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?