Scars, Symbols, and Stereotypes

When I was four, a neighbor’s dog bit me. It left a scar on the bridge of my nose. Everyone knew having a scar marked you as bad. One look at Slugworth in “Willy Wonka” and there was no doubt he was a bad guy. Frankenstein’s monster had scars. So did James Bond’s villains. Later, Darth Vader. Freddy Kruger. Scar from “The Lion King”. They all had scars, and they were all scary and evil.

Female characters don’t often have scars, but they often have deformed faces. The Wicked Witch of the West had a wart on her chin. Benita Bizarre from “The Bugaloos” had a long, ugly nose. Cruella de Vil’s face was all thin and sharp and pointy.

I knew that because I was scarred, I was somehow evil. I hung my head, trying to keep people from seeing the scar. I didn’t want to be bad. I wanted to be good. But whoever saw a princess with a scar on her face? You could be pretty and still be wicked, like Veruca Salt, but you could never be ugly and be the heroine. Mary Poppins and Truly Scrumptious were flawless. Even Morticia Addams and Lily Munster had perfect faces, though they were supposed to be monsters, at least of a sort.

What puzzles me most now is how did I know scars were bad? Where specifically did that idea come from? Back in the dark ages of the mid 60s, we didn’t have so much TV. We didn’t have video games or the internet. We had books, but at age four, my exposure was limited. I didn’t have a library card. I couldn’t read by myself yet. My parents had to check out books for me, and most of them were simple with easy words, like “Go, Dog. Go!”, “Hop on Pop”, or “Three Funny Friends”.

Children don’t have the ability to analyze complex characters or complicated ideas. I get that. Adults use symbols and stereotypes to make the ideas easy for children to understand. A red octagon stuck on top of a pole at a street corner means stop. A yucky green face on a sticker means don’t drink this. A very tall yellow bird means Sesame Street. Pink means a girl, blue means a boy, and I knew, even before my fifth birthday, that scars meant evil and badness.

The problem with this is that kids grow into adults who look for the same symbols and use them to judge people. We still think that scars mean bad and perfection means good. We still make judgments based on stereotypes.

I don’t like it, and so I try to avoid it. I don’t run through red lights or stop at green ones, but when it comes to people, I don’t want to judge them according to symbols. Pink isn’t only for girls. Beautiful doesn’t guarantee good. Scars don’t necessarily mean evil. I look for stories and movies that reflect those ideas, but they’re hard to find. I still cannot find many scarred characters who are good or even neutral. The hero in “Precious Bane” fell in love with Prue Sarn despite her harelip. Catherine Chandler from “Beauty and the Beast” elected to keep her last remaining facial scar rather than have the plastic surgeon remove it. But who else is there? Harry Potter?

Can you teach children without resorting to stereotypes? To some extent, symbols are necessary and beneficial. But those lessons are learned forever. Once learned, they’re hard to get rid of. You automatically stop at a red octagon. You start singing “Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street” when you see that big yellow bird. But the other ideas stay with you, too.

I wish – I hope – there’s another way to teach children. Because I find it hard, more than four decades down the road, to convince that scarred four-year-old girl that she’s not destined to be a villain. She learned it early, and she still believes it because there’s so little evidence to the contrary.

How can I ever make her believe otherwise?

mark 4

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  1. #1 by Libby Block on February 26, 2015 - 8:30 pm

    Author’s note: This is the only picture I have that shows the red mark on my nose where I got bitten. Not much of a scar, is it? But to me, it was horrible.

  2. #2 by PeterG on April 14, 2015 - 10:34 am

    Oh man. This hits so close to home. I grew up looking different and I had to constantly forget what I looked like. I didn’t get the bad person part I got the not human part.

  3. #3 by Libby Block on April 14, 2015 - 11:53 am

    Thanks so much to Jim C. Hines for collecting essays about those of us who aren’t visible in SF/F. I do hope to see more stories in the future that feature the rest of us. Meanwhile, please enjoy his blog. The essays are wonderful. http://www.jimchines.com/2015/04/guest-post-roundup/

  4. #4 by Anonymous on April 14, 2015 - 2:26 pm

    Great essay

  5. #5 by Maethona on April 15, 2015 - 7:03 am

    I really like your essay and it made some good pionts and I’m sorry that you feel that way about your scar. But there some more neutral and positive characters with scars, I just wanted to point them out, hope you don’t mind. But you are right I can’t come up with one scarred princess. :/
    There is Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender (animated show) huge scar on his face but still in end is a hero.
    Elene Cromwyell form The Night Angel Trilogy she is a hero on her own terms, described as beautiful because of her scars, not despite of them and she is married to the love of her life.
    Ferro from the First Law trilogy fierce female warrior and she finds love.
    Granted not enough to balanced out all the villians in James Bond but it is a good start.

    • #6 by Libby Block on April 15, 2015 - 8:43 am

      Thanks! I think that’s one of the main problems with representation in SF/F – you really have to hunt for “other” characters who aren’t stereotypes.

  6. #7 by Rowyn (@LadyRowyn) on April 15, 2015 - 8:15 pm

    Great post!

    That point about the protagonists always looking perfect (especially female protagonists) — man, so true. And terrifyingly extended to real life. Studies have been done where they ask participants to score photos of pictures based on how attractive the subject is, and also on a variety of personal qualities that have nothing to do with appearance (reliability, intelligence, whatever). Photos that score high in attractive score high on everything else, too. And vice versa. D:

  1. Guest Post Roundup

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