James Bond: Will a physically imperfect 007 ever face a handsome supervillain or will the outdated stereotypes continue? – Alastair Stewart
Almost every official movie features an antagonist who is disabled, disfigured, or mentally ill. The films are iconic, but they are the starting point of a perpetuated stereotype.
The trope is so prevalent that the British Film Institute (BFI) announced in 2018 that it would not fund films with villains with facial scars. The decision supported the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign launched by Changing Faces, a charity that campaigns for people with visible and disfigured differences.
As always, banning something doesn’t explain why it was popular in the first place. Why is such a pervasive stereotype so locked into the cultural psyche?
According to psychologist David Rakison, professor of evolutionary psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, scars scare us. We want an attractive and symmetrical face because it embodies health.
James Bond: Only Double Meanings Can Save Our Favorite Double-O Agent – Aid …
The marked faces make us think of the disease. Scars remind us of vulnerability and may suggest that a person is living outside of accepted human behaviors.
Researchers at the University of Texas analyzed the facial features of 10 classic movie villains and compared them to 10 classic movie heroes.
They found that 60% of the villains had skin issues: scarring, exaggerated wrinkles, dark circles, and skin discoloration compared to any of the heroes.
From time immemorial, physical disability has been a source of pity and fear in stories. For screenwriters, deformity and social exclusion are a dream to explain good or bad.
These are visual cues that resemble a disturbing musical motif. Fiction and mythology abound with characters such as the Fisher King, Richard III and Caliban. There are Hephaestus and Medusa. Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera. Darth Vader and Freddy Krueger. It’s always the same thing.
If you go back far enough, the trend dates back to silent films from the early 1900s. Filmmakers used less than subtle visual prompts to distinguish between good and evil.
Nosferatu (1921) depicts a deformed and hairless Count Orlok. The Man Who Laughs (1928) was the inspiration for one of the most iconic and spooky comic book villains ever created (I won’t spoil it).
The James Bond film franchise has popularized the cliché to excess. But the movie’s villains are almost comical physical adaptations of the psychological “deviations” and “perversions” found in the source material.
Ian Fleming was a fetishist, a voyeur and a macabre macabre. Its villains and henchmen are all rooted in their sexuality, or lack thereof, and racial stereotypes. Most are sadists. “All women want to be raped,” Fleming’s only female protagonist said in The Spy Who Loved Me (1962).
Bond’s genitals are severed with a carpet beater in Casino Royale (1953). Felix Leiter is maimed by a shark in Live and Let Die (1954), with just the hint that it took more than one leg. Pussy Galore is a lesbian who needs the right man to heal her “affliction” in Goldfinger (1958).
Italian gangster walks around with electric razor due to perpetual shadow five o’clock in Goldfinger. Oddjob has a cleft palate. Live and Let Die is riddled with “niggers” and “negresses” and miserable suitcases like “chegro”. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are vicious killers and are judged homosexual due to their flaming hypochondria in Diamonds are Forever (1956).
It’s ironic that the movies place a perfectionism carved out on the Bond actor – his book counterpart sports a long scar on his right cheek. And Blofeld doesn’t have a facial injury, and Scaramanga doesn’t have a third nipple. There are no jaws with its metal teeth. Most villains are just too fat, too small, or too bald with a penchant for pain.
None of the most notable villains of the last century are as stereotypical or more ubiquitous than the Nazis. Christine Lokotsch Aube wrote that the root of this cinematic phenomenon can be found in the anti-German imagery of Hollywood during WWII.
It continued thereafter because the Nazis provided such a distinct view of evil. Beyond the efficiency, the coldness and the leather jackets, there is the scar, the eye patch or the wound. It’s on a par with the original characters in the Nehru jacket or Mao costume with a propensity for exotic animals.
But it’s the scar that goes even further back to the academic tradition of fencing in Germany. The “mensur scars” were deliberately sought after facial cuts and were worn as a badge of honor.
They were not severe enough to leave a person disfigured or devoid of facial features. They had been in vogue among upper class Austrians and Germans (and some in Central European countries) since the early 1800s.
Otto von Bismarck said they were a mark of bravery, and courage could be judged “by the number of scars on their cheeks”.
Ironically, it was Hitler who banned the practice. The dueling legislation was tightened in 1937 after the death of a party member. In many portraits from WWI and WWII there is a series of scars on the left cheek as most fencers were right handed.
Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of Reich security, had Mensur scars. Both looked like textbook villains. It’s hard to believe that Fleming and other soldiers turned filmmakers and writers were unfamiliar with this practice. It went out of fashion from the 1950s, explaining why it was largely forgotten.
With the release of the 25th Bond film in September and the 60th anniversary of the film series coming next year, the franchise needs a better class of criminals. The public wants to be surprised. Casting news and an ominous facial scratch can betray the game, but it doesn’t always.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. You can find out more about Alastair on www.agjstewart.com