The ugly face of TV: How Jeremy Clarkson brought facial prejudice to a head
If you saw someone with a facial disfigurement walking down the street, would you A) Laugh at them B) Point at them C) Call them names or D) Carry on walking? If your answer is D then you shouldn’t have found Jeremy Clarkson’s latest comments the least bit funny.
In a recent episode of Top Gear, Clarkson compared the size of a new Japanese car to people with growths on their faces; mimicking Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) in the process: “You know sometimes you meet someone and they have a growth on their face and it is bigger than their face… one of those really ugly things”. The audience laughed, and the so-called joke was included in the Thursday repeat. It was an odious TV performance.
As someone with a non-malignant growth on the right side of my face I was not overly offended by Clarkson’s comments. Fortunately I haven’t been called ‘Elephant Man’ either. However, it was the accuracy at which he mocked us as a group of people that was shocking. Further into the joke he said the car looked like something you wouldn’t speak to at a party unless you were looking at something else. The truth is that when it comes to social situations I’ve often felt, if you excuse the pun, like the elephant in the room. By making these crass remarks Clarkson has reignited the stereotypes and phenotypes that have been socially and culturally constructed around the fallacy that there is a difference between a ‘figured face’ (whatever that means) and a ‘disfigured face’.
You might have read this far and be thinking to yourself that this is old hat and that I’m just a soft leftie who needs to stop complaining and harden up. The truth is that whilst comments like Clarkson’s are aired in public then this issue will always be relevant.
The change needs to come from within the faculties of the media. For too long disfigurement has been a cultural metaphor for monstrosity and psychopathy, making people like me out to be barely human. The list of disfigured characters is quite extensive, but here’s a few: the Joker, Two-Face, the Phantom, Quasimodo, Freddie Krueger. From banal horror to overworked Disney films disfigured characters are shown as the antithesis to the protagonist, or are subjected to pity. TV and film may be visual mediums, but do they constantly need to rely on such cheap artistic shortcuts that are becoming hackneyed to line their pockets?
Disfigurements are painted and etched on to the actor’s skin with make-up; designed to make viewers dislike the character’s demonic personality, or recoil in disgust at the horrific state of the character’s face. No amount of make-up though, no matter how life-like it looks, can make up for the fact that filmmakers are implicitly ignoring the emotional attachment that comes with being disfigured. As a result viewers are fed a very narrow-minded image of disfigurement, as something aesthetic and cosmetic.
It is not Clarkson’s comments that bother me. I’ve been called crude names in the past, but that hasn’t worn on my psyche too much. What is worrying is the uncertainty of whether people with facial differences will be accepted. The fear of rejection is great, but the fear of rejection from those who are not visibly disabled is greater – for it is often left up to us to carry the burden of their vulnerabilities. It is quite a paradox that the visibly disabled are responsible for making others feel at ease. TV and film are partly responsible for making disfigurements be seen as something unapproachable and not aesthetic to look at.
More than just realigning the definition of beauty, society and the media needs to offer fair representations of disfigurement. This will go a long way to demystifying visible facial differences, and breaking down the barriers of the culture of hysteria that surrounds facial stigma. It may be shocking at first sight to see someone with a growth be cast as the love interest of a protagonist, but after shock comes acceptance, followed by normality.Tagged in: disfigurement, Elephant Man, Jeremy Clarkson, Joseph Merrick, prejudice, top gear
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter