the se­rial killer who said, ‘I didn’t want to kill any­body but be­cause I got this bad skin rash. . .’ ”

“Beauty equals good” is an age-old trope in en­ter­tain­ment, points out Doris Bazz­ini, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial psy­chol­ogy at Ap­palachian State Univer­sity. In a 1999 study she co-au­thored, a panel watched 20 of the top­gross­ing movies in each decade from 1940 to 1989, rat­ing char­ac­ters by at­trac­tive­ness and other traits. They found that the stereo­type held true across all decades and gen­res. She dis­cov­ered the same thing in a 2010 study on hu­man char­ac­ters in 21 Dis­ney an­i­mated movies.

“At­trac­tive char­ac­ters dis­played higher in­tel­li­gence, lower ag­gres­sive­ness and greater moral virtue,” the study said. Even an­i­mal char­ac­ters show sim­i­lar pat­terns, Bazz­ini points out: The vil­lain in “The Lion King” is lit­er­ally named Scar and has one across his eye. “Evil as plain as the scar on his face,” says one song in “The Lion King II.”

Al­bino char­ac­ters have been a big con­cern for Reese — in 2006, an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion counted 68 al­bino vil­lains since 1960.

“A movie like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ would come out and [al­bino] kids in high school would get com­ments and stares and oc­ca­sion­ally vi­o­lence,” Reese says, re­fer­ring to the film’s al­bino char­ac­ter, played by Paul Bet­tany.

Reese does ac­knowl­edge that it has improved. The sym­pa­thetic Dead­pool (played by Ryan Reynolds) has se­vere scar­ring un­der his mask, for in­stance.

Still, stereo­types per­sist. Christoph Waltz as Blofeld in “Spec­tre” and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens” get scars — each per­pet­u­at­ing con­di­tions from vil­lains ear­lier in the se­ries (un­hel­meted Darth Vader and the ear­lier Blofeld, a model for Dr. Evil). In “Beauty and the Beast” — even leav­ing the premise aside — Reese spot­ted a scar on one of the wolves chas­ing Belle. “It just was like, ‘Okay, were we not afraid of these wolves al­ready?’ ”

In the TV show “Go­liath,” William Hurt’s char­ac­ter has scar­ring across the side of his face, and although the show calls out the stigma, “he’s a mon­ster,” Reese says. “He ar­ranges mur­ders, he’s du­plic­i­tous, he’s dis­hon­est. So they’re try­ing to have it both ways.”

The trope finds its way into com­edy, where po­lit­i­cal car­toons ex­ag­ger­ate a nose, chin or mouth to im­ply some­one is silly or sin­is­ter. And late-night co­me­di­ans poke fun of their tar­gets’ looks all the time. As Seth Mey­ers said re­cently, “Pollen, thanks to you, I am so stuffed up, my face feels the way Steve Ban­non’s face looks.” Pres­i­dent Trump’s skin tone has prompted many vari­a­tions on the in­sult “Cheeto.”

But Trump re­port­edly takes med­i­ca­tion for rosacea, a con­di­tion marked by red­ness that af­fects 16 mil­lion Amer­i­cans. Such jokes aren’t just tar­geted at politi­cians — they im­ply a broader at­ti­tude about what faces mean. Shouldn’t we avoid spread­ing the stigma of any per­ceived ap­pear­ance quirk, re­gard­less of how de­testable that per­son may be?

Height­en­ing the is­sue is how, as Et­coff writes, “beauty con­veys mod­est but real so­cial and eco­nomic ad­van­tages.” At­trac­tive peo­ple have been found to get bet­ter wages and shorter prison sen­tences, for in­stance. In one of Bazz­ini’s stud­ies, sub­jects watched movies with dif­fer­ent lev­els of the “beauty is good” trope and then rated job ap­pli­cants. “Peo­ple who had just watched strongly bi­ased movies were more likely to use at­trac­tive­ness in their judg­ment of an ap­pli­cant,” she says.

Some might ar­gue that Hol­ly­wood is a busi­ness — let them put the pretty peo­ple on screen and let the peo­ple pay to see them. Our pref­er­ence for clas­si­cal beauty is to some ex­tent so­cially in­flu­enced, but it’s also hard­wired, dat­ing to when clear skin meant no par­a­sites, for in­stance. But Et­coff com­pares this at­ti­tude to our de­sire for fast food — an­other rem­nant of evo­lu­tion that’s un­healthy.

Hol­ly­wood ac­tivism on this is­sue could be im­prac­ti­cal, and it might ap­pear ridicu­lous, even dan­ger­ous, to try to re­late it to gen­der and race, which are deeper as­pects of iden­tity.

Still, Et­coff ar­gues, all types of di­ver­sity on-screen should be part of the same fight.

“It does come back to . . . where am I in this cul­ture? Why does no one [on screen] look like me? Is it be­cause I’m short? Be­cause I’m above av­er­age weight? Be­cause of my skin tone? Maybe I have some sort of dis­abil­ity. It makes it feel like those [traits] are be­ing hid­den in some way, or de­val­ued,” she says.

“There are a lot of peo­ple who are in­ter­est­ing and fun and mov­ing to look at who are not there. All peo­ple in some ways should be vis­i­ble.”

COLLEEN HAYES/AMA­ZON PRIME VIDEO

Hol­ly­wood vil­lains are of­ten shown as phys­i­cally dis­fig­ured. William Hurt’s du­plic­i­tous char­ac­ter in “Go­liath” has a face lined with scars.

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